A Chinese archeologist on Sunday urged the international community to assist Iraq in the preservation, restoration and return of its cultural relics.
Qi Dongfang, a "Silk Road" specialist from the archaeology department of the prestigious Beijing University, said China has unearthed many Silk Road-era artistic articles of Persian, Central Asian and Byzantine origin, which had absorbed the essence of Mesopotamian culture, "the cradle of civilization" which lies within Iraq's present-day borders.
Ancient Chinese civilization, like many other ancient civilizations in the world, bore many vestiges of influence from Mesopotamian culture, according to Qi.
The archaeologist said many antiquities from China's Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.), for example, featured paintings of a type of "winged beast", an image reflecting direct Persian influence, but actually dating back to Mesopotamian civilization.
Qi said Iraq was once an important stop on the Silk Road, the oldest merchant channel in the history of mankind linking East to West. The famous road was a treasure trove of relics that bore witness to the development of the history of mankind.
However, many of these treasures were destroyed or smuggled out of the country during the war. At least 170,000 items were reportedly looted from the Iraqi National Museum on April 11 and 12, Qi said.
"Without relics, mankind will find it hard to understand its history and cultural origin," the archaeologist stressed.
Due to years of war and economic sanctions, many of Iraq's museums have long been closed to visitors, and its archaeologists have rarely been engaged in international exchanges, he said.
Qi said, "Although a large number of cultural relics has been recorded in books or pictures, this is inadequate. It's just like remembering a person who has passed away through looking at photos. It's totally different."
Besides, the archaeologist added, while pictures show only the most beautiful side of the articles, researchers care more about the decayed or hidden parts which can only be seen through examining the real objects.
Qi said he could hardly forget the TV images of ancient pottery and statues scattered on the floor in the aftermath of the looting.
The "Silk Road" archeologist now regrets never having gained access to Iraq, his dreamland. "The study of the Silk Road cannot be done without studying Iraqi cultural relics. However, due to the lack of materials and direct informational exchanges, the Chinese academic circle can do little about it."
"This loss can never be recovered," lamented Qi. "Just imagine such a catastrophe occurred in so-called civilized modern society! It's definitely a significant setback for human civilization."
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) passed a regulation in 1954 stating that occupiers "have the obligation to take measures to preserve cultural assets endangered by military actions."
Last June, the UN body floated the idea of setting up an "artifact hospital" to collect lost antiquities and return them to their countries of origin once the conflict ends. It also stated that parties engaged in war are responsible for the protection of relics.
American scholars are said to have submitted a list of cultural heritage in Iraq to the military forces at the beginning of the year. The US forces, despite their pledge to protect the relics, failed to do so during the National Museum looting.
"History will never forget such a catastrophe," Qi said indignantly.
Since the ransacking, there have been appeals to ban the sales of the stolen antiquities. Qi has also put forward his own suggestions for the recovery of the stolen relics.
"The lost ancient civilization will again sink into oblivion," the archeologist said with a sigh.