Iraq’s Museums: Four Years Later

This month, Saving Antiquities for Everyone (SAFE), a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving cultural heritage internationally, helped to organize a worldwide candlelight vigil to draw attention to the four year anniversary of the systematic looting and destruction of Iraq’s museums.

U.S. Marines seized Baghdad in the early days of April, 2003. While U.S. troops surrounded and protected Iraq’s National Ministry of Oil immediately after capturing Baghdad, they left numerous cultural institutions in the Iraqi capital completely unprotected from looters, who rampaged through the city like a devastating whirlwind. Iraq’s National Library was burned to the ground, destroying thousands of irreplaceable books and manuscripts. The ransacking of the Iraqi National Museum of Baghdad started on April 9th, 2003, and for three days a mob stole or shattered everything in sight. Over 15,000 irreplaceable works of art, many from the dawn of civilization, were stolen. Not a single U.S. military patrol attempted to stop the pillaging. The Bush administration’s response to the looting came from Donald Rumsfeld, who infamously said, “Stuff happens.”

After the devastation of the Second World War, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was adopted in May, 1954. States agreeing to the Convention, promised to “safeguard and respect cultural property during both international and non-international armed conflicts.” As a signatory to the Convention, the U.S. failed miserably in its obligations to Iraq and world cultural heritage, and it continues to do so.

In order to commemorate the destruction of Iraq’s museums, and to draw attention to the ongoing looting of that country’s archeological sites, SAFE called for candlelight vigils to take place internationally on April 10-12, 2007. Vigils were held in cities across the United States and the world, from Boston, Massachusetts, and San Francisco, California, to London, England, and Toronto, Canada. The most moving observance however took place amidst the violence of Baghdad at the sacked National Museum, where dozens of courageous employees and art lovers braved the mayhem to make their point.

Dr. Donny George Youkhanna was the Director of the National Museum at the time of its trashing, and in large part through his work, nearly half of the stolen Mesopotamian artworks have been recovered. However, George paid a price for his efforts. The Iraqi State Board of Antiquities came under the control of a Shiite party affiliated to Moktada al-Sadr, and George’s work was continually hindered and blocked. Aside from the difficulties of working with the U.S. backed government, the final straw came when George received a death threat letter aimed at his 17-year-old son. As a high-profile government official, a Christian, and a man seen frequently in western media, George had become a target to many of Iraq’s growing armed factions. In September of 2006 George resigned his position and fled with his family to Syria. Good fortune smiled on George when in the Fall of 2006, New York’s Stony Brook University appointed him a visiting professor in the university’s distinguished Anthropology department.

On the Saving Antiquities for Everyone website, you can read more about the international candlelight vigil, listen to a 38 minute interview with Donny George, and join SAFE in its endeavor to protect world cultural heritage.

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