May we throw a glance at our small museum and compare its contents with the objects unearthed in this country which have found their way into the museums which have been sending excavation missions into this country and find out whether our share has been a fair one or otherwise?
Sawt al-`iraq (Iraqi newspaper), February 19, 1933
Why? How could they do this? Why, when the city was already burning, when anarchy had been let loose and less than three months after US archaeologists and Pentagon officials met to discuss the country's treasures and put the Baghdad Archaeological Museum on a military data-base did the Americans allow the mobs to destroy the priceless heritage of ancient Mesopotamia?
British journalist Robert Fisk, The Independent Online Edition, April 13, 2003
During most of 2002 and 2003, Iraq was at the center of world attention and at the heart of an unprecedented international debate. Much of the discussion, prior to the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, focused on whether or not military action against Iraq was justified. Once the war started the focus shifted toward the execution and strategy of the military campaign and the ensuing loss of human life. By mid-April, however, once it became clear that the government of Saddam Husayn was no longer in power, Iraq's antiquities and museums became part of the war's "collateral damage." For a few days in April, the questions and discussion of wartime strategy, links of Husayn's regime to al-Qaida, and the presence of weapons of mass destruction were all temporarily swept aside and instead Iraqi antiquities took center stage. Eventually, archaeological artifacts became intrinsically linked to the execution of the war and perhaps symbolic of the difficulties ahead in the reconstruction of Iraq.
This sudden interest in Iraqi archaeological artifacts was no mere distraction, but the result of the catastrophic and unprecedented destruction of Iraqi cultural heritage that took place in mid-April of 2003. In Baghdad were stored some of the greatest cultural achievements of human history, indicative of our shared history and accomplishments. But in a matter of a few hours, the Iraqi National Museum, and numerous regional museums and libraries, were either destroyed or looted for anything that seemed valuable. In the "cradle of civilization," which Iraq was often called in a tribute to its long and glorious history, a particularly uncivil situation, caused by the power vacuum and the destruction of local authority, shattered its many cultural remnants.
The National Museum, for example, housed important pieces from such fabled historic cities as Nineveh, Khorsabad, Uruk, Hatra, Babylon, Ashur, and Samarra. It thus contained some of the earliest pieces of the human endeavor, whether of art, writing, or agricultural tools. The actual scale of the destruction of National Museum is still unclear, though it obviously suffered considerable damage. According to preliminary estimates from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) during the summer of 2003, around three thousand objects were missing from the National Museum. In November of 2003, Iraqi Culture Minister Mufid al-Jazaeri indicated at a press conference that fourteen thousand objects had been looted and that four thousand of those had since been recovered or reclaimed. Among the missing pieces were unique artifacts such as the Warka vase, an Assyrian ivory carving, a marble head of Poseidon, a relief-decorated cult vase from Uruk, and painted ceramics from Arpachiyah from the sixth millennium B.C.E. Some important items that have been returned were the 330-pound copper statue from Bassetki, from around 2300 B.C.E., which bears the inscription in honor of Akkadian King Naram-Sin, and the famed Warka mask.
It was not only the National Museum that was plundered. The Iraqi National Library and Archives (Dar al-Kutub wa al-Watha'iq) and the Ministry of Holy Endowments and Religious Affairs (al-Awqaf) were set on fire and/or looted during this same time period. In addition to these major cultural institutions, universities and other research and cultural centers were also subject to considerable damage. The Iraqi National Library was subjected to at least two arson attacks. It is still not clear how much of its contents was actually destroyed by the fire and how much the Library staff was able to move to secure locations. The building itself is in disarray and deemed unusable by engineers. Furthermore, approximately fifteen hundred modern paintings and sculptures are missing from Baghdad's Museum of Fine Arts. Although the damage is not as devastating as initially feared, it is quite clear that Iraqi antiquities and archaeology suffered irreplaceable losses.
