The Babylonian Ishtar Gate, excavated from Iraq, cannot be seen by most Iraqis. This is because it is displayed at the Pergamon Museum of Berlin, far away from the sight of Iraqis.
The gate, along with many other artifacts, was excavated by German archaeologists before the First World War in the territory that is currently modern Iraq. In the manner of the colonial enterprise in the Middle East and South Asia, the Ishtar Gate and other treasures were shipped to Germany and have been there ever since.
In May 2002, the government of Iraq appealed to the German authorities to return the gate (which is actually an entire tower that was lifted and taken away). Their request was refused then, and the gate, which the museum’s website calls “one of its major attractions”, remains at the museum.
The colonial plunder of the antiquities and treasures of former colonies is a well-worn gripe, familiar to those whose histories are smattered with past glories and present want.
In the subcontinent’s own tale of woe, the Kohinoor diamond, taken away under the auspices of the Empire’s East India Company, was presented in 1850 by the then governor-general to Queen Victoria. The 105-carat diamond has been set in the crown ever since and is on display at the Tower of London.
Britain, one of the most actively plundering colonial powers of yore, also holds Egypt’s Rosetta Stone and the Grecian Elgin Marbles, which it refuses to return to their home countries. When asked about the issue Prime Minister David Cameron said, “I certainly don’t believe in ‘returnism,’ as it were; I don’t think it is sensible.”
The logic of the sensibility of art and treasures looted during war and conflict takes a different turn when it is Western treasures that are at stake. In The Fate of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War, author Lynn Nicholas documents the Nazi plunder of art from countries that were occupied by Hitler.
The book details how art was taken, smuggled, preserved and often sold at bargain prices by Nazi purveyors, often secretly, in order to obtain international currency. In other cases, artwork was recovered by the Allied Forces after 1943.
In that year, the monuments, fine arts and archives program was established under the civil affairs and military government sections of the allied armies.
The purpose of the program was to protect the cultural property and art of areas affected during and after the Second World War. Not only did the staff of the program work to preserve the cultural and historical artifacts and treasures from the affected areas, they actually made significant efforts to return them to their rightful owners after the cessation of conflict.
This task of reversing the plunder of war and occupation continues today. The discovery this November of a huge trove of art, some of it allegedly seized by Nazis, in an apartment in Munich is expected to fuel a new slew of restitution cases. Ownership, you see, does not end if the original owners belong to the Western, industrialized world.
The wronged post-colonial world of robbed treasures cannot, however, afford any self-righteous smugness. If the occupations of former colonists, the plunder of antiquities, and the stubborn resolution that anything taken belongs to those who took it present one side of the equation of appropriation, the other presents conundrums that are just as vexing.
The condition of antiquities, art, and archaeological finds that have been left behind presents this narrative. Not far from Islamabad is the archaeological site of Taxila, whose complex of ruins includes a Mesolithic cave, four settlement sites, and several Buddhist monasteries. Each of the settlement sites is said to belong to a different century, cumulatively revealing the course of urban evolution over five centuries, with the oldest going back to the 6th century BC.
The ruins at Taxila, though in the possession of Pakistan, are in danger. The threats come not from abroad but from within. The monument of Sarai Karwan, located within Taxila, has been increasingly encroached upon by development around the area, with outlying areas of the ruins subjected to decay and even garbage disposal.
Sandblasting and quarrying in the adjoining areas has exacerbated the deterioration of both the ruins and artifacts stored in the museum nearby. One report on the site alleges that sound-waves from the blasting have dislocated the shelves in the museum’s glass cases, leaving them lopsided and distorted.
Those are just the structural problems. A report from the Global Heritage Fund alleges that the biggest threat to the artifacts discovered in Taxila is not simply inattention and neglect, but the political and ideological vagaries of changing times.
In the words of the report, “over 2,000 priceless objects housed inside the Archaeological Museum of Taxila are vulnerable to theft and terrorist attacks, as the museum has insufficient security measures in place”.
There is good reason for such fears; the blowing up of Buddhist statues and artifacts by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the recent burning of the Ziarat Residency near Quetta are both tragedies that underscore the point.
In the Pakistani post-colonial case, the danger lies not simply in the appropriation and looting by powerful others in the past, but also by the petty politics of the present. In contexts where history is so contested, perhaps the exile of art and artifact is not a tragedy but instead a necessary measure to preserve what would be lost at home.
The writer is a lawyer teaching constitutional law and political philosophy. email@example.com.
This article first appeared in Dawn, Pakistan’s oldest daily.