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Iraq's Heritage Critically Endangered August 28, 2006

New developments suggest a deteriorating situation and a need for immediate action.

The fate of Iraq's antiquities became front page news again with the August 26 publication of a story titled "Iraq's top cultural official resigns" on The Art Newspaper website. The report states that Donny George, president of Iraq's State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, resigned on August 7 and fled the country soon after, taking refuge at least temporarily in Damascus, Syria. In the article, George, who is widely known for his efforts to protect and recover Iraqi cultural heritage, gave the following reasons for his departure:

  • the State Board is increasingly influenced by the militant al-Sadr Shi'ite party led by the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr
  • people in the ministry have an increasingly Islamist stance and are uninterested in Iraq's earlier cultures
  • contact with Coalition representatives, and foreigners in general, was discouraged
  • the 1,400-member police force assigned to protect ancient sites will run out of money in September

"I can no longer work with these people who have come in with the new ministry," George told The Art Newspaper. "They have no knowledge of archaeology, no knowledge of antiquities, nothing."

Responding to the story, Roger Atwood, author of Stealing History Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World, told ARCHAEOLOGY, "I think this news is extremely disturbing. If Donny George, who tried his best to keep the museum intact through the invasion and looting of 2003, feels he cannot stay in Baghdad any longer, what hope is there for preserving the integrity of Iraq's museums and ancient sites of any kind?"

Before leaving Baghdad, George apparently made a final effort to secure the museum. According to the The Art Newspaper, he had the National Museum "completely sealed with thick concrete walls." This may be an overstatement, however, if a Washington Post story is accurate (see "Iraqi Museum Sealed Against Looters"). It only says that the doorways were plugged with concrete. The Post reporters paint a bleak picture of the museum today: "Surrounded by weeds, it now sits behind metal gates, piled sandbags and concertina wire. Wary guards holding pistols and Kalashnikov assault rifles came to a front gate Saturday and confirmed that the museum's front door had been sealed."

A Western diplomat, speaking anonymously, told The New York Times that George felt under threat from fundamentalists linked to the Shiite-led government (see "Director of Baghdad Museum Resigns, Citing Political Threat"). The diplomat told The Times that George had been a midlevel Baath Party official under Saddam's government, which would make him a potential target of conservative Shiites bent on revenge against members of the former regime. George told Deutsche Presse Agentur in Damascus that his 17-year-old son had been threatened (see "Iraq archeologist flees to Syria."

According to Abdul Zahra al-Talaqani, a spokesman for the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, George's statements are false and he is angling for asylum in the West. "We think he left Iraq to eventually try to go to the United States or a European country," he told The New York Times. "He's using this story so some immigration officials will believe the Iraqi government is pressuring him."

Members of Moqtada al Sada's party have also attacked George. A "senior Sadrist" told the Guardian (see "Saviour of Iraq's antiquities flees to Syria") that during the former regime George "had done nothing to stop Saddam carving his name into the walls of every brick" during the reconstruction of Babylon. (Saddam Hussein had new bricks for the restoration stamped with his name.) And Iraq's minister of state for antiquities, Liwa Sumaysim, told the BBC (see "Leading Iraq archaeologist flees") that George's claims are "lies." Sumaysim, a Sadr loyalist, insisted he is interested in all of Iraq's archaeology and antiquities and that he would welcome George back.

George's replacement has already been named. He is Haider Farhan, an al-Sadr party member. George told The Art Newspaper, "There is nothing to recommend him." (The Washington Post report says that, according to the ministry, Farhan has a master's degree in Islamic manuscripts.) The new director of the museum is, al-Talaqani told The New York Times, a woman named Amira Eidan.

"Horrible" is how the University of Chicago's McGuire Gibson described the current situation regarding Iraq's ancient monuments and sites to the Washington Post. And the future? "Donny's departure raises a lot of questions, and I think the answers are going to be very disturbing indeed," says Atwood. Jane C. Waldbaum, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, told ARCHAEOLOGY, "We view with regret and sorrow this latest evidence of the deteriorating situation with respect to Iraq's antiquities and hope that every effort will be made to protect Iraq's rich archaeological heritage."

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America