November 7, 2011

RIP – the archaeologist who fought to protect Iraq’s treasures from the looters

Posted at 2:03 pm in Similar cases

Donny George – the Iraqi Archaeologist who tried to protect Iraq National Museum in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein recently died aged 60.

Daily Telegraph

Donny George
Donny George, who died on March 11 aged 60, was an Iraqi archaeologist who, following the 2003 invasion, fought a brave battle to prevent looters ransacking the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, then led efforts to recover thousands of stolen artefacts.
6:35PM GMT 15 Mar 2011

Ancient Mesopotamia — modern-day Iraq — was the cradle of urban civilisation, and Iraq’s National Museum is the main repository of its archaeological treasures, resonant with such names as Babylon, Nimrud, Asher, Uruk, Nineveh and Ur.

When the Allies invaded Iraq, George, an Assyrian Christian, was director of research at the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. In the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein, he fought his way through the chaos to report to the museum, but found that he could not persuade American troops to protect it by moving their tanks across the entrance because they had not been ordered to do so. It was a question about the looting that prompted American Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s laconic observation “Stuff happens”. Or as General Tommy Franks of Central Command said at a pre-war briefing when the subject of securing cultural sites came up, “I don’t have time for this —-ing bullshit!”

In the days that followed, hordes of looters, in pairs or in gangs, descended on the museum, carrying away what they could and smashing what they could not. George had to watch in horror, dodging bullets as he tried to stop them. Eventually, borrowing a satellite phone from a Channel 4 team, he called his friend John Curtis at the British Museum. “We are here with no protection, the museum has been looted, we are afraid that the looters will return and maybe set fire to this building,” George wailed. But despite his guess that British Museum director Neil MacGregor had managed to intervene with Tony Blair, tanks only arrived to guard the museum three days later.

Initial media reports suggested that the museum had been utterly ransacked, with 170,000 objects stolen or destroyed, but the truth was closer to 15,000. Many priceless collections, including a good part of the Treasures of Nimrud, had been locked in vaults of the Central Bank during the 1991 Gulf War and remained there during the 2003 looting.

In the days that followed George and his staff went to local mosques and asked imams to appeal for the return of loot. “It worked! I got my computer printer back, and a good number of the Nimrud ivories, some of them gilded,” he recalled. One day two men came to the museum with a statue of the Assyrian King Shalmanezer III and other priceless objects, which they had removed for safe keeping. Meanwhile George attended Interpol conferences and worked the phones and, over the next few years, other artefacts were recovered at airports and border crossings or returned by looters who had been granted an amnesty. Altogether he was instrumental in recovering about half the stolen antiquities.

George subsequently became head of the museum, then chairman of the antiquities board, replacing a cousin of Saddam Hussein. With support from museums from around the world, he worked to repair the damage, installing guard houses and building concrete barriers. He obtained aid from Italy to build a new Assyrian hall and started a conservation training programme. He also moved to protect Iraq’s many archaeological sites, establishing an archaeological police force, though the difficult security situation in the countryside means that its effectiveness has been limited.

George was the first Iraqi Christian to rise to the top of the country’s archaeological establishment, but his faith made him a target during worsening sectarian violence. To get to work he would use three different cars (to keep any assassins off his trail), varying his route and never leaving at the same time two days in a row. Several colleagues lost their lives.

The situation took a turn for the worse when, in 2005, a member of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Shiite political faction was appointed minister of tourism and antiquities. George claimed that the new appointee and his acolytes were only interested in preserving art from the country’s Islamic history and not from earlier periods, making his job impossible. The final straw was when his 17-year-old son received an envelope containing a bullet and a message that accused the youth of “cursing Islam, teasing Muslim girls” and having a father who was helping the Americans. In 2006 he fled Iraq for good.

Donny George Youkhanna was born on October 23 1950 on the old RAF base at Habbaniyah, Iraq, where his father worked as an accountant. He studied English Literature at Baghdad University, but switched to Archaeology, taking a master’s degree and a doctorate in Neolithic Studies.

After graduation he went to work for the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and participated in several major excavations at such sites as Nineveh and Babylon, where he served as field director for site restoration. Fluent in Neo-Aramaic, Arabic and English, he attended many international conferences, where he built up a network of contacts. He also became a member of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party — de rigueur for anyone in a senior position, though George often claimed that he worked on digs as far as possible from Baghdad to avoid party meetings.

In 1991, after the Kuwait war, nine of Iraq’s regional museums were looted and damaged by mobs, with the loss of more than 4,000 artefacts. Several museum staff lost their lives and George was shot at several times as he tried to stop the plundering. He was under no illusions about what would happen if Iraq was invaded and during the 1990s he warned repeatedly of the dangers.

After leaving initially for Damascus, George and his family settled in the United States, where he became a professor of anthropology, then of Asian studies, at Stony Brook University, New York.

Donny George, who was a drummer in a rock band in his spare time, is survived by his wife, Najat, and by a daughter and two sons.

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