Donny George's Exile and the State of the SBAH

November 11, 2006 Francis Deblauwe IW&A Documents, 10

I think it would be useful to recapitulate the events that surrounded Dr. Donny George Youkhanna's departure from Iraq. On August 26, 2006, it became known (Harris) that Dr. George, the Chairman of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), formerly its Director General of Museums/Director of the National Museum in Baghdad (and before that Director General of Research and Studies), had left Iraq. Along with his family he had fled to Damascus (Syria) because he had finally come to the painful conclusion that it was impossible to do his job: protecting the archaeological heritage of Iraq. To be honest, I for one was pretty amazed he held out for as long as he did. Being a relatively high-profile and Christian government official of long standing with frequent appearances in the western media surely had long made him a target for insurgents of all stripe.

Dr. George received his doctorate in archaeology from the University of Baghdad in 1995. He has participated in and eventually led many excavations throughout his career at the SBAH since 1976. He last directed the project at Umm el-Aqarib, a salvage dig of sorts to thwart looters that were becoming more of a problem even before the Iraq War. See the select bibliography at the bottom for a hint of his scientific career. In early August, when it became clear that the internationally renowned and respected Dr. George no longer enjoyed the support of the Minister of State of Tourism and Archaeology, he filed for his retirement rather than be fired. It was immediately granted. The minister, Liwa Sumaysim, is a dentist by training and a member of Muqtada el-Sadr's radical Shi'ite party in the governing coalition of Nuri el-Maliki. Ever since the beginning of his tenure earlier this year, he seems to have been engaged in a systematic campaign of replacing seasoned archaeological and museum professionals with ideological party apparatchiks with little or no relevant knowledge, esp. regarding pre-Islamic periods. Burhan Shakir, Director General of Excavations, was ousted as well as the inspector for antiquities in Dhi Qar province, Abd el-Amir Hamdan. The latter was arrested in April on corruption charges and thrown in jail for three months; the charges were eventually dropped. He had been very active in protecting sites in his region and has now been replaced by a Sadrist-allied Fadhila party loyalist. Rumor has it that looting is on the upswing in Dhi Qar province although the Italian Carabinieri's wrapping up of their Iraq mission has to be a major factor in this too. Dr. George's good contacts with foreign colleagues, essential to secure assistance now and to prepare for the future of the field in Iraq, were severely also frowned upon by the Sadrist ideologues.

Furthermore, the budget of the SBAH has become more and more dire. The measly 1400-strong archaeological protection force that is supposed to guard the 10,000s of archaeological sites would no longer be paid starting in September. When the National Museum in Baghdad will ever be reopened again remains an open question. Entrances have been walled off with concrete to try to stave off looters and insurgents in the event law and order totally break down in Iraq's capital. Dr. George ordered this done as one of his last acts of office before leaving.

Official reactions from the ministry have been interesting and at least partially contradictory. Minister Sumaysim offered this reaction: "'These are lies,' ... The minister insisted that he was interested in all of the archaeology and antiquities of Iraq, not only its Islamic heritage. And he rejected Mr George's reported claim that the 1400-strong special antiquities protection force was running out of funding, risking further looting at Iraq's thousands of archaeological sites. The minister said Mr George had left Iraq without telling him, and despite their differences, he said he would be welcome back." (Wooldridge) "Mr. Talaqani, the ministry spokesman, ... accused Mr. George of trying to make himself look besieged in order to apply for asylum in the United States or Europe." ( Wong) And a 3rd version (Gulf News): "In Baghdad, Haider Farhan, a senior official at the ministry [actually George's successor's deputy], said George's departure was a regular retirement after three decades of service. 'We are surprised by his remarks about working under [political] pressure,' he said. 'That is completely baseless.'" I don't know, call me biased but I have a hard time believing the ministry's version of events. Also, as Dr. Juan Cole states, "... [Dr. George] mentions Sadrists taking over the ministry, which is ironic, since they are reputed to fund themselves by antiquities smuggling..." They most certainly are not the only ones involved in this nefarious trade, but still...

