Treasures of Babylon are moved as bombers strike

They are packing away the fabulous treasures of Assyria, Sumeria and Babylon at the archaeological sites and the museum at Mosul in preparation for the war to come, a lesson learnt from the damage inflicted in raids by American and British bombers in the Gulf War, and the looting which followed in its immediate anarchic aftermath.

As Manhal Jabar, the director of antiquities, talks of his worries that still far too much will be left exposed, a droning air-raid siren begins to sound – American and British planes are once again in the sky enforcing the northern "no-fly zone".

The city and its hinterland has been repeatedly targeted by the allies. Last month they destroyed the radar at the airport. Now, the fate of the priceless antiquities at Mosul is causing deep international worry. Mr Jabar was in London last March discussing the problem with British specialists, including Professor David Oates of Cambridge and John Curtis of the British Museum.

Two ancient sites were damaged by American bombs in 1991 while a leaning minaret built in 640 narrowly escaped destruction in 1994.

"It is obviously something that is causing unease. If there is war, and they are saying this war is going to be even worse than 1991, then we must accept there will be losses to this heritage," said Mr Jabar. " But this is not a loss just to Iraq, but to the whole world. The first written word came from here, so many ideas about art and music originated here. It will be a terrible tragedy."

The plan is to move the antiquities to underground vaults, the locations of which are being kept secret, not least to prevent the kind of systematic theft which took place in 1991, when the regime lost control of parts of the country.

Stolen items from museums and sites ended up on the black market in Europe and North America.

Among the wealth of archaeology surrounding Mosul is Nimrud, which became the second capital of Assyria in 1283 BC.

There are British links with the discoveries. Austen Henry Layard's unearthing of the Assyrian Palaces at Nimrud was revealed in The Illustrated London News of 1840. Agatha Christie spent time in Mosul in the early 1950s while her husband, the renowned archaeologist Max Mallowan, took part in the excavation at Nimrud. Her stay provided the inspiration for two of her books, Murder in Mesopotamia, and They Came to Baghdad.

Also near by are the sites at Nineveh, the cultural centre of the Sumerian and Babylonian empires and the capital of Sennacherib. There, Iraqi and European teams have uncovered a series of ancient treasures including palaces. There is also Hatra, an outpost of the Parthian empire, which has yielded valuable artefacts. Work in these, and other sites, has now been suspended because it is considered too risky.

Some of the treasures from the various sites were taken away to the West, especially the United Kingdom. Most of them, including a remarkable number of heads of statues, ended up at the British Museum.

Saba al-Omari, an Iraqi curator, said: "We have asked for a lot of things back, but they have refused, saying it is too dangerous. They threaten to bomb us, and then they say they cannot return our heritage because it is simply too dangerous. An interesting proposition, don't you think? This is a place of different religions and cultures. The people should not have to live under such a threat of war to themselves and their history."

Among those living in the region are the Yezidis – Kurds who draw their religious beliefs from a mixture of Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity and paganism.Their esoteric taboos include wearing blue and eating lettuce. The Yezidi shrine at Ain Sifni, north east of Mosul is one of the places of heritage considered to be at risk.

Mosul is also a centre of Christianity in Iraq, although the numbers of Syrian Catholics have dwindled with emigration and Christians now constitute 20,000 out of the population of 1.5 million.

At the oldest church, St Thomas's, built on the site of the house occupied by the apostle during his visit to the city, Father Pius talks about the seemingly unstoppable momentum towards war.

Another church, St Joseph's and a church school were destroyed during the Gulf War.

"It is crazy, and all the European people I meet say it is a crazy thing to do, but the Americans seem determined," he said. "There must be a way to resolve this through talking. We have already seen death and destruction in Mosul, it is a terrible waste of human life. There is a culture here which is pre-Christian, but it belongs to humanity. I hope it stays safe."

The churches in Mosul will be holding inter-denominational vigils for peace. "That is all we can do, the rest is up to God", said Father Pius, spreading his palms in supplication.

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