This was not the first time that Iraqi antiquities had been plundered, stolen, or destroyed. But the conditions in which this destruction took place, and its magnitude and speed, were unprecedented. Furthermore, many observers maintained that this looting could have been prevented had the allied forces, particularly the American military, taken concrete measures to protect important cultural sites such as the National Museum. What made this episode especially troubling was that the U.S. Department of Defense had met with a group of leading archaeologists and other experts prior to the war who had urged the military to protect Iraq's priceless antiquities, including those in its main museums, from potential looting.
These disastrous episodes, however, underscored several themes in Iraq's often tragic history. As this book will demonstrate, archaeology and politics are often interconnected in Iraq, especially in relation to foreign intervention or interference. Ultimately, the demolition of much of Iraqi archaeological heritage was emblematic of the ruinous and violent politics of recent Iraqi history. In more peaceful times, antiquities were used by governmental officials for political purposes to foster national unity, and archaeological artifacts inspired Iraqi poets and artists.
But in April of 2003, during chaotic and violent days, when Iraq was united only in its anarchy, the symbols of the past were destroyed or stolen. Antiquities, after all, have more than political and cultural value: they are also valuable commodities tradable for currency on the international market. Thus, many Iraqis, whether working in conjunction with well-organized international art gangs or on their own, sought to remedy their desperate financial situation by stealing the priceless antiquities. Furthermore, the museums and other cultural institutions represented the central government and were in many cases closely identified with the government of Saddam Husayn. It is possible that many of those who looted or plundered were in effect extracting some form of vengeance against the recently fallen regime. Such behavior had been exhibited, for example, during the uprisings, or intifada, in 1991, or immediately after the first Persian Gulf War. At that time, museums in southern Iraq were attacked and looted by the demonstrators primarily because they were concrete vestiges of Husayn's government. These episodes confirmed the place of archaeology in the cultural and political discourse in Iraq. In the following pages, this book will explore the early history of archaeology in Iraq and analyze how archaeological artifacts would eventually become closely identified with the state and politics.
Situating archaeology in the nexus of imperialism and nationalism, this book explores the political struggle over Iraqi antiquities and demonstrates its intriguing implications for Iraqi national culture. Specifically, it highlights the transformation of an Iraqi interest in antiquities that manifested itself initially in a vibrant confrontation with Western powers and subsequently in a wide-ranging political negotiation regarding how to express a meaningful and effective national identity.
The unifying thread in this battle over Iraqi archaeology is power—economic, cultural, and political power—and how people have used these powers to manipulate archaeology in order to preserve their authority and/or to maximize their access to archaeological finds. This study, therefore, assesses how archaeology and the knowledge derived from it, contributed initially to European interest in the land, then eventually to the British delineation of the country, and finally to the affirmation of the Iraqi nation's sovereignty, independence, and identity. The Iraqi example, therefore, illustrates the processes through which archaeology and history can be used for the political purposes.
History is a critical ingredient in any nationalist discourse. In such narratives, the selective utilization of archaeology often serves important functions in articulating a conscious and deliberate national history. In twentieth-century Iraq, archaeology and ancient history has been intimately intertwined with the state-building process.
For most of the twentieth century, fashioning a distinct Iraqi national identity was a fundamental challenge in the political process. Ever since the establishment of the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq in August 1921, the political leaders of the state have been faced with the formidable task of nation-building among peoples of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds. In the first few years of the nascent state, the Iraqi government and its British advisors had a difficult time convincing "Iraqis" of the legitimacy of the very idea of an "Iraq."
As political scientist Eric Davis suggests, two competing and seemingly diametrically opposed models of political community, one Iraqist and the other Pan-Arab, have clashed over which was to be the defining feature of Iraqi national identity. Davis argues that the Iraqi inability "to construct a viable model of political community explains to a large degree the country's political and social instability." In other words, it has proven to be a particularly troubling and difficult enterprise for the nation-state to instill unity amongst people of diverse cultural traditions and multiple ethnicities.
