The last sack of Assyria

August 1, 1997

United Nations sanctions on Iraq have prompted impoverished locals to pilfer antiquities, creating a world heritage disaster. John Malcolm Russell reports

"The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;" (Byron, "The Destruction of Sennacherib," 1815) So wrote Byron of the siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701bc from Nineveh, capital of the greatest empire the world had known. For two and a half millennia, the only account of this momentous event was in II Kings 18-19, which reports that Sennacherib's invincible army was laid low by the angel of the Lord, after which Sennacherib returned to Nineveh and was murdered by his sons. Nineveh itself fell to the Medes and Babylonians in 612bc, its splendour buried under the shifting dust of northern Mesopotamia.

In 1847, the young British adventurer Austen Henry Layard explored the ruins of Nineveh and rediscovered the lost palace of Sennacherib across the Tigris River from modern Mosul in northern Iraq. Inscribed in cuneiform on the colossal sculptures in the doorway of its throne room was Sennacherib's own account of his siege of Jerusalem. It differed in detail from the biblical one, but confirmed that Sennacherib did not capture the city. This find generated huge excitement because amid the increasing religious doubt and scriptural revisionism of the mid-19th century, it gave Christian fundamentalists an independent eyewitness corroboration of a biblical event, written in the doorway of the very room from which Sennacherib may have ordered the attack.

Considering that the palace had been destroyed by fire during the sack of Nineveh in 612bc, the massive walls and many of the relief sculptures of Sennacherib's throne-room suite were surprisingly well preserved. In the 1960s, because of the palace's historical importance and unique preservation, the Iraq Department of Antiquities consolidated the walls and sculptures and roofed the site over as the Sennacherib Palace Site Museum at Nineveh, where visitors could tour the remains, one of only two preserved Assyrian palaces in the world.

But today it is a world heritage disaster of the first magnitude. Emergency conservation is required to preserve what remains of its sculptures. In 1995, I was shown a photograph of an Assyrian relief fragment for sale on the antiquities market. There is no doubt that it came from a sculpture that was intact in the Nineveh site museum in 1990, but which had since been broken up by looters. Soon thereafter, I was shown photographs of two more fragments from Sennacherib's palace that had been in storage at Nineveh in 1990, but which were also on the art market.

In November 1996, I was contacted by a New York lawyer acting for a prospective purchaser who had photographs of ten more Assyrian sculptures that were said to be on the market. The lawyer wanted to know if the sculptures were being sold legitimately. They were not. One fragment was evidently from the palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad, and was being stored at Nineveh in 1990. The others were further fragments of wall relief from the Sennacherib Palace Site Museum.

Each came from a different slab. Most had been broken from the middle of a slab, suggesting that the looters destroyed whole slabs to extract the best-preserved bits. The fragments were trimmed and reoriented for the antiquities market, destroying the context crucial for understanding their significance.

Why is this happening now? Iraq has a rich and varied heritage, coveted by the West since the 19th-century heyday of imperial acquisition. Then, representatives of European governments descended on the palaces of Mesopotamia and sacked them to fill the halls of the British Museum, the Louvre, and the Berlin Museum. Numerous sculptured slabs found their way into smaller collections in England and America as well.

Today Assyria is in fashion again, and its sculptures are bringing unprecedented prices. In 1992, I discovered an original sculpture in the Nineveh Porch at Canford School. In 1994, this sculpture was sold by the school at auction for Pounds 7.7 million, by far the highest price ever paid for an antiquity.

To protect and promote its irreplaceable heritage in the face of such powerful demand, modern Iraq has an excellent antiquities department, and the people of Iraq have deep pride in their national heritage. This pride ensured that recently, very few antiquities left Iraq. This attitude is vital for a country with hundreds of major archaeological sites and thousands of smaller ones. Even in the best of times, it would be impossible to guard all of them without the cooperation of the people.

But United Nations sanctions have caused unprecedented perils for Iraq's heritage, while forbidding any form of outside collaboration within its borders. Because of sanctions, little money is available for the preservation of antiquities. At the same time newly impoverished Iraqis, squeezed between ruinous inflation and critical shortages of basic necessities, have been forced to seek new sources of subsistence income. For antiquities and heritage, the combination of local desperation and international demand is a recipe for disaster. Some Iraqis with nothing left to sell have evidently turned to selling off bits of Iraq's rich heritage.

There is no evidence that Iraqi officials are involved in these thefts. Instead, this appears to be disorganised pilfering, probably carried out by impoverished locals, and the sculptural fragments are very likely sold for a pittance, since such well-known pieces have no value on the international market.

The Iraq Department of Antiquities and Heritage has responded by actively trying to staunch the outflow of antiquities but has been severely constrained by a limited budget, inability to import photographic supplies (forbidden by the sanctions) or outside technical and scholarly expertise, and absence of international cooperation.

Foreign specialists are anxious to collaborate with Iraqi colleagues, but because of sanctions, opportunities are limited. Going well beyond the restrictions of the sanctions, the United States government prohibits even private visits by its citizens to Iraq.

One might think that international support for such a crucial undertaking could be readily obtained, but the obstacles appear insurmountable. The same UN sanctions that have contributed to the destruction of the palace museum also prohibit any form of outside cultural help to Iraq. Though the UN sanctions committee treats humanitarian aid as an exception to the sanctions, none has been allowed for the preservation of heritage. A giant step would be for the US and the UN to treat threats to cultural heritage as a humanitarian issue.

Instead, teams from cultural organisations such as Unesco have repeatedly been denied permission by the sanctions committee to assess damage and threats to the cultural heritage of Iraq in the wake of the Gulf war. This hostility reflects a widespread view in the West that Iraq has no significant heritage, even though the West claims ancient Iraq, the "Cradle of Civilization," as the foundation of its own heritage. This heritage disaster also highlights the role of the West as a myopic consumer of heritage, rather than a cherisher of a vanishing, irreplaceable shared resource.

"Like the wolf on the fold," UN sanctions against Iraq have finally destroyed Sennacherib's palace, finishing the work begun by the ancient Medes and Babylonians.

John Malcolm Russell is associate professor of art history at Columbia University, New York and author of From Nineveh to New York (Yale University Press, Pounds 25).

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