By Daniah Ali
Iraq has managed to sustain one of the most ancient civilizations throughout all of history, in great comparison with Egypt, who also happens to uphold one of the most ancient and culturally rich civilizations. Within the ancient Mesopotamian culture, multiple different genres and forms of arts were created, from Assyrian art pieces to Babylonian, all representing a certain aspect of the traditions and rituals that were sustained throughout the particular time frame of their creation. With that being said, more than 15,000 ancient artifacts were stolen from Iraq during the U.S invasion in 2003. The reason I claim it is theft is due to the fact that theft is defined as taking something that belongs to someone else, and the fact that ancient Iraqi artifacts were stolen and emplaced in museums abroad is considered theft, as they do not belong in museums abroad, but museums in Iraq.
The particular issue of stolen artifacts isn’t one that is only noticed within the case of Iraq. However it can be noticed with nearly all countries that had to deal with western colonialization, slavery, and war. A great advocator for stolen artifacts would be Muazulu Diyabanza, advocating for the Republic of Congo, who claimed that “The fact that I had to pay my own money to see what had been taken by force, this heritage that belonged back home where I come from — that’s when the decision was made to take action,”. It is a heart wrenching situation to manage when having to pay another country’s government to be able to witness your own people’s arts.
This isn’t a matter of nationality, or of patriotism, but a matter that involves preserving and valuing the culture one has been raised in, especially through their history, and that occurs through the artifacts that aid into being first and secondary aids in providing us with a vision of our ancestors.
During the U.S invasion, more than 15,000 artifacts were looted, regardless of the arguments that the museums made in wanting to secure the area. Thousands of artifacts were also stolen, directly from archeological sites, without knowledge upon their current locations now. The counter-arguments that would ensue involve the statements made by Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, who claims that stolen art, or as he would call it, the movement of cultural heritage into a museum is a creative act. The theft of culture is not a creative act, but an act that would insist that Britain still sustains the acts that it has committed during its colonial past.
This argument isn’t only to bash the British museum, but it is made to bash all governments who disregard the fact that most of the artwork it contains is stolen, and their refusal to return it to its origin. A commonly made argument that is in favor of keeping stolen artifacts in museums it doesn’t belong in, is the argument that returning artwork to less developed countries would increase the probabilities that the artwork might get damaged, and thus making it safer to keep such artworks in more developed countries. However, Mesopotamian artwork is still being sold online for extremely cheap prices to strangers, on websites such as Live Auctioneers. An ancient Mesopotamian stone bull was sold for $50, thus the claim that stolen artifact is preserved is untrue, due to the fact that once it has been looted by American soldiers, confusion ensued due to a lack of understanding as to what that particular artwork stood for.
Not only is Mesopotamian art being sold online to complete strangers, but artwork is still not being returned, to countries such as Egypt, with cultivating and extremely secure museums.
The destruction of extremely historically relevant areas in Iraq due to the looting done by the U.S military, under the claims that it wanted to retract ancient artifacts from Iraq. This is Um-al Agarib a few months before the U.S looters destroyed the area.
This figurine depicts king Ur-Nammu dedicating his duties as the King of Uruk towards the gods, and restoring the temple of Ishtar. This piece is extremely relevant in elaborating the state of Uruk, or ancient southern Iraq, and it aids in explaining to ancient historians the time period and the traditions that were occurring during that particular time. It currently rests in the British Museum.
The conclusion to be made is that stolen artifacts are not safer in areas that have no history or connections towards that artifact. The stolen artifacts represent a culture and history of the areas they were stolen from, and the dismissal to return them, either from the British Museum or the American government, represents a lack of care and respect towards the areas those art pieces were stolen from, whilst simultaneously embracing their colonizers pasts, and their destruction of archeological sites.
This is the Ishtar Gate as seen in the Berlin Museum in Germany:
And this is the knock off version that was built in Babil, as an effort to replace the original gate:
Iraqi culture has been stolen, our language, our artifacts, our scientific, historic, linguistic, poetic, art has all been taken and plagiarized. This is a crime against humanity, and it yet needs to be returned to its roots.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of IraqNow.
Artnet News. 2021. The British Museum Says It Will Never Return the Elgin Marbles, Defending Their Removal as a 'Creative Act' | Artnet News. [online] Available at: <https://news.artnet.com/art-world/british-museum-wont-return-elgin-marbles-1449919> [Accessed 19 March 2021].
Iraqiembassy.us. 2021. Art and Culture | Embassy of the Republic of Iraq Public Relations Office. [online] Available at: <http://www.iraqiembassy.us/page/art-and-culture> [Accessed 19 March 2021].
LiveAuctioneers. 2021. Mesopotamian / Sumerian Carved Stone Bull - Dec 20, 2017 | Artemis Gallery in CO. [online] Available at: <https://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/58318445_mesopotamian-sumerian-carved-stone-bull> [Accessed 19 March 2021].
Metmuseum.org. 2021. [online] Available at: <https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/02/wam.html> [Accessed 19 March 2021].
Nytimes.com. 2021. Should Museums Return Looted Artifacts to Their Countries of Origin?. [online] Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/16/learning/should-museums-return-looted-artifacts-to-their-countries-of-origin.html> [Accessed 19 March 2021].
Oi.uchicago.edu. 2021. Highlights from the Collection: Mesopotamia | The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. [online] Available at: <https://oi.uchicago.edu/collections/highlights/highlights-collection-mesopotamia> [Accessed 19 March 2021].
Samuel, S., 2021. It’s Disturbingly Easy to Buy Iraq’s Archeological Treasures. [online] The Atlantic. Available at: <https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/03/iraq-war-archeology-invasion/555200/> [Accessed 19 March 2021].