Partly to overcome this complex political situation and the numerous competing claims for power, when the British were trying to organize the creation of the nascent Iraqi state in the early 1920s, they looked outside the country to find a suitable political leader. Iraq's first king, Faysal I, who hailed from the Hijaz, was foreign to Iraq. Yet his family subsequently played a central role in articulating and arguing for an Iraqiness under the rubric of the Hashemite monarchy that ruled Iraq between 1921 and 1958. Because of his impeccable religious credentials, as a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and the son of Sharif Husayn, the custodian of the holy places in Mecca and Medina, and because of his family's integral role in the Allied war efforts during World War I, the British considered Faysal to be the ideal candidate to forge a unified nation out of Iraq's disparate elements. This process proved more problematic than anticipated. Eleven years into the state-building process, Faysal was speaking from frustration in 1933 when he exclaimed that in "Iraq there is still no Iraqi people . . . but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic ideal, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie." Thus, in the 1920s, the central political question the Iraqis asked was not "'Who should rule?' but 'Who are we?'."
By the 1930s, however, the Iraqi political leaders turned to archaeology and ancient history to answer the latter question. Historical artifacts emerged as a useful and crucial foundation for the nation to build for itself a modern present based on a "modern" past. For example, in a series of speeches to Iraqi high school students in the mid-1930s, Dr. Sami Shawkat, the director of education of Iraq, observed that during the Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate in the eighth and ninth centuries the Caliphs al-Ma'mun and Harun al-Rashid ruled over 200 million people all across the Middle East. For Shawkat, the lessons of the past were clear and had obvious contemporary implications regarding Iraq's role in the world. He stated that the spirit of al-Rashid and al-Ma'mun would lead Iraq to become a "formidable state, as it was under al-Rashid, to dictate its will to other nations of the Middle East . . . and not be a victim of exploitation and imperialism."
Extolling the virtues of the modern Iraqi nation, Shawkat's didactic presentation of history was aimed at galvanizing patriotic sentiments among his young audience while validating Iraq's domestic and foreign policies. Furthermore, by drawing a connection between the contemporary state of Iraq and the glorious Abbasid Caliphate, Shawkat emphasized that Iraq's ancient history had important implications that were relevant and edifying for its present-day citizens. Like politicians all around the world, therefore, Shawkat took great liberties in his historical analysis, and his politically structured historical interpretation was useful for his government's political and nationalistic agenda.
In recent years, there has been a growing academic interest in the connection between nationalism and archaeology. As several studies have demonstrated, nationalism influences the kinds of questions archaeologists have been willing to ask and determines what sort of historical sites to excavate and uncover. Nationalist ideologies can lead and have led archaeologists to present history as a nonproblematic, linear progression of a people often validating a specific nation-state's interpretation of its own history. Because of its potential to help define a people as distinct and unique, archaeology has proven to be a useful tool in the nation-building processes in many countries of the Middle East. There, as elsewhere, the borders of contemporary nation-states necessarily influence the tradition of archaeological research, and archaeology in turn can solidify the claims and legitimacy of the nation-state.
In the Middle East, this tendency was particularly visible in the foundational period between 1920 and 1950. After the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, when newly created nations in the Middle East were engaged in systematic state-building, ancient peoples and cultures were "rediscovered" and injected into nationalist discourse. Nations, just like their individual citizens, compete with one another to garner attention. In their quest to prove their worth to their own citizens and to the world at large, all nations seek to demonstrate their uniqueness and exceptionality. In these nationalist histories, whether that of Lebanon, with its interest in the ancient Phoenicians, or of Turkey, and its concerns with the Hittites, the activities and scope of ancient cultures and peoples, whose lives were not circumscribed by contemporary borders, were carefully articulated and manipulated so that they could be neatly fit into modern geopolitical spaces.
The identification with ancient cultures, therefore, clearly served important utilitarian purposes for the nationalist enterprise. In a region where borders and frontiers were still fragile, fluid, and often contested, it allowed for the political expropriation of land. Furthermore, it served to convince the citizens of Transjordan, Egypt, or Syria, for example, that they were indeed—despite internal sectarian differences and some obvious religious and linguistic similarities with people outside their country—a community whose distinctiveness had historical roots. In the marketplace of identities, where the power to define is critical, selective interpretations of history helped legitimize certain governments and their views of what characterized a nation, at the expense of other groups or governments. The attempt to define and make distinct typically involves some form of exclusion, so prevalent in the nature of nationalism. Nationalism is thus often "negative" in the sense that it seeks to prove what the nation is not.
