History Up In Flames

By Zahi Hawass

Zahi Hawass I was in Washington DC when the Taliban destroyed the Buddha statues in Afghanistan, and I was invited by many TV stations to give interviews saying what I thought about it. The world was shocked, and people wanted to know how a country could willfully condone the destruction of such a monument. They realized they represented part of a shared world heritage, not that of a specific nation. On TV I voiced astonishment at the gross act of destruction; I stressed that any country that damaged a monument, whether in their own country or in that of any other, was destroying our past and hindering our future.

I personally, as someone in charge of the conservation of Egyptian monuments, consider it my duty to protect what is, after all, part of a shared heritage. When restoration was being carried out in mediaeval Cairo, people around the world showed interest, and some concern was voiced about whether everything was being done to protect this historic area by the most up-to-date methods of conservation. Letters came from all over the world, one of them from Carol Williams, who wrote a letter to Mrs Suzanne Mubarak voicing concern about the manner in which restoration was being carried out.

Consequently, the Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, asked for an international team of UNESCO experts to come and see for themselves what was being done. A conference was held in Cairo and it was recognized that the procedures for the restoration of the Islamic monuments was in good hands and entirely adequate.

At the time of the Taliban's destruction, people were outraged and newspapers and magazines spoke out violently against their action. It was as if an earthquake had shaken the world. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City offered to restore the statues and even bear the cost of transportation to the United States.

I would like to ask, "Why are voices not being raised about the destruction of our shared heritage in Iraq?" A few days ago when I heard that bombs, missiles, aircraft and tanks were attacking the country, I could not believe it was happening. Not only are innocent lives being lost but historic monuments are being destroyed.

The museums in Baghdad contain priceless artifacts from the various stages of their civilisation and, in addition, archaeological sites are scattered all over the land. All are threatened. When I hear that a bomb has been dropped or that missiles have struck a target, I fear that a great part of our world heritage is inevitably being destroyed.

The history of Iraq goes back thousands of years. Some scholars even believe it was the cradle of agriculture and that the people had the knowledge of writing before the ancient Egyptians. An exhibition entitled "The Tower of Babel" is scheduled to be shown in the Vienna Art Museum, in which the development of writing will be explained. I well remember that an American friend told me about his visit to the National Museum in Baghdad. He described a military vehicle drawn by four horses and servants, and also beautiful statues made of basalt.

Among the many prehistoric sites in Iraq are Tel-Hassouna and Samara, well known for hand-made pottery. The Sumerians, who ruled Iraq from 2850 BC to 2350 BC, left fortified cities, temples and great tombs -- there are major sites of this important culture, especially in the town of Telo. The Akkadians too left archaeological sites in the east of Iraq, and their major city was the town of Seibar. The Stela of Victory discovered here is on display In the Louvre.

Many archaeological expeditions from the United States and England worked in ancient Mesopotamia. Museums all over the world highlight this significant culture. In fact, the University Museum contains the best Mesopotamian exhibits. Should ancient sites be destroyed, what will the archaeologists tell their students about the offensive crime? What will the world do about the loss of a vital part of our history?

I do not understand how the world can turn its back on the crime being daily committed. Why is no one writing about it? Few articles have been written to tell the attackers, "Watch out, you are destroying the history of a nation!" Why have those who voiced outrage at the destruction of the Buddha statues not been equally vociferous about protecting the monuments of Iraq? True, I have American friends who are concerned about what will happen, but we need more conscientious people to write articles in an attempt to stop the attacks. What is the role of UNESCO to help save the monuments? Where are the scholars and intellectuals? People need to speak out loudly and clearly and declare: "SAVE ANCIENT MESOPOTAMIA".

BACK to The Plateau Homepage