Impact of the Iraq conflict on Sumerology

One subject I’m deeply fascinated with is ancient Sumer, the world’s earliest literate civilization.

For many years there’s been an Iraqi law against taking archeological artifacts out of the country. So all Sumerian discoveries since Iraq’s independence in the 1930s have had to remain there. That’s fine, except for one thing:

Every last trace of the Sumerians is right now in danger of being bombed into dust. Or maybe some of it already has been. :frowning: :frowning: :frowning:

How much damage has Uncle Sam already inflicted on Sumerian antiquities? How much worse could it get? I hope to God there’s some plan for preserving Sumerian objects in wartime. All the cuneiform tablets that haven’t been translated or published yet. The cultural loss to humanity would be beyond incalculable.

Here’s a item, for instance, that’ll give you some idea. From the book Sumer: Cities of Eden, p. 68, about proto-Sumerian discoveries:

At least the halting of work, which one may hope can be resumed someday, is not as bad as destruction of priceless Mesopotamian artifacts.

Somehow I doubt that “preserving Sumerian antiquities” is very high on the list for either Saddam Hussein or Donald Rumsfeld. :frowning:

I once attended a lecture by one of the world leading experts on the Indus Valley Civilization. This was back in 1999. I asked him what were some of the major effects of the conflict in Ahghanistan and the Taliban. He said that Afghanistan was one of the places most likely to have tablets written in both the Indus valley writing form and another known form of writing to enable translation.
So war here can and has quite forcefully shut the mouths the oldest civilizations we’ve got.

Probably the luckiest thing that could happen archeological wise is for some military general in Iraq to decide he wants to pull a Musharaf.

Either way Iraq is a large and empty country which was not always that way. I’m sure there are towns and cities buried under dirt in the middle of nowhere that will survive quite nicely to wait for more enlightened times. So despite terrible losses I’m sure their will still be much work to do once work resumes, despite the intervening times.

I thought President Hussein was something of an archaeology buff–after all, he is rebuilding Babylon, right? If he cares enough (in his megalomaniacal way) to do something like that, perhaps he will have taken steps to preserve some of the other artifacts of the ancient civilizations that rose and fell in present day Iraq. Maybe we’ll luck out and someday discover that the current regime took better care of its historical treasures than we would have thought. It would be a great shame, imo, if whatever remains of the Sumerians (and their successors) were to be destroyed by warfare. Cross your fingers, write your congressman, and say a prayer to Enki, I guess.

I have some interest in ancient societies but haven’t really studied any, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling saddness when I hear of something ancient destroyed. The destruction of these artifacts would be a loss to all. However I must admit my primary concern and opposition to a new war on Iraq is not the destruction of Sumerian antiquities, but rather the destruction of human beings, particulary those just trying to survive. I am not trying to deminish the Author or the topic, the question is an intersting one. thanx.

I remember in the Gulf War a picture in the paper of an Iraqi jet sitting on top of a Sumerian ziggurat, in the hope that the Americans wouldn’t bomb the ziggurat even at the expense of the jet.

I would quite like to see the picture Curwin refers to.

The much less indiscriminate bombing used in the 1991 war and later should be good assurance that most artifacts shoudl come through OK. IMHO, the real danger is in Saddam’s meglomania: He may well have private collections on display in his palaces that were dug up in a very un-scientific maner; that is, his lust for such things may have driven what amounts to government-sanctioned looting of sites.

Someone may be able to correct me, but in reading Herodotus it seems as if the history of the Persian empire is portrayed as a sort of Medes vs. Persian thing, with the Medes being roughly where Iraq is and the Persians being where Iran is. Thus, Saddam’s interest in tis chapter of ancient history may be a claim for leadership of the old “Persian/Median” empire as a sort of Gross-Irak. Similarly, he has also had his equivalent of Goebbels paint him in the image of another figure from early Islamic history whose identity I don’t presently recall; some kind of great warrior figure.

If Saddam were in Egypt instead of Mesopotamia, you can imagine what the images of Pharonic civilization and Islamic Alexandria and Cairo would suddenly metamorphize into.

Overall, it’ll be generations before the image of the ancient peoples of what is today Iraq come back into more realistic focus. This is the real damage Saddam is doing to artifacts of ancient cultures in the region. Look at what the Nazis did for “Aryans” and “Teutons” in revising the history of the Indo-European migrations. The whole issue is tainted with an awful uebermensch-ish flavor for the forseeable future.

