Should Iraq’s Archeological Treasures Stay in the West?

Originally published April 11, 2015 in The Daily Beast (
Are the treasures of the East best kept in the West? Or could huge fines to states that don’t save cultural patrimony help?

“When I was a boy,” the Iraqi diplomat said, “My parents took me to the Louvre and I saw Hammurabi’s Code. I wondered why it wasn’t in Baghdad. Why did we Iraqis have to go to Paris to see it? Why couldn’t the rest of the world come to us? It made me angry.” He paused. “But after ISIS attacked Nimrud, I was glad that these things were not in Iraq.”

Luckily, some monumental Assyrian sculpture from the extraordinary archeological trove at Nimrud was removed in the 19th century and placed in the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hatra wasn’t so lucky. Probably founded about 2,400 years ago under the Seleucids, it became the site of one of the first Arab kingdoms known to history, starting in 156 A.D. Although ruled by Muslims for centuries, it held examples of sculpture from an amazing array of artistic traditions, pre-Islamic Arabic as well as Greek, Caananite and Mesopotamian. Hatra was considered by archeologists to be “the best preserved and most informative example of a Parthian city.” No more. What the Prophet Muhammad’s contemporaries saw fit to preserve, ISIS has destroyed.

Last Friday, ISIS released a video showing its fighters chipping off figurative sculpture from Hatra’s ancient walls. Citing Abraham and Muhammad’s destruction of idols, an ISIS spokesman promised more of the same.

“Some of the infidel organizations say the destruction of these alleged artifacts is a war crime,” he added. “We will destroy your artifacts and idols anywhere, and Islamic State will rule your lands.” Of course, Abraham and Muhammad destroyed idols currently being worshipped by their people, not those worshipped thousands of years ago. The video’s musical accompaniment is also bizarre in that most Islamic purists reject any music other than Quranic chanting. But intellectual consistency has never been ISIS’s strong point.

Now that Islamist madmen are on the loose across great swathes of the Middle East and North Africa, we have reason to value the cultural imperialism of years past. It was rationalized, then, as saving treasures from barbarians. Whatever the truth of the matter in those days, there is no doubt now that the barbarians are back with a vengeance.

Since 2011, Islamist fanatics have demolished Sufi tombs and shrines in Egypt and Libya and destroyed shrines and ancient manuscripts in Mali. Last month’s attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis murdered 19 people—but the next one might be aimed at the artwork within. Tunisia wants to defend its heritage, but is it strong enough? The police response to the attack has raised questions.

Are such treasures of the human race better preserved for all of us—including Iraqis—in stable countries rather than in situ? If we believe that cultural patrimony belongs to all humankind, should the world try to re-locate threatened masterpieces out of harm’s way? Should countries that have a history of neglecting or destroying their past have it taken away from them, like parents deemed unfit by the courts? What happens when a country asks for help—as Iraq’s antiquities officials have done, asking for U.S. airstrikes to prevent further destruction—and it is refused?

These questions have bubbled up from time to time—but mainly when artifacts were threatened with destruction by the ignorant poor. In the 18th century, British travelers to Italy justified their importation of vast quantities of classical statues by the obvious neglect they faced in Italy. Meanwhile, in Athens, marble statuary of the Parthenon was being burned to extract lime. In 1801 Lord Elgin, then the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, began to remove what became known as the “Elgin Marbles,” with the permission of the Ottoman authorities then occupying Greece, intending them for the British Museum, where they have been on exhibit since 1817. The removal was controversial even at the time, and Greece has never stopped trying to get the reliefs returned. While the Greeks have alleged that the Ottomans had no right to give away the heritage of a country they occupied by force, the British have taken the view that the marbles are artifacts of ancient Athens, not contemporary Greek civilization.

What the Prophet Muhammad’s contemporaries saw fit to preserve, ISIS has destroyed.

There is an unlikely precedent for ISIS’s vandalism: Mao’s Cultural Revolution, where “old culture” was one of the Four Olds to be eradicated. Some classical Chinese architecture was destroyed, and great amounts of artifacts and manuscripts. But the aim of Mao’s dreadful actions was not shocking the Western world; it was “reforming” China. The same is true of the Khmer Rouge, which destroyed over 2,000 temples in Cambodia, though luckily not those of Angkor Wat..

ISIS’s attacks on art and archeology appear to be aimed more at shocking the West than at a local audience. Perhaps they are also aimed at potential recruits. Some of the lure of joining a mindless death cult is presumably that it tramples on as many taboos as possible, including that against destroying artistic masterworks. Although many conservative Muslims disapprove of representational art, they don’t usually sledgehammer it. This activity isn’t sanctioned by mainstream Sunni Islam; the grand imam of al Azhar Institute immediately issued a fatwa condemning ISIS’s vandalism in Mosul.