For example, historian Linda Colley has argued, in the case of Britain, "men and women decide who they are by reference to who and what they are not." Another historian studying Western Europe, Peter Sahlins has written that national identity is "contingent and relational: it is defined by the social and territorial boundaries drawn to distinguish the collective self and its implicit negation, the other."
In defining its own nation, Iraqi nationalism has vacillated between a "positive" and "negative" identification. At times it has chosen to emphasize a negative stance ("us" [Iraqis] vs. "them" [everyone else]). However, because of the linguistic, religious, and ethnic cleavages in the country, even creating a plausible "other" from which to differentiate the nation has proven problematic. Iraq has thus, in contrast, primarily stressed a "positive" identity, whether it has been in the guise of pan-Arabism or a distinct Iraqi particularism.
This positive stance reaffirms or redefines the Iraqis against themselves. Instead of proposing that "we are who we are by what we are not," this position asserts that Iraqis are "who we are because of who we were." The nation has been presented as a commemorative group of past achievements of people living on Iraqi soil. Instead of identifying primarily with one ancient empire or people, primarily because it would be difficult to convince the Kurds, the Shi`is, the Sunnis, and the various Christian and Jewish communities of a common heritage based on one common ancestor, the contemporary spirit of the Iraqi nation has been identified, for example, in the law-abiding nature of Hammurabi's society, the fighting spirit of the Assyrians, or the scientific innovation of the Abbasids.
What makes the Iraqis interesting and distinct from some of their neighbors in the interwar years is that initially they did not identify themselves with a pre-Islamic empire. Unlike the celebrations of the Phoenicians in Lebanon, the Sassanian and Achaemenid Empires in Pahlavi Iran, and of the Hittites in Turkey, the Iraqi nationalist agenda did not "discover" an ancient people or empire with which to identify the nascent nation. In various stages, the government articulated a pan-Arab identity, whereas at other periods it sought inspiration in numerous ancient cultures both Islamic and pre-Islamic. Consequently, Iraqi nationalism has not always been constant, nor has it emphasized one epoch or period. Instead, it has sought paradigms from a variety of historical periods, depending on the political circumstances.
In Iraq, after World War I, forging a national identity has been a conscious, and not always a consistent, top-down process that was integrally tied to the government's foreign policy, so that the past was reconstructed and based on the reigning ideological stance. At certain times, Iraq's Arab/Islamic history has been emphasized if the government was interested in Pan-Arabism. At other times, ancient Mesopotamian history was given priority in order to underline Iraq's leadership role in the Arab world and hegemony in the Persian Gulf. For example, those governments in power between 1932 and 1941 and 1963 and 1968 emphasized archaeology and history connected to Iraq's pan-Arab and pan-Islamic ties, particularly its role as the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate. Others, in particular that between 1958 and 1963 and the government under the leadership of Saddam Husayn between 1979 and 2003, have stressed Iraq's particularism based on its unique pre-Islamic history, such as being the home of the Babylonian, Akkadian, and Sumerian civilizations.
Overwhelmingly, the Iraqi national connection with the past has not been proposed as ethnic, but rather as cultural. Thus it was possible to make modern-day Iraqis the inheritors of ancient Mesopotamian culture. This cultural emphasis, what I refer to as paradigmatic nationalism, is predicated on sometimes vague and ever-shifting ideas of cultural paradigms. Because history offers so many possible and interchangeable motifs, it is a nationalism that is perhaps more fluid and adaptable than an identity built on race, language, or religion, as in other nations. Ultimately, though, like all nationalisms, it seeks national homogeneity and a common denominator.
