Monday, June 09, 2003


Historian Dan Cruikshank's two programmes on BBC2 over the weekend were intriguing and a bit depressing.

Saturday's programme traced Cruikshank's journey through the occupied territories of Palestine visiting archaeological sites. Cruikshank attempted to make some sense of the current Arab-Israeli crisis through the plethora of important spiritual sites throughout the Holy Land ("the most unholy land I've ever witnessed, as he remarked after a confrontation of different Christian sects arguing over rights at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem).

He visited Palestine just as the invasion of Iraq started, so the backdrop was intense and dangerous. At one point he was nearly embroiled in an anti-American, pro-Saddam demonstration. At another point, visiting an ancient monastery in the desert, Israeli Defence Forces and Jewish settlers surrounded his van. Cruikshank explained that he had no axe to grind, though I think that was part of the point of the programme - to show why the Holy Land is so divided and (for Cruikshank, at least) will remain so for some while.

There was a surreal incident at Rachel's tomb, heavily guarded by Israeli soldiers. Cruikshank was shown around by an enthusiastic recruit from New York who summed up the situation as 1 Jewish nation versus 23 Arab nations.

More depressing was the evidence of zealots destroying Palestinian archaeological sites and Palestinian hoodlums trashing Jewish sitesin retribution for the demolition of Hebron's town centre.

Last night was a follow up programme to one done prior to the war in Iraq. In that programme, Cruikshank visited many of the great archaeological sites in ancient Mesopotamia before they were all reduced to dust in the conflict. For the follow up - "Raiders of the Lost Art", he investigated what really happened at the Iraq Museum. Was there mass looting after the Americans entered Baghdad?

It was seriously disturbing picture of what has happened in that city. You could cut the tension and it was clear that his camera crew were in great danger throughout. As for the museum, the stories of looting seem only partially true.

What became evident was that the museum management were Ba'athists. Before the war, or shortly before the Americans entered Baghdad, someone at the museum allowed someone else (senior Ba'athist I suspect) to loot some of the most priceless treasures. There was other looting, as shown in the scene at the market where small, easily portable artefacts were on sale, but clearly something rotten had happened a the museum. The fear and the reluctant co-operation of the museum staff - with Cruikshank and the US forces detailed to investigate - was palpable.

It just went to show how ingrained the Ba'athists were in Iraqi life. Nothing ever happened in Iraq outside the control of the party and the state apparatus. Rebuilding the state against this history is one very long and very dangerous task.

There was an amusing scene in the basement of the Al-Rashid Hotel when Cruikshank stumbled upon the room used by Saddam for cabinet meetings during the war. Cruikshank picked up a cigarette butt from "Saddam's ashtray". A Gauloise.

Compelling stuff.

:: Posted by pete @ 12:56