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Iraq's Artefacts Under Threat

Posted: Monday, August 20, 2001 at 05:48 PM CT

Modern day Iraq covers the areas that were once part of the great Assyrian empire, one of the cradles of Western civilisation, and the country is abundant in ancient treasure.

It is an embarrassment of riches, a bewildering number of archaeological treasures, spanning four millennia.

But the preservation of Iraq's heritage and civilisation has become a battle against the odds in the face of seven years of sanctions and international isolation.

The ancient city of Nimrod in Northern Iraq was a seat of power and culture built by the Assyrian kingdoms a thousand years before Christ.

Some of its priceless sculptures were damaged during the Gulf War seven years ago, but now theft and lack of resources are the main enemies.

It is a familiar pattern in the 1,600 archaeological sites in this Northern province of Iraq alone. For a country under comprehensive sanctions, there simply isn't the money for safeguarding antiquities.

Like the nearby site of Nimrod, work at the walled city of Nineveh has almost stopped. It is a deeply frustrating position for officials. Nevertheless they refuse to give up.

Jabr Ismael, Chief of Antiquities, Nineveh: "I am an archaeologist and I need to work in my job. Besides that, I like my town, I like my country. I like to tell my friends or my students or my colleagues or anybody about this civilisation. I like it."

But some progress is being made. An exhibition at Baghdad's museum of archaeology, which was attended by senior officials, includes thousands of stolen artefacts which have been recovered.

On display is the head of an Assyrian winged bull that was sawn off by thieves who were caught and then executed - a clear sign that the Iraqi authorities are determined to hold on to their heritage.

Moied Said Demerjeh, head of Iraqi National Antiquities: "We are bleeding in different ways and I do not think it is the right time also to let us bleed historically."

For the Iraqi authorities the struggle to preserve artefacts and monuments such as the ancient mosque of Samarra with its spiral minaret is not just about the past, it is also to do with national identity today.

Some artefacts were damaged in the Gulf War. For the people of Iraq the recovery of their ancient artefacts and monuments is not simply a question of getting back what they feel is rightly theirs.

It is also a question of national pride and how the outside world sees them. It is also part of an effort to remind the outside world that they are not simply a pariah nation but that they are the cradle of civilisation.

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