Apart from the tired old jabs at Dr. George's supposed hardcore Ba'athist past (see Tompa), some more serious criticism is raised regarding his and his colleagues', Western as well as Middle Eastern, possibly narrow view of archaeology in Iraq. Dr. Alastair Northedge who himself has done fieldwork in Samarra, writes:

"Dr George has worked tirelessly since the invasion in 2003, to protect and recover the antiquities then pillaged from the museum. I have the highest admiration for what he has done. He was and is the right person to interface with Western archaeologists, for the recovery of smuggled artefacts and getting help from Western institutions. I suspect that relations with his own government were by no means so warm. The problem is not that he is a Christian, or that he was a Ba’th party official. In my experience, he did not have a great interest in the Islamic heritage, and no doubt this communicated itself to superiors, whose main interest is indeed Islam. Frequently, archaeologists in Arab countries follow the role models provided by their Western counterparts. Dr George is one of them. Overwhelmingly, Western archaeologists in the Middle East concentrate on the ancient cultures—Egypt, Mesopotamia, Biblical archaeology, etc.—no doubt seen as the ancestors of their own culture. Medieval Islam is of little interest. In a recent meeting in Paris, intended to relaunch French excavations in Iran, there were 23 ancient expeditions, and one Islamic. Not an untypical example. Many of my colleagues have a genuine goodwill towards more recent studies, but others have no interest at all, and it shows. It would not be surprising if less well-informed Muslims—I do not speak of the cultivated middle classes, who have a genuine interest in their past—were to see the archaeology of the Middle East as in some way belonging to the foreigners and not to themselves. ... In addition, of course, Islam has a revolutionary tradition, that is, Islam replaced earlier civilisations which were considered to be decadent."

"Islamist governments, that is, governments of people with more or less fundamentalist Islamic opinions, are a fact of life in the Middle East these days. There may be more tomorrow. Some effort has to be made to deal with them, in order to protect the archaeological heritages of the countries they govern. ... The actual activities of an Islamist-type government are in fact variable. The most extreme case was the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan [in Afghanistan] in 2001. In that case, the act seemed to be carried out precisely because there would be an international outcry against it. It was a way of revenging themselves on the West. In the case of the Shi’i administration in Baghdad, ... there have been only words so far. Al-Sadr is alleged to have said that it was acceptable to loot pre-Islamic sites. But there is little evidence so far of faith-based looting or destruction in Iraq. Professor Elizabeth Stone of Stonybrook University has said: 'What is striking is that the Islamic parts are left alone, whereas the immediate pre-Islamic sites are not.' It is true that there has been little looting of Islamic sites in proportion to ancient sites, but it is a difference that goes back to 1991, and has economic origins. Islamic objects from Iraq are not seen as having the same financial value. On the other hand, in Iran, an Islamist-type regime has come to terms with its archaeological heritage, and images of the pre-Islamic Iranian past are used again for national representation. ... Archaeology is more commonly associated with nationalism, and Islam has a more transnational character as a source of identity. In the short term, the interplay of Islam and nationalism needs to be exploited to defend archaeology. In the long term, a concerted effort needs to be made to sensitise Muslim populations to their magnificent archaeological, architectural and artistic heritages."

I guess there are always two sides to a coin... Finally there's also the personal safety aspect. Dr. George lived in the Dura neighborhood of Baghdad which has grown ever more insecure. Recently, his 19-year-old son was threatened: a letter with a bullet was sent accusing him of having insulted a Muslim girl and demanding a hefty sum of money. Dr. George has ruled out returning any time soon. He warned that Iraq was "living in an undeclared civil war."

Where do we go from here? The museum and archaeology institutions in the West have officially reacted by saying that they wish to continue their co-operation with the SBAH and so on. The proof will be in the pudding though. Most projects have already been scaled down substantially if not put on hold or cancelled altogether, so I don't really see how this is going to help... Initially, the minister quickly placed a party-loyalist at the head of the SBAH, Haider Farhan, who is said to have a background in Islamic manuscripts. Dr. George was dismissive of his qualifications to say the least. Soon enough however, Dr. Abbas Al-Hussainy from el-Qadissiyyah University was appointed as Chairman ( Jones and Kolinski). He was originally trained as an Egyptologist but did direct excavations in Iraq such as at Marad in 2004-2005 (see Dolatowska and Jegliński on the excavations at Tell el-Sadum, ancient Marad). Haider Farhan serves as his deputy. The Director General of Museums/Director of the National Museum is now Amira Eidan, another Sadrist.

Dr. George is now visiting London (UK) where he is attending the Archaeology in Conflict Conference conference (see my October 26 IW&A Blog post Preview: Archaeology in Conflict Conference, London). He will also be lecturing on the plight of Christians in Iraq at the School of Oriental and African Studies this coming Monday ( AssyriaTimes.Com) and on the archaeological heritage of Iraq at the British Museum on Thursday (see my October 30 IW&A Blog post Dr. George to lecture at BM).


