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How the proximity of US servicemen to Iraq's city of Ur has caused alarm among archaeologists

As US troopers praise the Lord, reports of damage in Iraq remain unconfirmed

Iraq

The ancient Sumerian city of Ur in the desert of southern Iraq is ringing to the sound of American troopers bellowing out evangelical hymns. Inspired by local Arab accounts that Abraham, son of Terah, was born and buried here, battalion chaplains are holding regular services for the the troops who roar up and down the road in their Humvees, past the scattered remains of the Iraqi MiG fighters they destroyed. But not all of them are pilgrims; some accept free guided tours from local tour guides, who tell them that virgins were sacrificed or thrown to the lions in the remnants of the royal palace and demonstrate how kings were interred with their wives and servants. Before they leave, a few are reported to have been carving their names on the three-thousand-year-old bricks.

While the troopers watch the burning skyline of nearby Nasiriya, and speculate about what will happen to Ur when they withdraw, the world archaeological community is humming with pessimistic rumours about the destruction of Iraq’s rich store of monuments and archeological treasures. The source of the Chinese whispers is an article by Mu’Iad Saeed, director of the department of archeology at the National Museum of Baghdad, published in the military newspaper Al-Quadissiya, in February. Mr Saeed said that in addition to the destruction and damage wrought to objects in part of his museum – hit during a raid on the neighbouring telecommunications centre early on in the war – the spiral minaret of Ak-Mutawakkil in Samarra had been semi-destroyed, the school of Al-Mustansiriya in Baghdad had been damaged, several monuments at Ctesiphon had been destroyed and an arch in the ancient city of Hatra.

The rescue of Ur of the Chaldees by US troops, probably the site of the world’s oldest city, was not mentioned in Mr Saeed’s article. Could this have been because several American functionaries had said that they had refrained from firing at Ur, in spite of the fact that the adjacent MiG fighters were an obvious target? Bombed MiGs are much in evidence around Ur, but the ziggurat itself was only saved because an unknown officer in the l0lst Airborne division noticed it on the map at the eleventh hour (see The Art Newspaper, No. 7, April l99l, p.12).

In response to Mu’Iad Saeed’s article, The Art Newspaper asked the Pentagon to make a statement about damage to Iraq’s ancient monuments and sites. A spokesman replied, “We maintain that we did not damage any sites and that some of the damage was done by the Iraqi themselves”. Allied bombing, they reiterated, was so precise, there was no question of having struck any sites, but in any event they had not had access to the sites to find out.

Initiatives designed to assess the damage done are beginning to be put forward by Italy. In March, the then Ministro per i Beni Culturali Ferdinando Facchiano invited Jacques Santer, Minister for Cultural Affairs in Luxembourg, to take up the challenge of assessing damage to sites with the relevant departments at the European Commission, Council for Europe, European Parliament and UNESCO. However, the minister’s aide said that there had been no response as yet. More interesting is the “feasibility plan” which is soon to be presented to the European Commission by the Centro Richerche Archeologiche e Scavi di Torino per il Medio Oriente e l’Asia. Acting as spokesman, Roberto Parapetti, Director of of the Italo-Iraqi Institute for the Restoration of Monuments, in Baghdad, said, “We believe we can identify damage by comparing before and after satellite images of the sites without setting foot in Iraq. We would then be prepared to return”.

Signor Parapatti and his colleagues, who include Antonio Invirnizzi and Georgio Gullini, of the Faculty of Letters at Turin University, would welcome international cooperation. They can be contacted at: Centro Ricerche Archeologiche e Scavi di Torino per il Medio Oriente e l’Asia, 12 Via Maria Vittoria, l0l23 Turin.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Rock’a my soul in the bosom of Ur'