Iraq Buys Back Stolen Artifacts to Save Heritage
After decades of turning a blind eye, officials in charge of Iraq's rich heritage of antiquities are trying to save what they can.
Instead of threatening the artefact pilferers with prison, financial rewards are being offered for the safe return of treasures taken.
"The size of the reward depends on how rare the items are and the extent of any damage," said Donny Geroge Youkhanna, director of the official antiquities documentation centre.
"We paid out five million dinar (around 2,500 dollars) for a gold coin depicting Abd Al-Malik, the first of the Ummayyad Caliphs," said the 50-year-old. Under Malik (685-705), the Ummayad Caliphate reached its peak.
The coins are about the size of an American dime and there are only around three or four known examples known to exist.
Authorities were generous too when it came to reimbursing an owner for six coins dating back to the Abbasid Caliphs (751-1258). They forked out their worth in pure gold with an antiquity supplement on top.
Buying back stolen antiquities is part of a programme by the Iraqi leadership to halt organised artefact crime. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein awarded the campaign top priority after several incidents when up to 200 men armed with machine-guns attacked and plundered burial sites.
"This kind of thing never used to happen," said Youkhanna. "It used to be sufficient to post just one guard at an archeological dig."
Archeologists in Iraq say the drain on the country's heritage is considerable. Amid the chaos caused by the 1991 Gulf War, 11 museums in provincial capitals were either destroyed or ransacked. Around 4,000 pieces are missing. "A lot must have been hidden away in Iraq during this period," said the official.
Youkhanna is convinced that private collectors and dealers from neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Jordan are sending gangs of well-trained and equipped thieves to steal artifacts.
"We've got 10,000 archeological sites in Iraq so the chances of finding something are pretty good," said the official. Among the most sought-after objects are small statues, stone tablets with cuneiform inscriptions and glass beads from the Sumerian, Akkadic and Babylonic eras.
For Youkhanna the "crime of the century" was the "sawing-up job" on a winged bull in Shur Ukan, some 400 kilometres north of Baghdad. In 1996 bandits chopped the 700-kilogram, 1.4-metre stone head into 11 chunks, making it easier to transport.
Another audacious theft was the smashing off of a large piece of black stone engraved with the biopgraphy of Babylonian king Lubbat Ishtar (1,900 BC).
In addition to offering rewards Iraqi authorities have stepped up guard personnel at key sites and imposed stricter controls on markets and borders. Contacts with local tribal chieftains have also been intensified.
With the thieves at bay the antiquities board has now resumed digging in the south of the country. Finding enough students to help out is no longer a problem, said Youkhanna.
That's hardly surprising for in impoverished Iraq the starting wage for a beginner has been hiked from 5,000 dinar (2.5 dollars) a month to 28,000 dinar (14 dollars), experienced workers can expect to earn up to 60,000 dinars monthly - 12 times the average civil servant's wage. (DPA)
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