A quest to save Iraq's looted treasures

Canadian Bahaa Mayah, the spirited ministerial adviser to Iraq's Tourism and Antiquities Ministry, is on a global mission to raise awareness of the continued pillaging of the country's cultural heritage.

Criminals and militants continue to plunder the country's heritage, Canadian says

When Bahaa Mayah fled his native Iraq in the late 1970s as a young employee in the Ministry of Foreign Trade, he must have known that no matter where he ended up, his life mission would bring him back to the country of his birth.

Recovered antiquities are displayed at the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad on April 27, 2008. That day, the museum welcomed home 701 artifacts stolen during looting after the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. ((Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press))

After working briefly in the Persian Gulf region, he eventually fell in love with Montreal, where he and his family settled in to a life in private business and consulting, and where he became a Canadian citizen.

Then, more than two decades later, after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, the dapper, well-trimmed Mayah headed back to Iraq to assist the country in a difficult transition. In a bizarre twist, he had to apply for an Iraqi visa with his Canadian passport in Amman, Jordan.

"Patriotism is not what you say, but it is what you do to your nation," Mayah said in Montreal on a recent visit.

Today, Mayah — who chastizes the Canadian government for its lack of involvement in the reconstruction effort in Iraq — is the spirited ministerial adviser to Iraq's Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. He is on a global mission to raise awareness of the continued looting and pillaging of Iraq's cultural heritage.  

Stopping the plunder

An impassioned Mayah alleges that organized criminal and militant networks, as well as some Iraqi political factions who are vying for influence, are engaged in the systematic plunder of Iraqi archeological sites.


Tune in to Dispatches on CBC Radio One on Monday, June 16, at 7:30 p.m. ET as Bahaa Mayah joins host Rick McInnes Rae.

In April 2003 alone, 15,000 pieces were looted from the Iraqi National Museum. While half of the documented items were recovered, Mayah estimates that almost 100,000 items have simply disappeared through the plunder of archeological sites themselves.

These objects include ancient texts, statues, jewelry and sculptures, Mayah said, and they often end up in Western auction houses or the hands of illicit traders and collectors. 

In order to halt the heisting of these treasures, he is lobbying for an international ban on the sale of archeological items originating from Iraq and a UN Security Council resolution on the issue. He insists that the proceeds of the sale of looted items are financing terrorism. 

"We would like to strip those antiquities of their commercial value," he said. "In this way we would discourage those mafia or smuggler networks in Iraq, the region, as well as internationally."

The dilemma: Who owns what?

While he cites progress, in the form of a recent U.S. law forbidding the sale of Iraqi artifacts taken out after August 1991, Mayah remains frustrated that other countries have not followed suit. And policing any law remains a challenge since cultural treasures that are smuggled out rarely have a paper trail, making it difficult to determine ownership.

A U.S. army tank is parked outside the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad in May 2003. The prior month, the museum saw 15,000 of its artifacts looted. ((Murad Sezer/Associated Press))

To combat the problem, Mayah has proposed the creation of an international committee of eminent archeologists and experts to determine the provenance and ownership of artifacts that come to market.

Rich in history because it was the home of several ancient civilizations, Iraq is dotted by archeological sites amid its 440,000 square kilometres of territory. But this bounty can prove precarious: in 2003, for example, severe damage was caused to the ancient site of Babylon when it was used as a military base by the U.S. and Polish armies.

"Heavy damage occurred in Babylon, a fact that is much witnessed and documented by UNESCO and other international organizations," Mayah says. "The damage is done, but now we have to remedy it to bring it back to the old situation."

And, citing the Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, he says it is the responsibility of the occupying powers to safeguard Iraq from illegal digging, smuggling or trading of the nation's patrimony.

Since 2005, Mayah has been spearheading a project to construct the Grand Iraqi Museum, an institution that would "represent civilizations, co-operation and not confrontation." The project, which he hopes will generate support from Canada, has been endorsed by the Islamic Council of Ministries of Tourism and numerous European countries. 

Violence turns personal

Even during his two decades away from Iraq, Mayah stayed involved in its politics. For many years before the U.S. invasion in 2003, he was part of the movement to promote democracy in Iraq. He witnessed the roller-coaster of initial euphoria at the fall of Hussein's government to the daily chaos in Baghdad today.

Neither Mayah nor his immediate family has been spared the violence and bloodshed in their native land. Two of his sisters were killed in attacks by militants, and he himself was forced to flee the country briefly after being threatened with a gun pointed at his head, in his own office.

"While I wanted to see democracy and law and order, I saw gangs storming my office and putting a pistol on my head," he said. "They are trying to control everything in life in Iraq, and this is an ongoing problem."

But Mayah returned, although his days are spent largely secluded in the relative security of Baghdad's Green Zone. He continues to be undeterred, however, in his mission.

"Iraq is the land of Mesopotamia, which belongs to all humans and not only Iraqis.... We do not accept a collateral damage on our identity, our history. This is not the history of Iraq alone but that of the human being. This is your history."

Andrew Princz is a travel writer based in Montreal.