Yet as the Iraqi experience suggests, the process in which nations attempt to create a "master narrative" that highlights their citizens' common past and legitimizes their aspiration for a shared destiny is, in actuality, dynamic and dialectical in character. In Iraq, as previously mentioned, the answers to the questions "Who are we?" and "What is the history of our nation?" have been subject to considerable debate. These debates were underscored in archaeology because the official emphasis in archaeology has deliberately been structured to fulfill ever-changing goals. These political goals were often antithetical to previous ones stressing radically different interpretations of what historically characterized Iraqis. "Iraq," in the rubric of paradigmatic nationalism, implies an "interpretive" or "recovered" community fueled, and perhaps restricted, by common historical experiences, though not necessarily common ideals and goals. Through archaeology, among other mechanisms, Iraqi politicians and scholars hoped to find, and use, historical artifacts and their corresponding legends to configure the Iraqi political and cultural community as one that had historical antecedents.
Thus, in a nationalism based on paradigms, complex historical events are also often reduced to basic plot structures that are easily packaged. For example, at a celebration to mark the first year of the Iran-Iraq War in 1981, the Iraqi vice president Taha al-Din Ma'ruf gave a fiery speech in which he led listeners back on a journey a few thousand years, stating that "when the mighty kingdom of Akkad and Sumer was founded, as an expression of the first Iraqi patriotic [wataniyya] unity in history, the unity of the homeland was exposed to a hateful attack by the Persian Elamites. . . . And when Iraq rose again and Sargon the Akkadian arose as the leader who united Iraq, the black Persian lust was reawakened. But the Iraqi leader Sargon repelled them forcefully. . . . Today your determined resolve was the mountain upon which dreams of the grandsons of Xerxes and Kisra were shattered." For Ma'ruf, the contemporary war between Iraq and Iran was merely the latest round of Persian-Iraqi enmity. Thus, according to this nationalist discourse, the Iraqi soldiers were historically destined to fight this battle.
This integration of ancient history and contemporary political concerns aims to convey that the spirits of the ancient civilizations are still alive and well in the modern nation. The modern citizens are thus direct descendants—culturally, politically, and even spiritually—of the great historic empires. Hence, contemporary cultural and political policies can be validated through historical precedent, and consequently political leaders imputed the trope of historical grandeur to archaeological artifacts.
In Iraq, the history and practice of archaeology have gone through three stages: The first phase, that of removal, was an "international" stage, and characterized by Western domination in which the Iraqis played a limited role—primarily supplying the manual labor at various excavation sites. Western archaeologists and institutions, not the inhabitants of Mesopotamia, sought to claim Mesopotamian antiquities as theirs. The second stage, during the interwar years, was a transitional period marked by intense negotiations and the beginning of the "national" phase of Iraqi archaeology. This epoch, or the period of negotiation, was dominated by the British but eventually became a struggle between Iraq and Britain over antiquities. In the third, from 1941 until today, Iraq has had full control of its archaeology, or at least until the decade of sanctions and the events of 2003. The focus in this book is only on the first two stages.
The first period, the European, or Western, stage, should neither be isolated from the colonialist enterprise nor divorced from the general Western historical narrative of the "progress of civilization," which was necessary for the aims of a "civilizing" imperial mission. Mesopotamia was, after all, the cradle of civilization, the supposed site of the Garden of Eden and point of origin for everyone and everything. In this time period, from the 1830s to World War I, antiquities were "international." They were exportable and moved without many restrictions from the Middle East to European or North American destinations. In that part of the world, there was a growing market and demand for archaeological artifacts. Archaeologists from those areas were given considerable freedom and liberty to conduct extensive archaeological excavations in the Middle East and elsewhere. Operating both within and outside of the 1874 Ottoman Law of Antiquities, they could roam the Mesopotamian countryside in an often frantic search for historical artifacts.
