Iraq fears new wave of antiquities smuggling as ISIS controls hundreds of ancient mounds

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By Tamara Abdulrazzaq

Azzaman, June 23, 2014

The advancing Jihadists of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have now more than 400 Mesopotamian mounds under their control, particularly in northern Iraq, said a senior Antiquities Department officials.

Ali al-Hashemi, the department’s spokesperson, said ISIS had three major Assyrian metropolises within the territory it currently controls including Nineveh and Nimrud.

“The Ministry of Tourism and Culture is trying to preserve (Iraq’s) cultural heritage from terrorist operations, particularly in the provinces of Nineveh and Salahudeen,” Hashemi said.

Hashemi did not spell out what the ministry, of which the Antiquities Department is a directorate-general, could do since government sentries and guards in charge of protecting the sites have fled.

However, he admitted that more than “400 archaeologically significant sites (in the two provinces) are under threat of illegal diggers and smugglers.”

He said the ministry feared a repetition of the events that immediately followed the 2003-U.S. invasion of Iraq, when the Iraq Museum and many other provincial museums were plundered.

“We are scared and afraid of smuggling and plunder of ancient mounds,” he said.

The three Assyrian cities in northern Iraq, which ISIS controls, have their own small museums with priceless reliefs, statues and other antiquities preserved in situ to attract tourists.

Ashur, Nineveh and Nimrud were once capitals of Assyrian Empire, whose borders stretched to the Mediterranean.

Hashemi said the government has spent “massive money” restoring these cities.

He cited what he called “the big project” to preserve the royal cemetery in Nimrud. “All those efforts are in danger,” he said.