Sunday, 5 October 2014

UNESCO on What is happening at Nimrud

"International experts gathered in Paris on Tuesday to discuss ways to save Iraqi heritage from destruction" reports Al Arabiya in a news item that has been widely circulating for the past couple of days. A slightly earlier version of the same story appeared the previous day as a Agence France Presse article - for example in the Daily Star of Lebanon (' ISIS pillaging Iraqi cultural artifacts, UNESCO warns'). It is the Al Arabiya version, by a staff writer and Reuters that has been doing the rounds ('ISIS selling Iraq’s artifacts in black market: UNESCO' Tuesday, 30 September 2014 ).

This contains the usual stuff. Western and Iraqi officials asserted once again that ISIS is selling ancient Iraqi artifacts in the black market to finance its military operations. Qais Hussein Rasheed, head of the Baghdad Museum is quoted at some length. He said:
organized groups [a]re working in coordination with ISIS. "It's an international artefacts' mafia," he told reporters. "They identify the items and say what they can sell," he said. Since some of these items were more than 2,000 years old it was difficult to know exactly their value. Citing local officials still in ISIS-controlled areas, Rasheed said the biggest example of looting so far had taken place at the 9th century B.C. grand palace at Kalhu of the Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II. "Assyrian tablets were stolen and found in European cities," he said. "Some of these items are cut up and sold piecemeal," he said, referring to a tablet of a winged bull. 
Most commentators seem to have accepted that what he meant was cuneiform tablets, in fact what he's obviously talking about is reliefs from the walls of this palace, otherwise known as Nimrud. Rasheed asserts that recently stolen fragments of these reliefs have been "found in European cities", we are expected to understand since ISIS came to control northern Iraq in June 2014. I'd be grateful for information supporting this claim. Of course museums like the British Museum and several others  have fragments ripped off from the walls of this palace over a century ago by people such as Layard, and the have been pieces on the market before the US-led invasion (Spencer P.M. Harrington, 'Nimrud Reliefs For Sale' Archaeology Magazine vol. 50(6), November/December 1997 ) but if there have been any fragments seen on the market in recent months, the media have not exactly been trumpeting it, at a time when there has been intense media interest in precisely this topic.

This is a little at odds with another recent article in which the same informat is cited (Thomas D. Williams, 'Islamic State Raids Biblical City of Nineveh, Sells Ancient Treasures for Millions', Breitbart 27 Sep 2014) drawing in part on reports by the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera about how Islamic State militants are raising cash by "extracting valuable relics to sell on the international black market":
According to Qais Hussein Rasheed, head of the state-run Museums Department in Iraq, black market dealers are entering areas under Islamic State control to buy these items. [...]  IS leaders are now either selling artifacts directly or granting access to occupied archeological zones to teams of professional looters. They then split the revenues from the plunder according to the Islamic law of Khums: a fifth of the spoils must be paid to God, ie, the Islamic state. The Turkish border is only a few hours away with Western brokers waiting to transfer the artifacts to the major black art markets: London, New York, and Tokyo.
In the article, Nimrud is specifically mentioned:
Daniele Morandi Bonacossi, director of the University of Udine’s archaeological mission in Assyria, was among the last scholars to be able to see the relief sculpture at the royal palace of Nimrud, most likely ripped off with strokes from a pickaxe, and the stone portrait of the monarch Tiglath-Pileser III, literally broken to bits by marauders hunting for a (non-existent) treasure chest of gold that they thought was hidden there.
So one account has them being sawn off the walls and smuggled out to the market, the other has them being smashed by ignorant fanatics. The destruction of Nimrud's decoration has become a trope.

Vignette: whirling round and round trance-like, what UNESCO seems in danger of becoming.

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