The scramble for colonies brought a parallel scramble for antiquities that was fueled by the frenzied competition of various national museums in Europe. The institutional desire to accumulate valuable antiquities was coupled with the private yearning of individuals to collect curios. In this time period, the selection of which sites and which ancient history would be interpreted reveals which history Westerners deemed important and relevant and also which history they felt was "theirs." The Westerners appropriated the history of Mesopotamia and brought back to Europe and North America nearly all of the excavated artifacts. In the hundred-year period between 1810 and 1910, nearly all major and minor excavations by Europeans and North Americans were conducted at pre-Islamic sites, such as Babylon, Khorsabad, and Nippur, which were considered exciting, interesting, and relevant because of their relation to the Bible. The histories of the ancient Sumerians, Assyrians, and Babylonians were studied, sometimes carefully, sometimes not. Islamic sites and history were overlooked and deemed neither valuable nor relevant, though there were exceptions to this rule such as the excavations at the Islamic site of Samarra led by the German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld just prior to the outbreak of World War I.
In the second stage of Iraqi archaeology, starting in 1921 and ending roughly with the outbreak of World War II, historical artifacts became "national." Their export and movement were significantly curtailed, and they became tools in the agenda of the state, especially in writing and presenting a distinct national history. In this hybrid stage, archaeology was initially a British affair. The English politician and archaeologist Gertrude Bell was responsible for archaeology in the Mandate period. In the early 1920s, Bell became the first director of antiquities in Iraq and formulated the 1924 antiquities legislation that was beneficial to foreign archaeologists and validated the nineteenth-century Western claims to various sites. Though she experienced some resistance to her plans from influential Iraqis such as Yasin al-Hashimi, who was the prime minister in 1924-1925, and Sati' al-Husri, the minister of education during most of the 1920s, she was able to avert Iraqi pressure because of Britain's domination of Iraqi politics. Her encounters with the Iraqi politicians in this particular case are indicative of the general political atmosphere. The British politicians had to resort to some form of negotiation. The negotiations in the sphere of archaeology manifested themselves most visibly in discussions regarding antiquities law, especially how to divide archaeological finds between Iraq and the foreign excavator. During this time, however, nearly all decisions favored the British and the other foreigners—an indication of the power structure. For example, Bell was successful in asserting British domain through legislation and political power and devised an antiquities legislation that allowed for extensive exports of excavated antiquities. One major idea behind the legislation was that the archaeological artifacts were of universal relevance and belonged more in museums in Paris or New York than in Baghdad.
During the 1920s and early 1930s a number of large and ambitious excavations began in Iraq at pre-Islamic sites such as Ur, Kish, Warka, and Nuzi. As with the first stage in the nineteenth century, Arab/Islamic sites received scant attention despite the fact that Faysal's Hashemite monarchy derived its prestige and, to a certain extent, its legitimacy from its connection to early Islamic history.
The mood of this period began to shift in 1932, in the wake of Iraqi independence, when several Iraqi newspapers started an aggressive campaign concerning the state of archaeology in the country. The tone and direction of this discussion were unanimous and unequivocal: Iraq had been robbed and plundered by Western archaeologists, and the government should take concrete measures to immediately remedy the situation. The Iraqi newspapers complained about how modest Iraq's Mesopotamian archaeological collections were compared to those in foreign institutions and urged the government to train more Iraqis in archaeology in order to take precautions similar to those adopted by the governments of Iran, Turkey, and Egypt to protect their archaeological heritage. The Iraqi Parliament subsequently passed a new, more restrictive law that stressed the antiquities were the property of the Iraqi nation.
Furthermore, the Iraqi government took steps to reclaim its cultural property from the Western countries. This action was part of Iraq's overall struggle to recover more control of its resources, both natural and cultural, from the Western powers. Thus, attempts at reclaiming its plundered past had begun. During these efforts, I argue, archaeology entered Iraqi politics in a profound manner, thereby laying the foundation for archaeology and nationalism to intersect and thus become inseparable in Iraqi politics in succeeding decades. This junction is the theme of my book and suggests, as previously mentioned, how intertwined archaeology, imperialism, and nationalism have been in the modern history of Iraq.
The time period under consideration in this book, especially between 1921 and 1941, is also interesting from a number of other angles. Like many other features of Middle Eastern political and cultural life, the politics of archaeology went through a "hybrid" transitional stage in which the state-building processes of the newly established nations left their mark on the practice of archaeology. Thus in an attempt to be more fully in control of their destiny, the new governments in the Middle East fought with the old imperial powers and structures in order to exercise full authority over cultural resources and assume the power to articulate a relevant and feasible history, based on their archaeological heritage.
