First Published: 2003-07-10

Iraq's Nippur easy prey for looters

Ancient Mesopotamian city which boasts temple of Enil is in state of total decay after standing sacked by looters.


Middle East Online

By Bertrand Rosenthal - NIPPUR, Iraq

UNESCO sounded alarm over the state of Nippur

Nippur, a jewel of Iraq's glorious Mesopotamian past, today stands sacked by looters.

The city, 200 kilometres (120 miles) southeast of Baghdad, dates back to 5,000 BC and boasts the temple of Enil, principal god in the Sumerian pantheon.

Clay tablets have been discovered here, chronicling the lives of the Sumerians, Akadians and Babylonians, but all of that has been rooted out during the plague of looters that descended on antiquity sites across Iraq in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein's fall.

Perhaps this is the greatest indignity inflicted on the city abandoned by its denizens in the ninth century AD.

"The gang of thieves come armed in the night," says Jamil Fadhel, a retired professor living in the small village of Afak, seven kilometres (four miles) south of the archeological site.

In the midday heat, the site is empty, not a US soldier around, just camels and lambs alongside the irrigation ditches.

The locals seem to resent the US forces in the chaos and anarchy after the final chapter of Saddam's authoritarian regime.

"We do not need anything from the Americans. We can guarantee our own security," says Fadhel Marhab Lafta, a resident of Afak, but "we want them to protect the site".

"This is our civilisation," he said, adding before no thieves could sneak into this site, where great kings ruled including Hammurabi of Babylon who drafted one of the world's first known code of laws.

Mohammed Abdel Hadi, a 44-year-old labourer, said only once did US helicopters swoop down and try to scare off the looters.

Villagers from Afak say they will not travel to the site with armed escorts but admit that some looters operated even under Saddam's rule.

"At night, I hear the thieves," says Abbas Karmod, the site guard for the team from the University of Chicago that had conducted digs here periodically since 1980.

"We have no weapons," he says, while "the looters are well organised."

Professor Munir Buchenaki, deputy cultural director for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), sounded alarm over the state of Nippur and other historic sites Saturday.

"We were also sadly surprised by the decay, the lack of maintenance ... of historic buildings and monuments," he said, describing some as being of crucial cultural importance but in a state of total decay.

Isin, another Mesopotamian site, is also completely destroyed, he said.

"It is total destruction of an archaeological site. The site was supposed to be protected," Buchenaki said.

The head of the University of Chicago team, Mcguire Gibson, visited a month ago and since then a UNESCO team has toured the site.

But while goodwill missions study what to do, the pilfering in the cradle of civilisation carries on. Jordanian customs have recovered artifacts along its borders and at Amman airport.

The looting has been a scourge from the north to the south, with the sacking of the national museum in Baghdad the ultimate symbol of the rampant lawlessness since Saddam fell.


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