Tunisians fight to preserve cultural heritage

Tunisia is home to some of the most impressive examples of Greek, Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, Arab and European heritage sites. (Reuters)
Updated 20 June 2019

Tunisians fight to preserve cultural heritage

  • The looting of archaeological sites is a longstanding problem in Tunisia

FOUSSANA/TUNISIA: Standing near the shrine of the Sufi scholar Sidi Boughanem in western Tunisia, Karim points to the earth below his feet.

“There are stairs under the ground,” he said. “We started digging, but we had to stop because someone called the police.”

At the foot of a mountain covered with Roman villas and antique olive oil factories, the shrine sits atop buried structures and catacombs that date back to the Roman and Byzantine periods.

Archaeological sites such as this one in the region of Kasserine are often looted or damaged during illegal nighttime excavations by people looking for goods to sell, said Karim, a local historian from the nearby town of Foussana.

Then there are farmers who stumble across antiques by accident while planting crops, he added, and other people who go digging on their own land in the hope of finding artifacts they can sell.

Karim takes part in these digs out of curiosity. But his colleagues are hunting for treasures, he said.

“There are multiple groups (that do this),” said Karim, whose name has been changed for his safety.

The looting of archaeological sites is a longstanding problem in Tunisia, said Yasser Jrad, head of the seized objects department at the National Heritage Institute (INP).

Objects of significant historical and cultural value often end up on the European market and in the homes of Tunisia’s rich and powerful, he explained.

The issue was brought into the spotlight in 2011, when Tunisia’s ousted Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was sentenced to 35 years in prison in the first of several trials for a range of crimes, including possession of archaeological artifacts.

In 2017, the Tunisian authorities seized a rare 15th-century Torah scroll that they thought was being smuggled to Europe.

More recently, in March customs seized 600 antique coins dating from the 2nd century from a car in the coastal town of Sfax.

Figures from the INP, which is tasked with protecting and recording the country’s artifacts, show that the team has received more than 25,000 recovered archaeological items since the 2011 uprising.

Today, the INP gets more than double the number of reports for Kasserine than it did before the uprising, said Mohamed Ben Nejma, head of the region for the institute, adding that the instability and chaos of conflict often provides a window for archaeological looting.

But he also attributed the increase in recovered objects to the fact that the authorities are getting more serious about tackling the illicit antiquities trade.

“It might have been partly to do with state interests,” said Jrad.

“Especially, since we discovered pieces stolen from our (national) sites in the houses of Ben Ali and his family.”

Keeping hidden

The western region of Kasserine, where the shrine of Sidi Boughanem is located, is one of the most marginalized parts of the country — with government figures showing about one in four people unemployed, far higher than the 15 percent unemployment rate for the country as a whole. It is also one of the most archaeologically rich. There are four major sites located in an area of 8,000 sq. km, and the land is peppered with architectural ruins and antique stones.

Bigger sites are guarded around the clock, according to the INP, while less significant sites have security guards during the day. But the sheer number of small sites makes it impossible to keep an eye on all of them, said Nejma.

Ridha Shili, an expert in national heritage promotion with the University of Tunis, said it is the lack of proper excavation projects and cultural investment in general that leaves the Kasserine region open to looting.

“It is kind of a virgin region,” said Shili, pointing out that his hometown of Thala alone has about 350 archaeological sites.

“The state prefers for (these sites) to remain hidden because we don’t have the means to protect them,” he said.

When a new site is discovered, instead of guarding it or moving the artefacts to somewhere secure, “the state documents it, they take photos and then they put the earth back over it,” Shili added.

As she surveys sites around Foussana for her research, Wafa Mouelhi, an archaeology masters student at the University of Tunis, takes pictures whenever she sees that someone has been digging.

“You see holes, you notice with the placement of stones that someone has been there,” she said. “People are looking for statues or gold and jewelry.”

Mouelhi and other residents inform the local authorities about illegal excavations. In January, she caught someone from the town attempting to dig up a mosaic and ceramics from a Roman site that contains a church.

’Everything is stolen from us’

Matthew Hobson of the UK-based Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa project, said multiple factors need to be taken into account when it comes to protecting heritage sites from theft, which is often driven by poverty and political instability.

“There are economic reasons (for looting),” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Tunis. “The blame should not be put on the people who are trying to get by day-to-day, but the persons who are furnishing these collections.”

Unlike in Libya or Egypt, the antiquities trade in Tunisia is fairly small and disorganized, according to a local policeman, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job.

“It’s just pocket money, people sell things for less than they are worth,” he said.

Abdelbaki Idoudi, a civil servant from Foussena, said the country’s unprotected artefacts are fair game and that citizens have the right to benefit from rogue archaeological digs.

“The state left of all of (the artefacts) and doesn’t look after them,” he said. “I’m for the practice because people can profit, it can help people get some money from their (heritage).”

Others, such as Ayoub Sayhi, a 22-year-old amateur filmmaker from Thala, called on the government to do more to care for the country’s ancient objects.

To Sayhi, the looting of Kasserine’s antiquities was just another symptom of what he saw as the state’s neglect of the region.

“(My film) is to get the government to do something about this region because it is poor even though it is rich in natural resources,” he said.

“Everything is stolen from us, both in the day and in the night.”


