Already targeted by the Islamic State group, which trafficked artifacts to finance its fight, Iraq’s cultural heritage is now threatened by the novel coronavirus. For an Iraqi scholar, raiding archaeological sites has “never stopped”. Attempts to contain the novel coronavirus have absorbed more and more government energy and resources.
Baghdad (AsiaNews) – The COVID-19 pandemic has not just affected people, but also the treasures of history and archeology of Iraq, home to the world-famous sites of ancient Mesopotamia.
Already a privileged target of the Islamic State (IS) group, which stole and sold archeological artifacts on the black market to finance its activities, today Iraq is an easy target of theft due to a lack of staff to care and watch over archeological sites.
According to a survey carried out in the 2000s by the Antiquities Inspector’s Office, the south-eastern governorate of Dhi Qar alone has more than 1,200 known archaeological sites.
One of these sites is the ancient city of Ur, which is nearly 6,000 years old. According to biblical tradition, it is the birthplace of the Patriarch Abraham. Since its discovery in 1855, only 5 per cent of its area has been excavated.
Apart from this legendary place, which is completely fenced off, other archaeological sites are not adequately protected as Iraq still lacks the necessary infrastructure and human resources to safeguard its rich history.
These sites have been raided "virtually ever since they existed," archaeologist Ali al-Rubaie told Middle East Eye.
"But in the last decades, which started with the sanctions against Saddam Hussein's Baath regime [1990-2003], there has been a sharp rise in looting activities. Despite the existence of severe punishments, the activity never stopped."
Among the reasons that facilitated the looting, there is the fact that the conservation of archaeological sites was never a priority for the Iraqi government and the US military, after the 2003 invasion that resulted in the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The special forces trained to protect antiquities were often diverted to other missions or to defend military and government installations or places of strategic importance.
In light of the situation, scholars and experts are now calling for greater investments to protect Iraq’s archaeological heritage, both in terms of funds and staff.
Antiquities are usually smuggled to Jordan or Turkey before being sold on black markets around the region. They often end up in private collections.
The problem has worsened with Iraq’s economic crisis, social unrest and pandemic of the last year, which have impoverished a country rich in resources that rarely benefit the population.
Furthermore, attempts to contain COVID-19 have monopolised much of the government’s energy and resources, reducing the already paltry funding allocated to protect the country’s cultural heritage.
Last but not least, the collapse in oil prices has limited the prospects of recovery for an economy that is expected to shrink by 10 per cent this year.