The book starts in the "international" stage. The first chapter examines the early excavations that took place in Iraq in the nineteenth century. In particular, it analyzes the philosophical assumptions behind the archaeological enterprise in order to understand the Western impulse to appropriate Middle Eastern antiquities. The second chapter focuses on the first two decades of the twentieth century, especially the British occupation during World War I. The politics of the Mandate period (1921-1932) is the theme of the third chapter. During the Mandate, the British made critical decisions regarding the basic political institutions of the nascent state, including those related to archaeology. Chapter 3 describes the beginning of the hybrid stage of archaeological excavations, when foreign archaeologists were operating under prime conditions in Iraq and the Iraqi political establishment had only a passing interest in this archaeology.
The final two chapters focus on the development of the "national" period in Iraqi archaeology. In Chapters 4 and 5, I examine the increasing Iraqi involvement in the archaeological enterprise and the ensuing negotiations to gain full control of the nation's antiquities. The transformation of archaeology from being primarily a Western affair to one that Iraqis felt that they should dominate was drastic. Furthermore, the accompanying nationalism and the critical reassessment of the history of Iraq's relationship with Western powers generated a certain proprietary stance concerning Iraq's archaeological heritage. This development was coupled with the attempts of Western archaeologists and politicians to prevent any significant changes in archaeological policy in Iraq. It was essentially a battle of power—the battle over Iraq's historical artifacts was ultimately a struggle over Western involvement in the Middle East.
Two events, 130 years apart, reported in newspaper articles, one in London and one in Baghdad, best illustrate the level and nature of this transformation. On July 27, 1850, the Illustrated London News published a series of articles on recent archaeological excavations in the Middle East. It stated: "It is gratifying that England has not only rendered herself the first of the nations by those sterling qualities which so strongly characterize her natives—that she uses these means to extend and disseminate the wealth, and comfort, and advantages produced by the arts of civilization, at the same time that she administers happiness and contentment by inculcating the tenets of pure religion." This text was accompanied by an illustration that depicts the process of removing a one-hundred-ton sculpture, the Great Bull of Nimrud, from its site in Iraq to a transport ship bound for London, where it was installed and, to this day, remains in the British Museum. As C. M. Hinsley points out, the central contrast in this illustration lies between the passive, onlooking native population and the impressiveness of the British technological feat they were witnessing. Although the "local flagpole stands flagless, the Union Jack frames the right side of the picture."
One hundred thirty years later, in August 1980, a leading Iraqi governmental newspaper, al-Thawra (The Revolution), announced that Iraq had solicited a United Nations resolution calling for the restoration of antiquities to the country of their origin. The article explained the rationale behind the UN resolution: "The stele of Hammurabi awaits impatiently in the Louvre, and the library of Ashurbanipal is in the British Museum . . . [both] are languishing sadly . . . in the museums of the world and their inability to return to the homeland from which they emerged is a cultural calamity and a major crime." Several months later, when the French Prime Minister Raymond Barré visited Iraq to discuss an oil deal, he was stunned when the Iraqi president, Saddam Husayn, changed the topic of conversation and demanded that the Louvre return the stele of Hammurabi. Husayn believed that the stele was Iraqi property and that it would be most appropriate that France return the stele to Iraq.
In the Iraqi-scripted scenario, in contrast to the depiction in the Illustrated London News, the Iraqis were no longer passive onlookers but rather proactive initiators. They were not admiring the technology of foreigners but rather using their leverage as suppliers of oil to discuss the fate of antiquities. Furthermore, the Iraqis were taking an ethical and nationalist stance by accusing the French, and by extension the West more generally, of past cultural wrongdoing that should be remedied immediately. Husayn was interrupting sensitive, and potentially lucrative, negotiations in order to reclaim this cultural treasure from France. Yet in the end, the Iraqi government did not make the return of cultural property a condition for its economic relationship with France. To this day, the stele of Hammurabi still sits on display in the Louvre, leaving the question of its return unresolved. However, this symbolic moment suggests the degree to which Iraq's views of its antiquities had changed.
