Dr Lee Rotherham, a political consultant and prominent Eurosceptic,
served in Iraq as a mobilised Territorial Army NCO. Those interested in
learning more about either the work of the Dhi Qar Directorate of
Archaeology, or the Keppel’s Column campaign, can drop him a line via
the usual conservativehome email address – here.
It is a sight that can never be forgotten. In the empty silence of the
desert, a land that lies aching after a baking 47’C day, the full moon
rises behind the Temple of the lunar god Sin. This is the land of Ur of
the Chaldees, home to the Old Testament’s Abraham, and resting place of
fabled kings of antiquity’s antiquity. Opposite the vestige of a royal
palace stands a doorway with the oldest archway in the world. Down deep
shafts lie the cool stale tombs of monarchs and townsfolk that Agatha
Christie excavated with her husband, source of familiar treasures that
adorn the British Museum. It is a spellbinding world, all the more
powerful as its acreage lies surrounded by barbed wire and its paths
almost entirely untrod.
Perhaps two years on it is worth revisiting this place, at least from
afar. Over the intervening time I have rattled a few cages, written a
few articles for the likes of Rescue Archaeology and the Salisbury
Review, and pestered contacts in the Italian government – it is the
Italians who are the local Coalition Forces on the ground – so it has
been something of an eye opener to hear of how the situation pans out
today in a policy area frankly low on the priority list, at least as
far as the British Government is concerned.
Ur is in Dhi Qar Province, north west of Basrah, whose chief town An
Nasiriyah lies 380km South of Baghdad. It is a place littered with
history, quite literally. There are some 800 known sites locally, and
surprisingly few of them have been properly excavated. The world of the
cities of Gilgamesh and of the princes before the flood still lies
Except for the looters.
The world expressed outrage after the fall of Saddam Hussein when the museums were ransacked and treasures broken or stolen. Critics have savaged actions by the US such as the construction of a helicopter pad on the site of Babylon. But only rare newspaper articles seemingly addressed the pillaging of Iraq’s archaeology.
As an amateur archaeologist myself, about to deploy to the country, I had the good fortune of having a friend in the British Museum whose colleague was able to prebrief me on the locations and the background. I then had the immense good luck of a re-assignment in theatre which, for a brief time, also allowed me an insight into the work being done locally by the Italians to combat the problem. It was a mammoth task, perhaps well suited to these outstanding veterans of fights against tombaroli back home. Carabinieri were operating across an entire province, in an environment which at that stage was less than benign. A mob of Mahdi Army supporters had just attacked the museum and trashed it. 4,000 priceless books and documents had gone up in flames. A DVD available on the local market showed these modern Hulagus jigging around the courtyard as the flames licked the sky.
Community leaders rallied round to condemn the outrage, though the situation itself at the time hardly improved. One of the people I had the great privilege of meeting out there was subsequently kidnapped, along with a brave American journalist (see here). Fortunately, they were both eventually released.
But that still left looters scooting off into the desert and taking a pick axe to a random part of history. There was a clear profit to be made in relics. If you could buy an artefact from the digger for a few cents, and get it to al Fajr (a town 100km to the north), then you can sell it on to traders from neighbouring countries. Once safely out of the country, the market value increases massively. Who knows where that money could be ending up and what it could be buying.
That was the sorry moment at which I left the country. UK Ministers since responded to Parliamentary Questions on the subject with a pitiful buck-passing exercise to the Italians. The European Commission prefers its money to go on education and welfare. Fair enough, but with €518 million available, and here is the crunch, even a few thousand dollars would have made a quick and demonstrable difference. I’d love to know which “human rights issues” and elements of the constitutional referendum it’s been supporting too, and how much it’s spent on consultants to do it.
Water, sewerage, electricity, and the fight against suicide bombers have rightly been the priority. But when manpower wages to do the job comes so ridiculously cheap, a minuscule deployment of funds in an area can make a massive difference.
Which takes us to the Italians, and, incidentally, to recent events in both Italy and the UK.
First, to Rome. Whatever you personally might think of Berlusconi and his government, they have gone some way to delivering the goods in their patch. With Italian aid, the Iraqi Ministry of Culture founded a special provincial force to protect the sites, 150 strong. This unit patrols around the clock, where it has been able to detain a number of looters caught red-handed while they were digging. Indeed, it seems to have become something of a model for similar forces around the country, and has been favourably received by the national media. The Italian Government has also helped to fix up the trashed museum, while the Americans have supplied some vehicles and other key equipment.
The Italians have made a difference. I am still waiting for word on DfiD’s contribution. Remember, this is an area where a couple of grand could hire a guard to protect a piece of world heritage, and where flying over an empty patch of desert you suddenly gaze down on concentrated pock marks of illegal digging. So regardless of how he pans out in the aftermath of his general election, Berlusconi gets a big thumbs up from me, even if he does look daft in a bandana.
As for the Conservatives, searching for decent causes for the higher profile treatment, heritage could be one of them. To be fair, John Whittingdale did his bit during his stint, even if Shadow Cabinet minds were elsewhere, and Whitehall was then unhelpfully blocking MP visits on the ground.
Today, English Heritage has more members than the Conservative Party. The National Trust has over ten times the number. I suspect much of the membership in some form overlaps. But many of the principles that can be learned from this example of global stewardship can apply to national policies as well. During the last election, one campaign issue I ran with in Rotherham was a move to save the local landmark of Keppel’s Column, named after a naval hero (albeit somewhat of a Whig). But to raise the money from the Lottery Fund, the campaigners would have had to build a car park on adjoining Keppel’s Field, a nature reserve. That sort of bureaucratic nonsense has no place outside of a compilation of Christopher Booker articles.
The campaigns for these cultural icons still need support. The British Government could redeem its earlier complacency by extending the Dhi Qar heritage experience into other provinces, or by restoring some sites. It could still have a real impact by helping to restock the carbonised library. The team in An Nasiriyah is proposing to set up a Centre for Sumerian Studies, following in the wake of the new US-backed Centre for Assyrian Studies in Mosul. The European Commission could at least pledge to include this case study in its current planning review for the next €200 million tranche of aid, due for dispatch later this year. It itself has gone on record as saying that, “The Commission is conscious that the preservation of Iraqi cultural heritage is an important element of national identity.” It needs reminding of this fact, however.
Meanwhile, after hugging glaciers, the new-look Conservatives could demonstrate their reasonableness by a new initiative. It’s a prime time opportunity for carrying the media spotlight to these silent desert streets where humanity first emerged into the dim light of archaic history.