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Iraq Archaeologist Asks U.S. To Help Protect Antiquities


We invited an Iraqi archaeologist to come by our studios today. He arrived wearing a pin on his jacket lapel, a silver winged bull. It's a tiny replica of the famous statues from the ancient Iraqi city of Nimrud, which has reportedly been destroyed by ISIS militants. Abdulamir al-Hamdani has seen those Nimrud sculptures firsthand.

ABDULAMIR AL-HAMDANI: For me as an archaeologist, the first time I saw the city it was a really amazing moment to see the palace of Ashurnasirpal II, which is, you know, one of the most important palaces. Then we touched the Temple of Ishtar, we saw the winged bulls.

BLOCK: Winged bulls.

AL-HAMDANI: Winged bulls - the symbol of, you know, power, the symbol of authority. You can't see anywhere - you can't see the winged, you know, bulls in the entrance of a palace anywhere. It's very unique, seeing for the first time. That's really an incredible moment for me.

BLOCK: When you've seen the reports, seen video of the Islamic State fighters destroying some of these ancient sites in this part of Iraq, what's that been like for you as an archaeologist?

AL-HAMDANI: It was a breaking heart for me. Unfortunately, I would say that everybody was expecting that to be happening in Mosul and destroying the museum, destroying archaeological sites because we know the plan of ISIS to destroy Iraq's, you know, heritage. But for me as an archaeologist who worked with the Department of Antiquities in Iraq and who visited the museum several times, my heart was about to stop. Believe me because I have seen a lot, I have seen the damage that happened to the sites in the south just during and after the war of 2003.

BLOCK: You have been calling on the U.S. military to do more to help protect and safeguard these ancient sites in Iraq. We did hear yesterday from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey, in Baghdad, who was asked about this. He said there were other urgent priorities right now. When you heard him say that, did you have any hope that the response might be different?

AL-HAMDANI: Well, as an archaeologist, I want to see these, you know, sites being protected. I know there are a lot of priorities - you know, safeguarding the people, safeguarding minorities in North Iraq. That's very important. I know that. But I'm talking about the point of view as an archaeologist seeing heritage of Iraq being destroyed and being looted. It's not only Iraq's heritage, it's the heritage of the world. It's the memory of the humankind.

BLOCK: We just heard in that story from Deborah Amos, an archaeologist saying that maybe it's better that the antiquities are being looted and sold rather than destroyed because at least they exist somewhere. What do you think?

AL-HAMDANI: I'll not agree with that.

BLOCK: You don't agree.

AL-HAMDANI: I will say we have to protect the archaeological site. We have to act. We have to do an immediate act. I agree with my colleague from, you know, Lebanon when he said it's impossible to pick one of these two choices.

BLOCK: Mr. Al-Hamdani, thanks for coming in.

AL-HAMDANI: My pleasure.

BLOCK: That's Iraqi archaeologist Abdulamir al-Hamdani. He's now a visiting researcher at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.