Looting of artifacts within the Middle East has long since been an issue that appears to have no foreseeable resolution. This epidemic even dates back over thousands of years, such as during the ancient Mesopotamian era. A prime example of this relates to the stele of King Naram-Sin of Akkad, which was taken as war plunder and relocated in Susa, Iran. It was also interestingly one of the first known art pieces to be looted in war. With this set understanding that looting has occurred essentially since human existence, a particular point that two articles published in Art Journal by Zainab Bahrani and John Malcolm Russell touched upon was the well-publicized looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad in April of 2003. Another article in Al Jazeera that was written by Stephennie Mulder discussed lootings and the illegal sale of those artifacts, which she referred to as “blood antiquities,” that occurred in Syria and Iraq. All of that being said, if certain necessary steps are taken, these issues on theft could gradually begin to be resolved.
What may be viewed as the central argument within the aforementioned readings would be whether there are any known means to restrict the looting, and if so, what measures should be taken up to resolve the problem. Both the Russell and Bahrani articles were featured in the same magazine, so they addressed numerous commonalities, such as the cultural and personal significance behind these stolen artifacts and their relationship to their points of origin, whereas the Mulder article was a bit more technical, tackling the political side to these looting issues. A general agreement that all of these articles did seem to reach regarded the meaning behind the artifacts. It was not just the tragedy of losing irreplaceable artifacts, but more about the significance behind them. These items represented the country’s heritage and the people’s identities; therefore, once they were ripped unceremoniously from their locations, that identity was seemingly lost forever. With all of that said, personally, I feel that a clear way to truly begin to put an end to these lootings and thefts so as to preserve these meaningful objects would be via stricter security on the exportation of goods in and out of these countries, so as to better track the objects. To achieve such a feat, it seems clear that the economic and political situations in this region would need to be improved upon before any major changes could commence. To appropriately achieve more stringent security regarding the exportation of these goods, tracking systems within museums and airports would need to be implemented, or at the very least updated, as well as an overall governmental adjustment to curtail any further economic crises within the Middle East. These are not simple tasks to be done overnight; however, if other countries and institutions could step up and lend a hand, a remarkable difference could be underway.
My first point that I intend to expound upon pertains to the security within institutions, such as museums and airports. As Mulder points out in her article entitled The Blood Antiquities Funding ISIL, the real place that looting affects is in quiet showrooms and museums. On the final page, she says that by auction houses playing up connections of lost or endangered objects simply to boost sales, they are condoning this looting problem, simply to make a profit. “Collectors who imagine they are saving the artifacts from a worse fate delude themselves: Objects summarily ripped from the ground disappear into private collections and lose their ability to speak as material voices of history, robbed of the context that careful excavation by archaeologists and curation by museums can provide” (Mulder 4). I bring all of this in to relate it to my point on current lax regulations in airports and auction houses or museums, where these stolen artifacts are often headed. The looters themselves certainly do not care about the historical or cultural value behind the artifacts and monuments that they take; all they care about is making a profit off of the situation. Mulder briefly touches on this subject, which made me want to investigate further into security regulations and laws, and it certainly seems that there could be stricter protocols where these artifacts are concerned. I am obviously no expert on such matters; however, I feel that heightened security surrounding these artifacts could very well stop the lootings before they occur. If they did still continue to happen, hopefully a tracking system of sorts would be in place so as to know exactly where they are heading and stop the object’s departure, as well as pinpoint precisely what groups instigated the thefts. An effective way to know if an object has in fact been legally obtained would be through official export licenses from the countries in question so as to properly determine whether it should leave the country or not.
The second point that relates to looting that could be changed would be improving the economies and governments within the Middle East. This is certainly not a feat that could be easily achieved or even welcomed with open arms. Despite this, it seems that a change in their economy would vastly improve this situation, because the people could afford to have tightened security, and possibly less corruption so as to stop the crimes before they ever occur.
Bahrani and Russell said these lootings were not simply thefts of precious artifacts, but a destruction of the country’s identity and heritage. In what I think is an interesting excerpt from the Bahrani article, she says, “The reason that international laws on cultural heritage (such as the Hague Convention) exist is precisely because people’s sense of communal identity is defined in relation to a shared culture and history” (Bahrani 13). This quote stood out to me because she is clearly stating that the looters took more than just inanimate objects, but the people’s identities as well. Therefore, reforming the economy would drastically reduce these crimes, therein preserving their rich heritage. As pointed out in a New York Times article, President Obama was quoted as saying that Iraqi Sunnis are “detached from the global economy,” with which the author, Michael Singh, seems to generally agree (Singh Paragraphs 1 and 2). Singh goes on to say that the economies of the Middle East only account for just over four percent of global imports, which incidentally is even less than they did in the 1980s (Singh Paragraph 3). This all clearly alludes to the fact that the economies within this region need to be improved, so as to create a better environment and less potential room for crime. One of the ideas that Singh listed as a potential way to change their economy would be in relation to oil. He says, “America should also promote greater economic integration by cooperating with wealthy oil producers to invest in the prosperity of their poorer neighbors, and by offering Middle Eastern states better access to Western markets, especially the European Union” (Singh Paragraph 15). This is possibly one of the simplest ideas, yet I personally feel it is a strong one. By offering these states access to Western markets, they would not have to rely so heavily upon oil sales, thereby drastically changing the way their economy operates. The article continued to discuss the ways in which radical change could occur, and what steps could be taken to improve it. Singh said, “Oil importers need to replace costly fuel subsidies with targeted assistance to the poor and the creation of social safety nets,” […] “…ease their dependency on external aid, reduce corruption, and make regulatory changes to encourage private-sector growth” (Singh Paragraph 13).
To appropriately achieve more stringent security regarding the exportation of these goods, tracking systems within museums and airports would need to be implemented, or at the very least updated, as well as an overall governmental adjustment to curtail any further economic crises within the Middle East. One specific idea that I mentioned was in relation to instituting a stronger, more detailed tracking system on the objects being exported, as well as better checking on proper exportation paperwork, so hopefully the artifacts would only be allowed to leave the original location by legal means. Another idea was improving the Middle East’s fragmented economies, through means such as access to different markets so as to lessen the pressure on oil sales. While these ideas may not be the absolute solution to handling looting and destruction of precious artifacts in the Middle East, they are certainly a promising start.
Mulder, Stephennie. “The Blood Antiquities Funding ISIL.” Al Jazeera. November 14, 2014. Accessed February 2, 2015.
Bahrani, Zainab. “The Real Middle East Crisis is Economic.” Art Journal 62, no. 4 (Winter 2003): 10-17.
Russell, John Malcolm. “Why Should We Care?” Art Journal 62, no. 4 (Winter 2003): 22-29.
Singh, Michael. “Iraq’s Cultural Heritage: Monuments, History, and Loss.” New York Times. August 14, 2014. Accessed February 2, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/20/opinion/the-real-middle-east-crisis-is-economic.html?_r=1.