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Will Iraq’s Christian History Be “History”?

Now comes more unsettling news on the fate of the material patrimony of Christians in the Middle East. I’m posting this Times story, Archaeologists Worry That Iraq Will Erase Its Pre-Islamic History, as a follow-up to my previous posts here and here. Many of the “pre-Islamic” sites the authors mention are the monasteries and churches where Syriac Christianity emerged.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — There is mounting concern among scholars that the appointment of religiously conservative Shiite Muslims throughout Iraq’s traditionally secular archaeological institutions could threaten the preservation of the country’s pre-Islamic history.

Dr. Donny George’s recent departure as chairman of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, and his flight to Syria with his family, is among the latest results of a transformation that began in December when a Shiite-dominated government was elected in Baghdad. The radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who commands his own militia, emerged with enough seats in Parliament to take control of four ministries and to create a Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.

The State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, traditionally under the Ministry of Culture, now reports to this new ministry as well.

“The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities wants to control Iraq’s archaeological heritage by demolishing this institution, one of the oldest institutions in Iraq,” George said from Damascus. “This will be a disaster for this field, and for the cultural heritage of the country.”

Although the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has begun operating, the law creating it has not yet been approved by Parliament, said Abudul Zahra al-Talaqani, a spokesman for the new ministry.

The proposed law would divide the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage into four administrative departments: museums, excavations, manuscripts and heritage. The present departments of restoration and research would be eliminated, suggesting that preservation and scholarship would no longer be the institution’s focus.

The long history of secular scholarship in Iraq has covered all periods, including excavations at the Islamic site of Samarra and the restoration of Ukhaidir, an Islamic fortress near Karbala. Earlier sites include ruins from the Sumerian, Akkadian, Babylonian, Parthian and Sassanian civilizations.

The State Board of Antiquities and Heritage was created in 1923, when Gertrude Bell, the British explorer and administrator, founded the Iraqi National Museum. “It was the best in the whole Middle East,” said Dr. McGuire Gibson, a professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago. “At one point there were 13 Iraqi Ph.D.’s working there.”

Liwa Sumaysim, the new minister of tourism and antiquities, is a dentist whose wife, a member of Parliament, is related to al-Sadr. The new ministry has already replaced employees of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage at the national and local level.

Burhan Shakur, an archaeologist who was director of excavations at the Iraqi Museum, was fired in the spring, then given the option to retire; he has left for Germany. Abdul-Amir Hamdani, the inspector for antiquities in the Dhi Qar province, an area rich in pre-Islamic sites, was jailed in April on charges of corruption. After three months he was released, and the charges were dropped. But his job was then filled by a man with ties to Al Fadilah, an Islamist party aligned with the Sadr movement.

With the looting of archaeological sites in southern Iraq still thriving, control of the antiquities department is a significant prize. Most of the archaeological sites in the southern Dhi Qar province are pre-Islamic, dating roughly from 3200 B. C. to A. D. 500. A link between Islamic militants and looting at pre-Islamic archaeological sites has long been suspected, but is difficult to prove. The Nasiriyah Museum was burned and looted in 2004 by militants affiliated with al-Sadr. The museum’s guards reported that the militants promised to do to the antiquities there exactly “what the Taliban did.”

The center for Iraq’s illicit antiquities trade, Fajr, in the heart of the Sumerian plain, is also a stronghold for militants loyal to al-Sadr. And anti-Western graffiti has appeared at looted archaeological sites.

“It is hard to say yes or no if these gangs have a relation with the Sadr movement,” cautioned Mufeed al-Jazairi, Iraq’s first minister of culture after the Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded, noting that looters were active in Saddam Hussein’s time as well. “But it is not surprising to imagine that one of these gangs will announce that they are allies with Sadr, hoping to gain a political shield in case they are being followed by authorities.”

“If the destruction of sites continues, it is not just the death of archaeology,” Gibson of the University of Chicago said. “Antiquities are key to Iraq’s economy; at some point the oil will run out. Iraqi tourism will be built on archaeology.”

Yet Gibson warned that putting an archaeological department under a tourism office tends to have negative consequences because sites may become mothballed, and research possibilities lost.

The Sadrist leadership in the new ministry has made its views known in other ways. Recently two pre-Islamic statues it returned to the Iraqi Museum were accompanied by a note describing them as “idols.” Dr. Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology who has excavated in southern Iraq, said that officials of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities had also visited the museum before the departure of George, who is Christian, and asked, “Do you want to be governed by a crusader?”