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Casualty of war
Sep 21, 2007

It be said one of the first casualties of the War in Iraq continues to be history. One writer has gone so far as to say the war had been the “death of history.”

It’s a strong assertion by Robert Fisk, who wrote an article on September 17 about  looting and pillaging of ancient archaeological sites in Iraq for the United Kingdom-based The Independent. 

Even before Fisk started warning about the death of history in Iraq, the University of Toronto’s Tim Harrison said in a 2003 Globe and Mail  article, “You probably can’t drop a bomb in Iraq without injury to an archaeological site.”

Modern-day Iraq happens to be smack dab in the centre of where human civilization began on Earth. In fact, the first writing and the first true city-states — hence the basis for the word civilization — arose upon the fertile plain between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

Fisk wrote that Sumerian (the people who established the first city-states in history)  cities are being torn apart and plundered by robbers. “The very walls of the mighty Ur of the Chaldeans cracking under the strain of (U.S.) massive troop movements (who have a base in Ur), the privatization of looting as landlords buy up the remaining sites of ancient Mesopotamia (Greek for “land between the rivers”) to strip them of their artifacts and wealth. The near total destruction of Iraq’s historical past — the very cradle of human civilization — has emerged as one of the most shameful symbols of our disastrous occupation.”

Prior to the War in Iraq , Saddam Hussein had tried to evoke the glory of ancient Babylon to distract the Iraqi people from the ruthlessness of his regime. He imagined himself the incarnation of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and despoiled the site of the ancient city with huge portraits of himself while pumping millions of dollars into the site’s restoration as a monument to his vanity. Archaeologists said Saddam’s attempts at restoration actually resulted in greater destruction of the site.

But the now-executed Iraqi dictator’s megalomaniacal despoilation pales in comparison to what has occurred since President George W. Bush sent American troops into the region. The deterioration of any ruling authority has resulted in looting on a massive scale of the world’s most prized treasures. In the region, there are approximately 10,000 archaeological sites — 840 dating back to ancient Sumerian cities alone. 

Local authorities committed to protect the sites are hampered by a lack of money and resources, but the looters have a well-supported and well-organized support structure and are assisted by tribal leaders. Eight customs agents were ambushed, killed and their bodies left in the desert when they were returning looted artifacts to a museum in Baghdad.

Babylon, which plays such a prominent role in the old testament, has been extensively damaged by U.S. troops who have set up a base. The Americans said they built the base to protect Babylon, but the reality is that having troops guard the site’s perimeter “would have been far more sensible than bulldozing it and setting up the largest coalition military headquarters in the region.”

It is noted by Fisk that building a base on a heritage site is a breach of the Hague Convention and Protocol of 1954 — but the U.S. did not ratify the convention.

The damage done by modern-day soldiers at Babylon evokes the image of the Assyrian King Sennacherib, whose army  seized the city in 689 BC and destroyed it. The city that contained the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was rebuilt years later by Nebuchadnezzar.

An ironic twist is that Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh was looted after the Gulf War in 1991. 

Joanne Farchakh, a Lebanese archaeologist, said that armies of looters have not spared “one metre of these Sumerian capitals that have been buried under the sand for thousands of years.

“They systematically destroyed the remains of this civilization in their tireless search for sellable artifacts: ancient cities, covering an estimated surface area of 20 square kilometres, which — if properly excavated — could have provided extensive new information concerning the development of the human race ... Humankind is losing its history for the pleasure of private collectors living safely in their luxurious houses and ordering specific objects for their collection.”

Why should we care about what happens a world away?

For one, the Western World is indebted to the Sumerians. Ur of the Chaldeans is prominently mentioned in the Bible as the original home of Abraham. Over 4,500 years ago, the Sumerian people were able to create their city-states because they were able to develop intensive agriculture by mastering the world’s  first irrigation systems.

Cuneiform (Latin for wedge-shaped)

writing was their invention and with it they produced the world’s first literature. The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh contained the first written “flood story,” later adopted and modified by the Hebrews into their story of Noah’s ark. The earlier Epic of Gilgamesh tells a surprisingly similar story with Zuisudra (the Sumerian Noah) relating to Gilgamesh how the intervention of a benevolent god convinced him to build an ark to survive

a flood that killed the rest of humanity.

Zuisudra was also told to bring animals aboard his ark.

The first banks using a credit system were a Sumerian invention. Baked clay tablets were used as money orders — what is referred to as the world’s first cheques. The ancient artifacts still possess a monetary value for the looters — a cylinder seal or cuneiform tablet can fetch $50 in the illegal antiquities market, half the average monthly salary for an Iraqi government employee.

Other texts contained simple records such as how many cattle a farmer possessed. Still others told of land transfers between two parties — the ancient equivalent of an MLS® system to keep track of the real estate market. More texts told of the foibles of life, religion, medicine and mathematics.

“The longer Iraq finds itself in a state of war, the more the cradle of civilization is threatened,” Farchakh told Fisk. “It may not even last for our grandchildren to learn from.”

What is threatened today is an historical legacy without rival in the world. History, the casualty of war, requires immediate attention so that it is not allowed to die.