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Michael Rakowitz, the Iraqi American Recreating Looted and Destroyed Artifacts Through Art

posted on: Oct 19, 2022

By: Mariam Alyakoob / Arab America Contributing Writer

Photo: Zoom in of recreated Ishtar Gate made from Arabic food containers and newspapers / Credit: Flickr

Ancient Mesopotamia, known to be the location of some of the world’s earliest civilizations, is located in modern day Iraq. Remnants of empires that existed in the region such as the Babylonian Empire, Assyrian Empire etc. are represented in the historical artifacts found in different parts of Iraq. That is until they were looted to be featured in European museums in the late 1800s, looted during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and destroyed by the U.S. military and ISIS following the invasion. Many of these artifacts are more than 7,000 years old and considered incredibly precious by historians all over the world.

Michael Rakowitz, an Iraqi American artist who was devastated by the 2003 looting of the National Museum of Iraq, has made it his mission to recreate these artifacts using Arabic newspaper and packaging in order to preserve the Iraqi history and culture looted and destroyed over the past century.

A History of Looting Ancient Artifacts 

A large number of African, Middle Eastern and Asian historical artifacts are displayed in European and North American Museums. Now you may be thinking that these were exchanged or sold to these western countries legally. If you thought this, you were wrong! Many of these artifacts were looted from the countries they originated from following colonial powers taking control of these regions.

Benin Bronzes

Photo: Benin Bronzes from the Kingdom of Benin (in modern day Nigeria) / Source: Flickr

One significant example is the looting of the Kingdom of Benin, which is located in modern day Nigeria. In 1897, British forces invaded the area, wanting to colonize the Kingdom, destroying a majority of the city and stealing the Benin Bronzes, which are significantly important to the region’s history, having been created in the 16th century. British forces also looted thousands of other historical artifacts alongside the Benin Bronzes.

For years, Nigerian officials had pleaded with western museums featuring these artifacts to return them, and only recently, in the past couple of years, have some museums given them back. In 2022, the U.S. National Museum of African Art returned 29 of the Benin Bronzes to the Nigerian National Commission for Museum and Monuments. Due to international pressure, other museums also came forward to return some of these stolen artifacts, but this comes after a hundred years of them being taken from their original home. 

Rosetta Stone

Photo: Rosetta Stone featured at the British Museum / Credit: Flickr

An example of a Middle Eastern artifact that has yet to be returned home is the Rosetta Stone, made in 196 BCE in Egypt and issued by Egypt’s then ruler, Ptolemy V. The contents of the stone, which detail Ptolemy V’s generosity, are incredibly important in linguistic studies given that the decree was written in three ways: hieroglyphics, Demotic (a shorthand form of hieroglyphics) and ancient Greek. Fast forward to the time of the stone’s discovery in 1799 in the city Rosetta by the French Army following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. The stone was used to decipher and translate ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, given that the understanding of the language had been lost over the centuries.

Eventually the Rosetta Stone moved from being looted by the French to being looted by the British. In the year 1801, British forces defeated Napoleon and in return received many looted artifacts under the terms of the Treaty of Alexandria. And after over 200 years, the Rosetta Stone has never been returned to Egypt, being housed in the British Museum since 1802. Despite petitions and appeals from the Egyptian population to return the Rosetta Stone, it still resides in the British Museum in London. 

Ishtar Gate

Photo: Ishtar Gate featured in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin / Credit: Flickr

Our last example also refers to the looting of Middle Eastern artifacts, and this story includes stones stolen from the Babylonian Ishtar Gate from the Mesopotamian era. The Ishtar Gate, named after the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war, was built in 575 BC by King Nebuchadnezzar II , ruler of the Babylonian Empire. In 331 BC, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great managed to conquer Babylon, but only temporarily given that he lost control of the region following wars against the Persians and their ruler, Cyprus the Great. Eventually Babylon was abandoned and buried under the sands of Mesopotamia.

From 1899 to 1914, an expedition was led by two German archaeologists in order to uncover Babylon, and by 1902 they were able to unearth parts of the Ishtar Gate. The excavation lasted until 1914, when World War 1 broke out. By the time the war ended in 1918, Britain had taken control of the region.

