Monday, October 11, 2004

7) A polite Op-Ed about Iraq's cultural heritage's

Posted on Mon, Oct. 11, 2004

Preserving Iraq's past tied to understanding its
By Richard M. Leventhal

(KRT) - The past is a fundamental part of our world.
It frames who we are and suggests who we want to be.
The decisions of what buildings to preserve or what
objects to keep for museums are critical ones that
help define our modern era.

The war in Iraq remains an extremely difficult
political and social issue. Most disturbing is the
continued violence and loss of life. But here I would
like to examine the initial loss and continued looting
of the ancient sites and artifacts in Iraq.

Why should we care about ancient Iraqi sites? Some
argue that they are a vitally important resource, for
they represent the historical basis for all Western
civilization and therefore the basis for the
predominant cultures of the United States. This
argument rationalizes the preservation of these
venerable sites because they are "our" past. Such an
attitude, however, stems from a view of the United
States that ignores diversity harking back to other
past civilizations such as those of the Middle East,
Africa, Middle and South America, and China and the
Far East. But even given the complexity of our
American past, the ancient civilizations of Iraq were
pivotal in the growth of modern-day societies in many
parts of the world and are of great importance to

Today in Iraq, American military leadership - and the
Bush administration - largely continues to ignore the
archaeological and cultural resources representing
this important past. After the initial destruction at
the National Museum in Baghdad and at archaeological
sites, we believed that American forces would identify
and help preserve ancient cities and artifacts. This,
sadly, has not been the case.

Recent reports indicate that continued military
activity throughout Iraq is actively destroying
remnants of the past. At the ancient site of Babylon,
a military camp continues to bulldoze and cut through
this ancient city as it constructs various modern-day
military facilities. A helicopter landing zone was
constructed in the heart of ancient Babylon, causing
massive destruction with its initial construction.
Destruction continues as helicopters take off and land
throughout the day, and fragile ancient walls fall to
the constant noise and shock waves from modern
military equipment.

Since there are no proper national police, looters are
stealing ancient artifacts from these archaeological
sites. Stolen objects are flowing into an active,
illegal antiquities market in New York, London, Japan,
and wherever individuals want to buy pieces of the
past. Although the U.S. government has banned the
importation of antiquities from Iraq, it has provided
no resources to stop such importations, so the ban is

In no way could I argue that the security of U.S.
forces and the preservation of human life must be
sacrificed to preserve the past. But I do believe that
the way that the United States has treated and cared
for the cultural patrimony of Iraq says something,
very directly, about how the U.S. government views
Iraq's culture today. Does our mishandling of Iraq's
past have a connection with the abuses recently
uncovered at Abu Ghraib prison? I believe the answer
is an emphatic yes.

Our treatment of Iraq's past is directly related to an
insufficient understanding of and appreciation for
both the ancient and modern cultures of the region. We
see the apparent lack of understanding of the cultures
of the Middle East, especially those in Iraq, mirrored
in both the ongoing destruction of Iraq's past and the
thoughtless treatment and disregard of cultural
sensitivities seen in the way the U.S. military ran
Abu Ghraib.

If we expect to bring peace to Iraq in the near
future, a deeper and more nuanced understanding of
Iraqi culture is an absolute requirement. This
understanding must encompass the past as well as the
present - and it must be expressed in an attempt to
preserve that past, as we would want our own past
preserved and understood here in America.



Richard M. Leventhal is the Williams Director of the
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and
Anthropology. Readers may contact him care of the
museum at 3260 South St., Philadelphia, PA 19104.

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