Wed, Jul 07, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Looting vanquishes Babylon's artifacts

GONE FOR GOOD Experts were shocked by images of post-war looting and plundering of ancient Iraqi artifacts in what is regarded as the cradle of civilization

SUMERAFP , Babylon

US soldiers enter the ancient city of Babylon, 100km south of Baghdad, June 13, 2004.The US-led coalition in Iraq has closed the ancient site of Babylon over worries about the ``safety and care'' of the archaeological treasure, a June 17 statement said.

PHOTO: AFP

The last remains of some of mankind's earliest cities have virtually disappeared through unprecedented looting triggered by the US-led invasion of Iraq, experts said.

Lawlessness and instability have accelerated a process that started in the 1990s but has now reached critical levels, with dozens of archaeological sites plundered to extinction in the past year.

The presence of US-led troops in one of the world's most glorious ancient capitals has not helped either.

The ancient people of Iraq, often described as the cradle of civilization, are credited with inventing the wheel, writing and mathematics and developing a culture and history which has resonated through the ages.

"It's one of the major, major tragedies around the world. We have basically lost most of the ancient cities of Sumer," said Chicago-based professor McGuire Gibson, referring to one of man's earliest civilizations which dates back to around 3,000 BC. "There's a culture of looting which has never been on this scale before -- it's totally unprecedented. In this last year we have lost more sites than ever before."

Gibson, who has been visiting Iraq since the 1960s, said an Istanbul conference on the destruction last month was "shocked" by aerial photographs showing the desecration of sites in the months after the invasion.

"Everybody is shocked at what happened. They couldn't believe the pictures we were showing of the damage to the sites," he said, adding that "dozens" of sites had been lost.

"These are capitals of early kingdoms. It's an incredible loss," Gibson said.

Chiara Dezzi Bardeschi, an Iraq cultural expert with the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), said the situation had reached a crisis point.

"After the recent war the condition of sites is really critical," she said.

"It wasn't something that was completely new but the dimensions of this process are completely unexpected."

The war has also had a direct impact on some areas.

Babylon, home of King Nebuchadnezzar, the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens, is now a camp for 2,500 multinational troops.

The partly restored ancient city has been closed to visitors after Iraqi archaeologists found American marines had bulldozed a 100 square meter plot of land, above the buried remains of ancient homes, to create a helicopter landing-pad.

"You can see mounds of earth on both sides (of the landing pad) and I think it's very big damage," said Lukasz Oledzki, a resident architect employed by Polish troops now based in Babylon.

"You can see ancient pottery and bricks on both sides. I know they destroyed something from the sixth or seventh century BC."

The damage revelations have hastened the troops' withdrawal from the site, due by the end of the year, but Gibson rejected their argument that they were protecting Babylon from looters.

"It's like Vietnam -- you have to destroy it to protect it," the professor said. "Having an army sit right on an archaeological site is absurd. They should never have been allowed to do that."

"I'm told that the world market is depressed because there's so much Iraqi stuff on the market," he said.

UNESCO's Bardeschi said Iraq's unrivalled cultural legacy had been hard hit by the war, with the national museum losing about 15,000 items in three days of looting in April 2003. The organization was spending US$500,000 documenting what had already been lost and restore museums and libraries, listing Iraq as a top priority, she said.

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