The twin themes of removal and return are indeed central elements in the historiography of archaeology. The discussion and illustration of the removal of antiquities in the Illustrated London News characterize how the history of archaeology in the Middle East has generally been written and interpreted. As Hinsley suggests, the entire process of archaeological retrieval was divisible into three stages that form a mental geography of the archaeological enterprise in the nineteenth century: the site of discovery and excavation, the means of transport, and the final resting place in a European urban center. The excavation site is typically presented as a barren landscape of the lost grandeur and the fate of ancient empires populated by a passive, unenlightened population. (The "empty space" motif is characteristic of nineteenth-century European and American travel literature describing the Middle East.) The means of transport (the ship) indicates the technological ingenuity and military prowess of Western civilization. Finally, the objects' resting place is represented by the sophisticated display in a museum or university where the object could be observed and appreciated by enlightened Europeans. Therefore, the final result of this discourse is to underscore the valuable contributions of the Western world in "discovering" and "preserving" these historical treasures for the benefit of humanity as a whole.
In contrast, the latter theme, return, traditionally has not been discussed in the literature on archaeology. In recent years, however, this theme has increasingly emerged as an important topic and will probably become the primary focus in the politics of archaeology in coming years. Especially in light of the looting of 2003, this issue will demand wide-ranging cooperation among relevant authorities. Because of the complex and controversial nature of this topic, in addition to its novelty, this theme has yet to be shaped.
In addition to analyzing the archaeological enterprise in Iraq and its connection to nation-building, this book also combines the removal and return themes by discussing the early, and largely unsuccessful, attempts by the Iraqis to reclaim cultural property from the Western world. The topic of removal, however, was the prominent subject in the time period under consideration, and, consequently, the bulk of my analysis examines the means through which Western institutions sought to maximize their access to Iraqi antiquities. Their attitudes, methods, and ultimate success may help explain why many Iraqis viewed these activities with suspicion; archaeology was not perceived to be a neutral science, but an integral part of the imperialist enterprise. Many Iraqis, often with good reason, came to view most of the earlier archaeological missions as aggressive campaigns to plunder Iraqi antiquities. Archaeology was a treasure hunt, and the prizes were on display in the West.
With the development of an Iraqi national consciousness, these antiquities, even though many had been exported under lawful conditions, became philosophically, politically, and emotionally part of the Iraqi heritage. Just as Westerners felt the urge to bring the antiquities "back home," Iraqis believed that these artifacts were Iraqi property destined to be restored to Iraqi soil. Mirroring so many aspects of the Western-Iraqi power struggle during the interwar years, archaeology was a contested terrain. Yet in contrast to their failure in other matters, such as controlling oil resources, the Iraqis were able to successfully challenge the stronghold in archaeology. As archaeological relics became the heritage of Iraqi culture, representing the sovereignty of Iraq over its land, treasures, and history, this heritage provided the Iraqi politicians with the pretext and the context to negotiate other features of their general political and economic relationship with Britain and other Western powers. In the decades after World War II, archaeology no longer served as a vehicle of anti-imperialism and the Iraqi state's assertion of its authority vis-à-vis Britain. Rather, the archaeological heritage became associated with the Husayn government. At sensitive and volatile political junctures, such as during the uprisings of 1991 and in 2003, archaeological sites were targeted by the general populace for not only their monetary value but also because of their links to governmental policy. Archaeology, therefore, played a significant role in helping promote nationalism in the age of decolonization of Iraq and provided tangible objects for defining the nation in the era of a strong, centralized nation-state.
The political and cultural history of archaeology in Iraq has thus witnessed numerous impressive cultural victories and at the same time depressing cultural calamities. What started out as the endeavor of a few committed individuals eventually became a massive state-sponsored and -sanctioned enterprise. Ultimately, the fate of Iraqi antiquities has been interlinked with the general political history of the area and the world at large.