US warns Iraq of Baghdad embassy closure if attacks continue

Updated 29 min ago

US warns Iraq of Baghdad embassy closure if attacks continue

  • US reacts to ongoing rocket fire from Iranian-supported groups on or near the vast US Embassy compound in Baghdad
  • Closing the facility, which is by physical size the largest US diplomatic mission in the world, would be a complex and time-consuming process

BAGHDAD: The Trump administration has warned Iraq that it will close its embassy in Baghdad if the government does not take swift and decisive action to end persistent rocket and other attacks by Iranian-backed militias and rogue armed elements on American and allied interests in the country, US, Iraqi and other officials said Monday.
As news of the warning sent shockwaves across Baghdad, Iraq’s military said a Katyusha rocket hit near Baghdad airport, killing five Iraqi civilians and severely wounding two others.
A US official said the administration’s warning was given to both Iraq’s president and prime minister but that it was not an imminent ultimatum. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The warning signals the administration’s increasing frustration and anger with ongoing rocket fire from Iranian-supported groups on or near the vast US Embassy compound in Baghdad as it steps up pressure on Iran with the re-imposition of crippling sanctions. However, closing the embassy and withdrawing US personnel from Baghdad would signal a significant retreat from a country in which successive administrations have invested massive amounts of money and lives.
The threat to evacuate the embassy, which has stoked concerns in Baghdad of a diplomatic crisis, was first delivered to President Barham Saleh on Tuesday in a phone call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Iraqi officials said. Pompeo then repeated the warning to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi on Saturday, the officials said.
Pompeo told Saleh that if the US presence continues to be targeted, measures would be taken to close the embassy and a “strong and violent” response would follow against the groups responsible for the attacks, according to three Iraqi officials with knowledge of the call.
Pompeo went further with Al-Kadhimi on Saturday, telling the prime minister that the US will initiate plans to withdraw from the embassy, according to the Iraqi officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
An official announcement has not been made by the Americans. But the Trump administration has not been shy about expressing its anger and concern about continuing rocket attacks by Iranian-backed groups on or near the embassy compound.
In a tangible sign of a strain in US-Iraq relations, the State Department shortened an Iran sanctions waiver deadline by 60 days last week. The previous waiver, crucial for Iraq to import badly needed Iranian gas to meet power demands, gave the government 120 days.
Without the waiver, Iraq would suffer crippling sanctions barring it access to US dollars.
Despite comments from US officials that a deadline on closing the embassy is not in place, Iraqi officials appeared to be under the impression they have until the waiver expires in two months’ time to take action.
“America will observe what measures the government of Iraq takes within two months,” one senior Iraqi official said. During this time, Al-Kadhimi’s administration must halt the targeting of foreign missions, military installations and logistics convoys destined for the US-led coalition or else, “aggressive” action would follow, the official said.
Iraq’s leadership is feeling the heat.
Al-Kadhimi, Saleh and Parliament Speaker Mohamed Al-Halbousi held a meeting late Sunday in which all three leaders said they supported measures to bring arms under the authority of the state and to prevent the targeting of diplomatic missions.
So far, Iraqi authorities have redistributed some security forces inside the Green Zone.
The Iraqi officials also said two factors might determine whether Iraq’s leadership can walk back from an impending diplomatic crisis: Security fallout from protests planned in the coming weeks to mark one year since mass anti-government demonstrations began, and domestic politics inside the US ahead of the November federal election.
“We expect large crowds,” said one official of the protests. “And we expect it will impact American thinking.”
Two Western diplomats said they had been informed that the US has started the process of closing its sprawling facility inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, but could not provide details. The US Embassy declined to comment.
Closing the facility, which is by physical size the largest US diplomatic mission in the world, is expected to be a complex and time-consuming process. The embassy was already functioning at minimum levels since March due to the coronavirus and ongoing security threats.
Diplomats were told the US had already started the process of closing but would “re-evaluate while progressing,” one Western official said, suggesting the decision was reversible if security inside the Green Zone improved. In 2018, Pompeo ordered the closure of the US consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra due to attacks by Iranian-backed militias.
As a member of Congress, Pompeo had been a strong critic of the Obama administration and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the deadly attack on US diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. He is loathe to see a repeat of such an attack on his watch, according to current and former US officials. In addition, Trump has been clear about his desire to reduce the US presence in the Mideast, although he has focused primarily on the military.
However, closing the embassy after the massive US investment of lives and money in Iraq since 2003 would likely draw significant criticism from Trump allies in Congress, including lawmakers who supported the invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein. Ahead of November’s election, it is not clear if Trump would be willing to invite that criticism.
The State Department declined to comment on the calls between Pompeo and Iraq’s leadership, but said the US will not tolerate threats.
“We have made the point before that the actions of lawless Iran-backed militias remains the single biggest deterrent to stability in Iraq,” the department said. “It is unacceptable for Iran-backed groups to launch rockets at our embassy, attack American and other diplomats, and threaten law and order in Iraq.”
Meanwhile, attacks targeting convoys continue.
On Monday, five Iraqi civilians were killed and two severely wounded after a Katyusha rocket hit near Baghdad airport, Iraq’s military said. The rocket may have been targeting the international airport but struck a residential home close by instead, Iraqi security officials said, requesting anonymity in line with regulations.
Also on Monday, a roadside bomb targeted a convoy carrying materials destined for US forces southwest of Baghdad, two Iraqi security officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.