The Devastation of Iraq’s Past


In May 2003—some eight weeks after the American invasion had begun— Abdul-Amir Hamdani, the archaeology inspector of Dhi Qar province in southern Iraq, traveled to Najaf to call on the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He had an urgent request. “We needed his help to stop the pillage,” Hamdani recalled. The province, which is midway between Baghdad and Basra, covers much of what was once the land of Sumer. In the third millennium BC, it was a fertile plain densely populated by such cities as Ur, Lagash, Girsu, Larsa, and Umma; today, the shifting course of the Euphrates and Saddam Hussein’s brutal campaign to drain the marshes, to the southeast, have left it in large part an impoverished wasteland. With the fall of the Baathist regime, hundreds of poor farmers and villagers—often backed by armed militias—were turning to archaeological plunder; in some Dhi Qar towns, such as al-Fajr, the black market trade in antiquities was accounting for upward of 80 percent of the local economy.

Al-Sistani was sufficiently moved by Hamdani’s plea to pronounce a fatwa. He proclaimed that digging for antiquities is illegal; that both Islamic and pre-Islamic artifacts are part of Iraqi heritage; and that people who have antiquities in their possession should return them to the museum in Baghdad or in Nasiriya, the capital of Dhi Qar province. Copies of the fatwa were distributed widely in the south, and published in the Iraqi press. “At this point some of the looters stopped their work, because when Ayatollah al-Sistani says something, they listen,” Hamdani said.

Read more in the New York Review of Books

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