Dhi Qar province is one of the most important governorates in terms of archaeological sites in Iraq. Their great historical, scientific and archaeological importance was recognized by excavation experts who visited the province throughout the last two centuries. They discovered dozens of monuments that increased our understanding of the antique Mesopotamia.

In Dhi Qar Governorate, there are more than 1200 archaeological sites that stretching through different periods of history. These sites are spread over vast surfaces in a number of areas all around the province, some of which are close to cities and others are still mere hills in the countryside. The latter areas are mostly unprotected, and over time, have become vulnerable to theft.

The archaeological sites far from the populated areas are considered to be the most vulnerable to theft and random excavation. Pillage has indeed destroyed many of the archaeological landmarks of Dhi Qar province. At the same time, since 2003 until today, authorities have not been able to provide adequate protection means to stop those thefts which have been a fatal blow to the archaeological reality in the governorate.

Neglect and indifference to archaeological sites during the past years contributed to the increase in the phenomenon of illegal excavation and smuggling of archaeological sites. In fact, many of the archeological sites in Dhi Qar Governorate are located in remote desert locations, easily accessible to thieves looking for valuable artefacts to smuggle, selling them at exorbitant prices.

The inception of smuggling

“In Iraq, there was a popular market specializing in looted antiquities. The antiquities that came out from Dhi Qar governorate were the most popular”, declared Ali Naim, a history researcher to the Red Line. But this situation was not always the norm.

He explains, “[Saddam Hussein’s] regime was harsh with antiquities smugglers and there were strict laws regarding the trading of antiquities. At the same time, the former leader contributed to promote a negative view of the archaeological sites by associating them to his own image in an attempt to make a link between Mesopotami’s royal heritage and his own regime. He also allowed amateurs to conduct excavations and to place modern buildings in ancient sites dating back thousands of years.

The instrumentalization of antiquities by the former regime and the chaos that followed its removal contributed to developing a general culture of antiquities smuggling trade, which led to a massive crisis. Furthermore, many people of the governorate who live near the archaeological sites and that used to work under the supervision of archeological campaigns lost their job during the sanctions and used their knowledge acquired during legal excavation campaigns to raid these same sites, as Naim explains.

Naeem confirms that in the early nineties there was a huge wave of illegal excavation on archaeological sites despite the existence of preventive laws. Nevertheless, the majority of people did not stop looting these sites, extracting artefacts and then selling them in the local market through hidden intermediaries only known within the circles of antiquity smuggling.”

The excavation of archaeological sites is not a new thing, as confirmed by expert and archaeological researcher, Ali Al-Rubaie : “During the sanctions against the Baath regime in the nineties, there was an explosion of illegal excavation inside archaeological sites. Despite the existence of deterrent legal penalties, the phenomenon went on “, Al-Rubaie explained.

Al-Rubaie explains, “There are many factors that led people to persist in excavating sites, including a rejection of the authority at that time. Raiders often considered the looting of antiquities as part of their rights that they had been barred from practicing. Also, hundreds of young people learned how to dig professionally by working with Iraqi excavation missions that began at the end of the 1990s and ended before the fall of Saddam’s regime. Thus, they gained experience in locating precious artefacts in archaeological sites.

After 2003, the theft of antiquities from archaeological sites did not stop, on the contrary. A new generation appeared, searching for artifacts. The site of Tall Al-Jokha, which is the Sumerian Kingdom of Uma, some 400 km south of Baghdad in the Dhi Qar province is one of the most vulnerable sites in regard theft.

According to archaeologists, there are no accurate statistics about the size and number of artifacts that were stolen from Dhi Qar archaeological sites. Most of them are from the first Sumerian era (4th millenium B.C.) and were smuggled through Turkey, Iran, Syria and Jordan.

The police forces specialized in protecting antiquities in Dhi Qar governorate prevented two smuggling attempts in September 2020. The police engaged in an armed pursuit with several armed groups during two separate stealing operations in Tall Al-Jokha.