• A. Dolatowska and A. Jegliński, "Cultural Heritage," in Multinational Division Central-South (Poland), online, April 27, 2005
• L. Harris, "Iraq’s top cultural official resigns. Donny George says lack of money and growing interference from anti-Western Shi’ite party are his reasons for leaving his post," in The Art Newspaper (UK), August 26, 2006
• N. Glass, "Iraqi archeologist flees country," in C4 News (UK), August 26, 2006, with audio
• M. Wooldridge, "Leading Iraq archaeologist flees," in BBC News (UK), August 26, 2006
• M. Howard, "Saviour of Iraq's antiquities flees to Syria," in The Guardian (UK), August 26, 2006
• J. Cole, " Amara Base Looted as British Withdraw[;] Qadiri Sufi Order Declared Jihad on Americans, Shiites," in Informed Comment, August 26, 2006, esp. comment by Alasdair [Northedge ?]
• E. Wong, " Director of Baghdad Museum Resigns, Citing Political Threat," in The New York Times, August 28, 2006
• "Iraq archeologist flees to Syria," in Monsters & Critics (UK), August 28, 2006
• "Iraq's Heritage Critically Endangered," in Archaeology, online, August 28, 2006
• M. Jansen, "World heritage in Iraq at risk, again," in Jordan Times (Jordan), August 31, 2006
• " Historian resigns amid claims of fundamentalism," in Gulf News (United Arab Emirates), August 31, 2006
• M. Garen and M.-H. Carleton, "New Concern Over Fate of Iraqi Antiquities," in The New York Times, September 9, 2006
• Ch. Jones, " President of the SBAH," in Iraqcrisis, September 14, 2006
• N. Parker, "Fears for ancient treasures with Shia radical in charge," in The Times (UK), September 15, 2006
• M. Garen and M.-H. Carleton, "Archaeologists worry that Iraq will erase its pre-Islamic history," in Arkansas Democrat Gazette. Northwest Arkansas Edition, September 28, 2006
• P.K. Tompa, " FW: 'Stuff Happens Again in Baghdad,'" in Iraqcrisis, online, September 29, 2006
• S. Senanayake, " Iraq: Antiquities Continue To Be Pillaged, Destroyed," in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (Czech Republic), October 12, 2006
• Ph. Adams, " Baghdad to Beirut - Survival of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage," in Late Night Live (ABC Radio National; Australia), with online audio, October 17, 2006
• F. Deblauwe, "Preview: Archaeology in Conflict Conference, London," in IW&A Blog, online, October 26, 2006
• R. Kolinski, "Re: [ANE-2] Baghdad's National Museum in danger," in ANE-2, online, October 26, 2006
• F. Deblauwe, " Dr. George to lecture at BM," in IW&A Blog, online, October 30, 2006
• A. Northedge, "Muslims need to be sensitised to their own material past," in The Art Newspaper (UK), November 2, 2006
• " Dr. Donny George to Speak on the Dilemma of Iraqi Christians," in AssyriaTimes.Com (UK), online, November 4, 2006
• B. Bowder, "Iraqi archaeologist quits after threats," in Church Times (UK), 7496 (November 10, 2006)

Select bibliography of Dr. George

• D. George Youkana, Tell es-Sawwan: The Architecture of the Sixth Millenium B.C. (EDUBBA, 5), London, 1997 [based on his MA dissertation of 1987]
• D. George Youkhanna and H. Abdul Wahed, "Temple 'H' at Umm al Aqarib," in L. Al-Gailani Werr, J. Curtis, H. Martin, A. McMahon, J. Oates and J. Reade (eds.), Of Pots and Plans: Papers on the Archaeology and History of Mesopotamia and Syria presented to David Oates in Honour of his 75th Birthday, London, 2002, pp. 379-385
• D. George, Iraq Museum Policy for Access to the Collection for Study (IW&A Documents, 2), Kansas City, 2004
• D. George, "Foreword," in A.M.H. Schuster and M. Polk (eds.), The looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad: The lost legacy of ancient Mesopotamia, New York, 2005, pp. 1-4
• D. George, "The Stone Industries in Tell es-Sawwan in the Sixth Millennium B.C.," in print

Francis Deblauwe

The Iraq War & Archaeology Project
Streamwood, IL

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