Cultural exchange that transcends battle lines as Britain and Iraq recreate world's oldest library

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The Independent Online

The inscription carved some 2,600 years ago inside the world's first library was unequivocal: "May all the gods curse anyone who breaks, defaces, or removes this tablet with a curse that cannot be relieved, terrible and merciless as long as he lives, may they let his name, his seed be carried off from the land, and may they put his flesh in a dog's mouth."

The inscription carved some 2,600 years ago inside the world's first library was unequivocal: "May all the gods curse anyone who breaks, defaces, or removes this tablet with a curse that cannot be relieved, terrible and merciless as long as he lives, may they let his name, his seed be carried off from the land, and may they put his flesh in a dog's mouth."

It was a warning that went unheeded 150 years ago when a British archaeological expedition excavated the ancient library in Nineveh, in what is now Iraq, and transported its 25,000 brittle clay tablets to London as a priceless record of life in the cradle of civilisation.

They have remained there ever since. But now, even as Britain and America ponder military action against Iraq, archaeologists from both sides of the divide are collaborating on a remarkable project to bring the library back to life on Iraqi soil. Undeterred by the rhetoric emanating from Downing Street and Washington, they are planning to send plaster casts of hundreds of the tablets to Iraq as the first step in recreating the library.

The project was conceived as recently as March when six Iraqi archaeologists were granted visas to attend a conference in London. Once in Britain, they were anxious to know from the British Museum whether casts could be made of the tablets to serve as the centrepiece of a revived library in Mosul, northern Iraq. A month later, Dr John Curtis, keeper of the Department of the Ancient Near East at the British Museum, was invited to Baghdad where, at a seminar on the reconstruction of Babylon by Saddam Hussein, he told his Iraqi colleagues the museum was prepared to help.

For the Iraqis, the decision has huge significance. The library, established by the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal, is of immeasurable importance. It was the first properly catalogued and systematically collated library in the ancient world. The tablets it contained, produced by scribes who were sent far and wide by the king, provided modern scholars with historical records, religious and political workings, folk tales and myths such as The Tale of Gilgamesh, part of which recounts details of a flood similar to the account given in the Book of Genesis.

King from 669 to 627BC, Ashurbanipal was a great warrior, hunter and a high priest of the god Assur. He trained as a scribe and is thought by scholars to have copied some of the works in his library himself.

"This is a very exciting project," said Mudhafar Amin, head of the Iraqi interests section at the Jordanian embassy in London. "During the war in 1991, many of our archaeological treasures were looted and later turned up on sale all over the world. We are immensely proud of our culture and heritage – our home was the cradle of civilisation. To recreate the library of Ashurbanipal will be a monumental achievement. The British [archaeologists] have worked in Iraq and know our country so well and know the archaeology, so they will be of great help.

"We are a peace-loving nation of people who appreciate our heritage and culture but all the impressions given over here are of claims about anthrax and chemical weapons and so on. These come from the likes of American politicians who could not even find Iraq on a map. If people could actually see what Iraq is really like, they would not be so hostile.

"When we communicate through music and heritage and culture and art, this is the way forward, not from the hostile impressions of politicians who know nothing about Iraq.

"This [project] is about civilisation, and it is the responsibility of Britain and America to behave in a civilised way. We have shown we can co-operate on a cultural level. We should not waste that with bombs and killing and war."

Dr Curtis was less political but equally enthusiastic about the Ashurbanipal project.

"Our agenda is purely a cultural one and part of our task is to maintain and improve cultural relations," he said. "The Iraqi government is interested in its cultural heritage but, since the Gulf War, there has been a lot of looting from museums and illegal excavation of artefacts. This project would help redress some of that.

"At the moment, the intention is to send over about as many casts as would be practical to form the basis of an exhibition. There would probably be several hundred, certainly less than a thousand. After that, digital images could be sent so eventually the entire contents of the library is restored."

Iraq has asked the UN's cultural body, Unesco, for help in funding the project, a request that Mr Mudhafar is confident will receive a positive response. Plans have been drawn up for the library in Mosul, to include a research centre for historians and archaeologists. But the building will not be a reconstruction of the original library that was spread through the king's palaces in Nineveh.

Alongside the library, a Saddam [Hussein] Institute for Cuneiform Studies will be established (for study of the ancient writing on the tablets). There are also plans to excavate one of the wings of the king's palace in Kuyunjik Mound, where archaeologists hope to find more tablets.

The new co-operation between the British Museum and the Iraqis is part of broader attempts to keep alive cultural and artistic ties. Last year, an Italian architect visiting London told police a 4,000-year-old stone head of the goddess Medusa, illegally smuggled out of Iraq, was on sale in a local antiques shop.

Regardless of the broken relations between Britain and Iraq, Scotland Yard's Art and Antiques Squad swung into action. A short time later, much to the astonishment of the delighted Iraqis, the Medusa was handed over to be sent back, a welcome restoration of heritage.

Such co-operation has not gone unnoticed at the Jordanian embassy where, in the absence of an Iraqi diplomatic presence, Mr Mudhafar has his office. It may explain why, unlike the Greeks' claims to the Elgin Marbles, there has been no demand yet from Iraq for the return of the original tablets.

Mr Mudhafar said: "Of course, they do belong to Iraq and there is even a UN programme for the return of valuable artefacts to their original country. But at the moment, no, there has been no request for their return.

"That is something that is open for negotiation."

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