The Germans made a deal with the occupying British forces to smuggle pieces of the wall to Berlin. Using these smuggled pieces, the Germans were able to recreate a life sized version of the Ishtar Gate in 1930 that was placed in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.  In 2002, the Ishtar Gate was asked to be returned to Iraq by Iraqi archaeologist Mohammed Aziz Selman al-Ibrahim, but his request was denied, and that following year, 2003, many more precious artifacts were looted from Iraqi museums.

Looting in the 21st century 

Armed US Marine Corps (USMC) Marines assigned to Lima/Company, 3rd  Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, line up to board a transport aircraft at  Blair Field in Al Kut, Iraq, during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM -
Photo: Armed U.S Marine Corps in Iraq / Credit: Picryl

On March 19th, 2003, under the Bush administration, the U.S. invaded and initiated a war on Iraq. President Bush stated that the reason behind launching this invasion was that he believed that the dictator ruling Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was in the process of building ‘weapons of mass destruction’. This resulted in many major cities being controlled by US military forces.

The invasion and conflict provided an opportunity for mass looting of thousands of artifacts from Iraq’s National Museum, which was home to the world’s largest Mesopotamian artifact collection. This was largely due to the lack of effort in protecting the museum by U.S. military forces. The looting lasted multiple days and resulted in the theft of at least 17,000 ancient artifacts. Many criticized the U.S. Department of Defense and stated that prior to the invasion, U.S. officials were warned by the archaeological community of the possibility of this looting to occur and were asked to post soldiers outside of the museum in order to protect the artifacts. Despite these warning pleas, the museum was left unprotected, resulting in this mass theft.

Many of the stolen artifacts have been displayed in museums across the world since 2003. A famous example of a museum that has been displaying these artifacts is the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, infamously known for displaying illegally looted artifacts. Although similar to the case of the Benin Bronzes, international pressure to return these artifacts to their original home has resulted in thousands of looted artifacts to be returned back to Iraq. Unfortunately, there are thousands more that still remain missing and/or destroyed. 

Impression made from an Akkadian Cylinder Seal recovered i… | Flickr
Photo: Akkadian cylinder seal from Iraq / Credit: Flickr

In some cases, these looted artifacts, that are more than a thousand years old, have shown up on Facebook Marketplace, not being able to be sold to Museums given their lack of paperwork. Illegal artifact sales have increased so much on Facebook that in 2020, Facebook announced a new rule banning these types of transactions. 

Artifacts Destroyed 

In some cases, the fate of these artifacts were much worse than just being stolen. In far too many cases, these historical artifacts were purposely destroyed. By June 2014, the Islamic State, known as ISIS, had taken control of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. And in 2015, the world was met with shocking news that Islamic State Militants had attacked Mosul’s Central Museum, purposely destroying artifacts that had been preserved for thousands of years.

Unfortunately, this destruction was not limited to just Mosul, but occurred in Hatra, Nimrud, and Nineveh in Iraq, as well as Aleppo, Raqqa and Palmyra in Syria. In Mosul, a video was released featuring ISIS militants destroying Assyrian and Akaddian statues with hammers. The reasoning behind this heartbreaking destruction by the Islamic State is that they believed that the civilizations that made these statues were polytheistic and worshiped idols, making them “against islamic beliefs”. They destroyed artifacts specifically that were believed to have been made before the Islamic Era.

Video: ISIS destroying ancient artifacts in Mosul, Iraq / Credit: CBS Mornings

In some cases, archaeological sites were actually damaged by U.S. military bases. The ancient city of Babylon was used as a military base by U.S. troops during the invasion in 2003, despite pleas from archaeologists objecting to this. At least 2,000 troops were placed in the base and the damage left was clearly linked to the soldier’s stay at the temporary base. Examples of the destruction includes military digging of soil that had identifiable archaeological materials as well as brick pavements that were crushed by military vehicles.

Who is Michael Rakowitz 

Video: Michael Rakowitz: Haunting the West / Credit: Art21

Now the title of this article includes Michael Rakowtiz, who plays a key role in helping reimagine Iraqi artifacts that had been lost or destroyed, so we should probably mention him at this point, but before we talk about that specific project of his, we want to address who he is. 

