American soldiers in Iraq have been issued with thousands of packs of playing cards urging them to protect and respect the country’s archaeological sites, in an effort to curb the destruction and plunder of Iraq’s antiquities.
Each card in the deck is illustrated with an ancient artefact or site, with tips on how to preserve archaeological remains and prevent looting.
The seven of clubs, for example, is illustrated with a photograph of the great Ctesiphon arch in Iraq, with the words: “This site has survived for seventeen centuries. Will it survive you?” The seven of spades declares: “Taking pictures is good. Removing artefacts for souvenirs is not.” The jack of diamonds is even more blunt. Alongside a picture of the Statue of Liberty, it asks: “How would you feel if someone stole her torch?” The effort to induce greater cultural awareness among US troops comes amid dire warnings from international archaeologists that Iraq’s ancient heritage is in greater peril than ever.
The looting of the Iraqi National Museum in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion caused widespread outrage, but with the security situation deteriorating, the robbery of ancient sites has accelerated to feed a booming illegal trade in stolen artefacts.
Last month Unesco gave warning that the building of a new police barracks near the Great Mosque of Samarra would make it a target for insurgents, endangering one of the country’s architectural gems. The minaret of Samarra, built by the Abbasid dynasty in the 9th century, was badly damaged in 2005 when American soldiers used it as a lookout post, and this summer Unesco designated Samarra an endangered World Heritage Site.
The six of clubs in the pack of Archaeology Awareness Playing Cards shows a photograph of the minaret, with the advice: “Respect ruins wherever possible. They protect you and your cultural history.”
About 50,000 of the special packs have been distributed to GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past month. Immediately after the invasion the US Department of Defence distributed a similar pack of cards showing the most wanted members of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The contrast between the two card packs indicates a shift of emphasis on the part of the US military, away from destroying the enemy and emphasising the battle for “hearts and minds”. But some experts say that the well-meaning effort to instil cultural sensitivity in the troops comes far too late.
In one of the most notorious incidents, US troops constructed a helicopter pad on the ruins of ancient Babylon, filling sandbags with remains from what was once the holy city of Mesopotamia. The US military base built five years ago on the site of the ancient city of Ur, believed to have been the home of the prophet Abraham, is also causing irreparable damage. Under the Hague Convention heritage sites should not be used as military bases. US officials said that the base at Babylon had been built to protect the site, a claim dismissed by most archaeologists.
Source: Times Online