BTW, I would not put it past Saddam to dynamite a ziggurat or what have you and them blame it on the Allies. He did this to Shia mosques in southern Iraq, going as far as to dig artificial bomb craters alongside them.

Really? I’d love to see a cite on that. I thought all that rebuilding Babylon nonsense was just fundamentalist Christian fantasy.

Saddam also drained the marshes of southern Iraq, thus quickly making extinct a unique culture that had extended back even before the origin of the Sumerians.

As for the human toll of warfare, I hear you, and consider this: Clinton bombed Baghdad on June 27, 1993 with Tomahawk missiles and killed a noted artist, Layla al-‘Attar, the director of the national art center. The pretext for the bombing was an alleged plot against George Bush, which was never proven and for which no evidence ever came out. As bad as war on humans is, also think about war on culture, since culture is what makes humans uniquely human.

toadspittle: Actually, I’d like to find a good site on that as well. It’s because I’m not entirely sure what’s going on in Babylon that I worded the first sentence of my post above as a question–in a way, I was sort of fishing for more info, myself. Since you posted, I did a quick Google search with a couple different combinations of saddam hussein babylon archaeology rebuild, and failed to come up with much. I found stuff like this, which, near the end, mentions Saddam Hussein’s Babylonian activities, but not in any detail–also, I don’t know if the Guardian is a good source or not, having only read that one page. Most of what I saw online seemed to be various Christian organizations linking the rebuilding of Babylon to various Scripture passages about the END OF THE WORLD–much of it looked like what you termed fundamentalist Christian fantasy. My original information on this subject comes from television, which isn’t much of a source. I want to say that I’ve come across articles about this in reputable magazines, but I can’t with certainty.

I do know that Iraq is doing something with its ruins, but I don’t know what exactly–I wish I did. It could be that some Iraqi archaeologists are doing something relatively modest at some ancient Babylonian sites, which has since been exaggerated by the Iraqi propaganda people and/or certain Christian groups who are ready for The Battle of Armageddon. Or perhaps all that archaeological digging just makes for a good bunker-building-and-weapons-of-mass-destruction-hiding cover.

Regarding the OP: There are Iraqi archaeologists doing work throughout the country (how good they are, I don’t know), so at least some knowledge continues to be unearthed and preserved, which is good news. For example, some Assyrian stuff.

However, I also know there’s destruction and loss of knowledge in Iraq because of the current situation. Link: :frowning:

I just read a several thousand word article about Saddam. I’m sorry, I looked for the citation, but I can’t remember where it came from. Possibly a link in “The London Times” or Rand.

Saddam definitely cares about archeology (as I remember the article saying), because he honestly believes that the supremacy of the West is a passing anomoly, and that the Arabs hold the truly great culture of the world. (I guess if my ancestors had been building in my town for 3000 years, I might feel some of the same impulses…)

He is doing historical reconstruction and – you’ll love this – every 10th brick that’s used has his name stamped in it.

From the London Times, 2003 01 27:
Attack on Iraq will put ancient sites at risk

A BBC film made with the co-operation of Baghdad claims that some of the ancient world’s most important monuments would be destroyed in an attack against Iraq.

map of ancient sites

Dan Cruickshank, the presenter of the BBC programme that’s the subject of the Times article, had his own article on the subject in the Independent recently. He seems to be taking a fairly balanced line: war could easily be destructive, but the current regime is already responsible for significant neglect and destruction. The cynic in me wonders why Iraqi officials weren’t falling over themselves to show any serious damage from the last time round to the BBC.

Well, the Persians were pretty much where Iran is, but the Medes were where Iranian Azerbaijan is…Medea didn’t really stretch into Iraq.

FWIW, according to Collin Powell, during Desert Storm the United States military made an effort not to damage culturally signifcant sites in Iraq. I would guess that ziggurats and the like would qualify as culturally significant. Hopefully if there is a Second Gulf War (though I hope there is not) we’ll show the same care in selecting our targets as we supposedly did during the First.

My source is Powell’s autobiography.

"It would be a great shame, imo, if whatever remains of the Sumerians (and their successors) were to be destroyed by warfare. "

Aren’t they a ‘cultural antiquity’ for this very reason?

Rather than just getting sentimental, consider that the destruction of these artifacts might be the reason behind the bombings. Perhaps SH found some ancient secrets that Bush doesn’t want to be common knowledge.



My first thought on reading this post was “Yog-Sothoth.” :slight_smile:
Did I spell that right?

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.

–H.P. Lovecraft