Monitoring the excavation process

According to security sources, the antiquities police managed to recover 438 antiquity pieces after conducting two armed chases in 2020. These antiquities included coins and many pottery pieces that were looted in Tall Al-Jokha. A few kilometers away from this location, the police managed to find eight archaeological pieces and 92 antique nails at the site of Tal Schmidt.

By the end of August 2020, the police confirmed that a citizen had given back 165 archaeological pieces to the Nasiriyah Cultural Museum that had been in his possession for several years. It is believed that he was one of the workers excavating the archaeological sites during the past years, as the police did not reveal either the identity of the person, the size of the artifacts nor the historical value of the retrieved artefacts.

In the summer of 2003, the highest religious authority known to the Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa prohibiting the theft of antiquities and the excavation of archaeological sites. He called for the return of the stolen pieces to the museum and the relevant authorities. Many people who had found in the theft of antiquities a way to livelihood were prompted by this fatwa to give back stolen antiquities. Thus, it contributed clearly to mitigate the phenomenon of excavating archeological sites. Nevertheless, some gangs do remain active in this field.

Active gangs

According to the Director of the Dhi Qar Antiquities Inspectorate, Mr. Taher Quinn,Tall Al-Jokha is the archaeological site that has suffered the most from ransacking in the governorate since the nineties until now. “Vandalism has increased significantly since last year, especially after the governorate witnessed violent protests, followed by the outbreak of the Corona pandemic. These major incidents caught most of the attention of the police forces which in contrast, limited their attention to the protection of archaeological sites. Since then, these sites suffered from a renewed wave of rampage and looting.”, he added.

Mr. Quinn explained: “There are more than 1,200 archaeological sites distributed over the governorate. These sites are characterized by their large surface and do not have adequate protection. The existing guards do not have weapons, as they are prohibited by the Ministry of Interior. Therefore, any armed group can enter any site and the guards cannot face them. “

Quinn continued his parole saying: “As for the Tall Al-Gokha site, the problem is exacerbated. There are only 14 guards divided in the form of shifts, but the large surface of ​​the site, which provides no amenities for the guards, it is impossible to be permanently present in the heart of the archaeological site. The number of guards is already not enough and this makes the site vulnerable to theft. “

In 2020, the Department of Antiquities and the Provincial Police Command held an expanded meeting after repeated attempts of robbery, excavation and vandalism of the archaeological sites. Mr. Quinn asserted that during the meeting, it had been agreed that the antiquities police would patrol the archeological sites and that the guards would remain present on site to prevent smuggling of antiquities following the instalaltion of adequate commodities.

On his side, former Minister of Culture and Tourism Abdul Amir Al-Hamdani explained that since 2003, a special force has been created to protect archaeological sites: “[some] 250 qualified and trained personnel equipped with weapons, wheels, means of communication and maps monitors the archeological areas by conducting day and night patrols, setting up checkpoints and collecting information about thieves and smugglers. It is also abilitated to seize antiquities and recover artifacts from smugglers and illegal traders. “

This surveillance unit has been added to the protection forces operating in facilities such as schools, hospitals, departments and banks. Nevertheless, most archaeological sites remain unprotected, except by a few civilian guards. “Furthermore, there are many archaeological sites located far from villages, cities and population centers.”, the former Minister concluded.

Despite the efforts made by the Antiquities and the local police, the forces involved in protecting archaeological sites remain insufficient to face the continuous targeting of antiquities, especially in the Al-Jokha region and its surroundings, according to al-Hamdani. This force must be supported to be able to conduct site inspections, day and night patrols and to follow up and collect information about thieves and antiquities dealers.

Most of the looted archaeological sites are ancient sites dating back several millennia. In Dhi Qar, there are still more than 400 archaeological sites dating back to the time of the Islamic era, which have not yet been excavated. It is expected that these sites contain important archaeological pieces that are not less important than the ancient archaeological sites. It would be wise to organize their excavation before tomb raiders find them first.

VIAAlaa Koli