Smuggled Iraqi treasures seized at Dubai airport

Iraqi artefacts, described as "priceless national treasures", have been seized while they were being smuggled through Dubai International Airport.
The catch included three statues, a vase and coins dating back more than a thousand years.
The catch included three statues, a vase and coins dating back more than a thousand years.

DUBAI // Iraqi artefacts, described as "priceless national treasures", were seized while they were being smuggled through Dubai International Airport, customs officials said yesterday. The haul included three bronze statues, an ornamental vase, a glazed pottery cup and coins more than 1,000 years old. An inspector at the airport's Free Zone Inspection Centre found the items hidden inside a parcel that contained chair padding, part of a larger consignment of furniture.

The collection was allegedly bound for an Arab dealer, who has been arrested, Dubai Customs said. The items were of "high archaeological value", dating to the Sassanid period, from 226 to 651 AD, and the Hellenistic era, which started in 323 BC and lasted 300 years. Experts said the antiquities, if authentic, were hugely significant. "Anything from the Hellenistic era has great historical significance, especially from Iraq," said Robert Bauval, an archaeologist and historian, who has spent more than 20 years studying architectural wonders.

"If authentic, this may be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Museums may not pay as much for it, which is why it is sold in the black market." Mohammed al Merri, the executive director of cargo operations at Dubai Customs, said: "The items predate Iraq and Iran. Their ownership is not yet identified, they are national treasures and no value could be placed on them because they are priceless.

"They have come into Dubai from Iraq. Items from an unstable country are always thoroughly inspected. One was opened and searched while the rest were scanned through X-ray machines and the artefacts were discovered." Mr al Merri added: "The dealer was importing it to Dubai but could not find a buyer. He was intending to keep it here until a buyer materialised and then re-export it." The discovery has been referred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which will contact the relevant authority in Iraq, said Mr al Merri.

Since the US-led invasion in 2003, hundreds of Iraqi archaeological sites have been looted. Officials say this has caused untold damage to the country's heritage. The illegal trade in stolen artefacts, worth tens of millions of dollars a year, has been pushed further underground as a number of countries have tightened restrictions on their sale. "After the war, the Iraq museum was looted. It may be from there or possibly something discovered through excavation at an archaeological site," said Mr Bauval who is in Dubai for the two-day International Conference on Ancient Studies which starts tomorrow.

"These artefacts should either be handed to the authorities in the country it belongs or to archaeological institutes here for study," Mr Bauval added. Dr Mark Beech, of the historic environment department of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach), condemned those who had taken the items from their point of discovery. "It is a great loss to humanity," he said. "Iraq has a great history of ancient civilisation, which will be lost by removing such artefacts from the location. Anything stolen from this area is pillaging of the Mesopotamian era. Removing items is a massive loss of academic and historical information."

It was impossible to estimate the artefacts' value without seeing them, said Dr Beech. Their true worth lay in the "information the object contains". "The value is in knowing its historic significance," said Dr Beech, who has researched both the Sassanid and Hellenistic eras. The Sassanid era represented the last great Iranian Empire before the spread of Islam in the region. Sassanid control of the west of Persia ended in the 7th Century when Muslims, led by Saad ibn Abi Waqas, seized control after the Battle of Qadisiyah.

The Hellenistic era spanned the period between the defeat of the Persians and the conquests of Alexander the Great. In November 2008, more than 100 ancient artefacts hidden in a ship were seized by Dubai Customs. Officials said at the time that they were probably from Iraq.

Published: February 11, 2010 04:00 AM


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