Michael Rakowitz is an Iraqi American artist born in Long Island, New York in 1973. His mother comes from an Iraqi Jewish family from Baghdad who had left Iraq in the 1940s. Growing up, his mother set up cultural decorations in his household and wanted to do as much as she could to preserve her Iraqi culture in the United States. In his youth he also spent quite a bit of time with his Iraqi grandparents, who he recounts always having a longing for their home. He describes his grandparents as the first installation artists he knew given that everything on the floors and walls were from Iraq.

Rakowitz also stated that when he was growing up he was always around Iraqi cuisine which inspired him to start an ongoing cooking workshop called Enemy Kitchen with his mother, where he collected different Baghdadi recipes to be taught to different public audiences. Enemy Kitchen started because Rakotwiz felt that the only “experience or visibility of Iraqi culture in the U.S. being that of war or oil”, and he wanted to show unfamiliar audiences what Iraqi culture was actually like, and distance people from the stereotypes. Many of his projects, cooking and art, involve his efforts to preserve and bring awareness to Iraqi culture. 

Rakowitz received his Bachelors in Fine Arts from Purchase College Suny and his Masters in Visual Studies from MIT. He is currently based in Chicago and teaches as a professor of Art Theory and Practice in Northwestern University

The Invisible Enemy Should not Exist 

The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist | Trafalgar Square with… | Flickr
Photo: The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist: Lamassu / Credit: Flickr

One of Michael Rakowitz’ ongoing projects since 2006 is his series titled the Invisible Enemy Should not Exist. The name the ‘Invisible Enemy Should not Exist’ is a translation of ‘Aj ibur Shapu’ which is the name of the processional way that went through Babylon’s Ishtar Gate. The purpose of the project is to recreate artifacts that were destroyed and/or looted from Iraqi Museums following the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Rakowtiz was devastated when he heard news about the looting and felt that these artifacts were important in preserving Iraqi culture and history. Rakowitz made it his mission to recreate these artifacts purposely using packaging from Middle Eastern food items and Arabic newspapers. The project is an ongoing attempt to recreate the over 7000 objects that still remain missing. Rakowitz states that he “wanted their ghosts (missing artifacts) to come back”. He also states that “the project has unfortunately grown to include the sites that were destroyed by groups like ISIS”

One of the most notable recreated pieces Rakowitz made was his 2018 recreation of the Lamassu, which was featured in London’s Trafalgar Square. The Lamassu is a mythological Assyrian deity that was depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Lamassu is made up of a human head, a bull’s body, and wings. The Lamassu were originally located in the ancient Assyrian city and modern day archaeological site of Nimrud, which was attacked by ISIS in 2016 resulting in the destruction of the majority of the site, including the Lamassu, which has been made around 883-859 B.C. and were thousands of years old. Rakowitz recreated the destroyed Lamassu using 10,500 Iraqi date syrup cans, shown below:

The Fourth Plinth | The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist by … | Flickr
Photo: Recreated Lamassu at Trafalgor Square / Credit: Flickr

The Lamassu is just one example of many pieces Rawkotiz has recreated and he believes that this project will outlive him and his studio. As of 2020, Rakowitz and his team were able to make 900 out of the 7,000 + that are still missing, with many more to go. 

May the Arrogant Not Prevail 

Rakowitz has also recreated his own version of the stolen Ishtar Gate titling it May the Arrogant Not Prevail. The piece is similar to that of the pieces featured in the Invisible Enemy Should not Exist series, as it is a recreation of something that he believes is stolen. Rakowitz made the gate with the help of a Berlin based team of assistants, who recreated the gate using materials such as plywood, wooden beams, and color corrected Arabic food item containers that were found in Berlin. Rakowitz purposely showed this piece in Berlin where he states is the “scene of the crime”, given that the German excavated Ishtar Gate still remains in a Berlin based Museum. Shown below is his recreation:

MCA Ishtar Gate | Installation at the Museum of Contemporary… | Flickr
Photo: May the Arrogant Not Prevail, a recreation of the Ishtar Gate / Credit: Flickr

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