It’s been alleged that the destruction is mainly for propaganda effect and that ISIS intends to sell most of the works to finance itself. Follow up reports indicate that most, though not all of the Mosul Museum Assyrian sculptures shown being sledge-hammered by ISIS on a video released in late February were replicas; the originals are safe in Baghdad.

If it could be accomplished practically, would it be a good idea to remove vulnerable artworks from areas threatened by ISIS?

It’s not an easy call. Ancient artifacts haven’t always been better off in the West. We have wars, too. Babylon’s Ishtar Gate (reconstructed from the original bricks) had a close call under Allied bombing in 1945. Then, the Soviets expropriated the Pergamon’s collection to “protect” it, and it wasn’t returned until 1958, when it went to East Germany. Some items are still in Russian museums, though Germany has requested their return.

Syria has experienced devastating losses of heritage in the recent civil war. Yet forty 3,000-year old statues from Tell Halaf in Syria, housed in a private museum in Berlin, were pulverized by Allied bombing in 1943. The fragments were hidden in the Pergamon Museum until the 1990s. Only in 2011 were they reconstructed and exhibited.

Although it’s hard to imagine the logistics of a terror raid destroying, say, the remaining Assyrian artifacts in the West, it’s not impossible that ISIS might mount attacks on Western museums.

Secondly, this sort of cultural imperialism has been banned since UNESCO’s 1970 “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property”. The Convention has been adopted by 128 countries. Article 11 states, “The export and transfer of ownership of cultural property under compulsion arising directly or indirectly from the occupation of a country by a foreign power shall be regarded as illicit.”

Following adoption of the convention, many works acquired by occupying armies have been returned to their countries of origin. For instance, the Venus of Leptis Magna— stolen from Libya by the Italians when they invaded with no justification whatsoever in 1911, and given to that noted humanitarian Hermann Goering— was returned to Italy in 1999 and thence to Libya. So far as we know, it’s safe today—but for how long?

Unfortunately, Iraq never ratified the 1970 Convention or the 1972 Convention on World Heritage. Iraq has also never acceded to the Rome Statute, allowing it to petition the ICC to take action against ISIS; Libya hasn’t either.

Can the international community intervene to save art works at risk? According to the convention, only if the affected country asks for help. Article 11 also means that a foreign army can’t seize antiquities unilaterally, even if its motivation is to save them. This doesn’t bode well if a country is taken over by a group of fanatics, as ISIS threatens to do in Syria and as the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia.

The legal framework for world cultural heritage hasn’t caught up to the latest outbreak of evil, but sooner or later it will; we live in a globalized, multi-lateral, interventionist world now. There also huge practical issues when the cultural goods to be protected are whole ruined cities, like Nimrud in Iraq, or the large archeological sites in Libya which many experts worry could be next.

There are measures that the international community could take for the moment. In cases where there is still a national government in the area, the government could offer financial rewards to local people who protect heritage and resist destroyers. The government could also announce that it will hold individuals who destroy heritage—and their heirs—legally liable both criminally and civilly. An Englishman who travels to Iraq to join ISIS and is videotaped destroying Iraqi heritage could be sued, even if it is years later, for the $10 million stone lion he destroyed. If he’s killed, his estate would shoulder the liability.

More compellingly, perhaps, the UNESCO conventions could be amended so as to fine states for failing to prevent destruction. I’d suggest fines in the billions, to make the seriousness of the issue clear (and encourage local protectors and whistleblowers). Iraqi soldiers are free to run away from ISIS—but the Iraqi government will then be liable to UNESCO for the damage ISIS caused to world patrimony. Yemeni Houthis are free to overrun their elected government—but if they destroy the mud brick architecture of Sanaa, not only they but the impotent government will pay. (In fact, the Houthis are unlikely to destroy heritage because they don’t have an iconoclast tradition.)

It may sound unfair to hit a weak state when it’s down, but it’s the flipside of all the good intentions of the UNESCO conventions. If a state deserves custody of its treasures, it also has a responsibility for them. In some cases, a weak state’s main assets are its heritage— Yemen isn’t a bad example. It doesn’t produce much of value, but it does have Sanaa.

Implementing punishments like this—and seizing the assets of states that don’t protect their patrimony—would show the people who have stood by as ISIS destroyed their treasures that even if they don’t value them, the world does. It might even convince them to value them, in the same way that they learned to value Western designer brands because the market put a high price on them. And slowly, perhaps, a real appreciation of their heritage would come, and a culture that would once again make treasures which the world holds in awe.

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