Monday, April 25, 2005

History lost in dust of war-torn Iraq

History lost in dust of war-torn Iraq
By Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly - BBC
Independent archaeologist and journalist

It is two years since looters ravaged one of the world's most important museums, in central Baghdad.

Carved cylinders
Carved cylinders were rolled across soft clay to form an identifiable seal
Saddam Hussein's power had collapsed and the newly arrived US-led coalition forces were unable to prevent a crime against history.

Professional smugglers connected to the international antiquities mafia managed to break some of the sealed doors of the Baghdad Museum storage rooms.

They looted priceless artefacts such as the museum's entire collection of cylindrical seals and large numbers of Assyrian ivory carvings.

More than 15,000 objects were taken. Many were smuggled out of Iraq and offered for sale.

To date, 3,000 have been recovered in Baghdad, some returned by ordinary citizens, others by the police. In addition, more than 1,600 objects have been seized in neighbouring countries, some 300 in Italy and more than 600 in the United States.

Most of the stolen items are unaccounted for, but some private collectors in the Middle East and Europe have admitted possessing objects bearing the initials IM (Iraq Museum inventory number).

Ancient sites levelled

An ever-growing number of websites also offer Mesopotamian artefacts - anywhere up to 7,000 years old - for sale.

Doubtless, there are more fake objects advertised on the web than authentic ones, but the mere existence of this market has fuelled the looting of archaeological sites in southern Iraq.

Click here to see pictures of ancient Iraqi treasures that were looted

The picture there is appalling. More than 150 Sumerian cities dating back to the fourth millennium BC - such as Umma, Umm al-Akkareb, Larsa and Tello - lie destroyed, turned into crater-filled landscapes of shredded pottery and broken bricks.

If properly excavated, these cities - covering an estimated 20 sq km - could help us learn about the development of the human race.

But the looters have destroyed the monuments of their own ancestors, erasing their own history in a tireless search for a cylinder seal, a sculpture or a cuneiform tablet that they can sell to a dealer for a few dollars.

It is tough, poorly-paid work carried out by jobless Iraqis with no way of earning a better income.

It's a disaster that we are all witnessing and observing, but which we can do little to prevent
Abdul Amir Hamadani
Nasiriya archaeologist
"A cylinder seal or a cuneiform tablet brings in under $50 on the site for the looter," explains the archaeologist responsible for the district of Nasiriya, Abdul Amir Hamadani.

"It's a disaster that we are all witnessing and observing, but which we can do little to prevent. With the help of 200 newly recruited police officers we are trying to stop the looting by patrolling the sites as often as possible.

"But we are now all alone. Italian carabinieri troops were the only coalition forces that actively worked on this issue for a few months. They used to patrol the region by land and from the sky. They have stopped all their operations and are now simply helping train policemen and guards."

Heavy boots

Coalition forces have themselves damaged archaeological sites by using them as military bases.

The withdrawal of coalition troops from Babylon has revealed irreversible damage to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

An alarming report by the keeper of the British Museum's Near East department, Dr John Curtis, describes how areas in the middle of the archaeological site were levelled to create a landing area for helicopters and parking lots for heavy vehicles.

Umma, a capital of ancient Sumeria
Looted Sumerian sites now resemble the surface of the moon
"They caused substantial damage to the Ishtar Gate, one of the most famous monuments from antiquity," he wrote.

"US military vehicles crushed 2,600 year old brick pavements, archaeological fragments were scattered across the site, more then 12 trenches were driven into ancient deposits and military earth-moving projects contaminated the site for future generations of scientists.

"Add to all that the damage caused to nine of the moulded brick figures of dragons in the Ishtar Gate by people trying to remove the bricks from the wall."

There will be no end to the destruction of Iraq's heritage, unless the country's leaders take a political decision to consider archaeology a priority.

For this, the ring of dealers in Baghdad has to be seized, looting in the south has to be effectively confronted and coalition forces have to be prevented from setting up base on archaeological sites.

The longer Iraq finds itself in a state of war, the more the cradle of civilization is threatened.

It may not even last long enough for our grandchildren to learn from.

Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly is an independent archaeologist and journalist covering the Middle East, who has been studying Iraqi heritage for the last seven years.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Personal Changes / Timor Leste

Dear All,
I have just submitted my resignation from the Monetary Authority of Singapore and my last day at work will be 18 May 2005.  I will at a later date announce details of my new employer which is a corporate role that would involve spending at least 50% of the time in an ancient city of one of the world's oldest civilisations.  And yes, please do not send any message to my MAS email address.  Try the one on this email (
Have been busy over career change recently and little time to write about my East Timor experiences.  Instead, I have now put up a photo website of East Timor at  Please drop by and send me your comments.
Happy surfing!
Wee Cheng

Timor Leste 2005

Democratic Republic of Timor Leste

Land of Pristine White Beaches, Untouched Reefs & A Most Friendly People

Once upon a time, a boy saved a crocodile and in return for the favour, he brought the boy round the world on its back.  When the crocodile died, its body grew and grew until its spine became mountains and its scales the hills of Timor.  Hence the crocodile shaped island of Timor.

Dili - The Sleepy Capital of Timor Leste

By the Beaches of Dili

Inland Areas - Into The Misty Mountains

Guan Di Miao - Chinese Temple in Dili

The Eastern End - On The Way To Com, Tutuala & Los Palos

Com & the Friendly People of Timor Leste

thm_P3270405.jpg thm_P3280034.jpg thm_P3250258.jpg thm_P3270399.jpg


Guan Di Miao in Dili, Timor Leste

I have done my East Timor Guan Di Miao site:

Timor Leste 2005

Guan Di Miao

A Chinese Temple in Dili


The main deity is Guan Di Yeh while there are also separate altars devoted to Tua Beh Gong and Guan Yin.  There was an elderly Chinese-looking man - maybe he was a mixed Chinese-Timorese native - interpreting the Qiu-Qian slips which are written in Bahasa Indonesia.  I saw a few native Timorese qiu-qian there.  The temple was built in the 1930s but damaged during the 1975 Indonesian invasion and 1999 rampage by the pro-Indonesian militias.  The temple has since been repaired and repainted in bright red colours.

I met many Chinese-Timorese, descendants of Chinese immigrants who arrived in Timor over the last 600 years - even before the Portuguese.  Chinese traders had long sought the sandalwood here which were highly valued in religious ceremonies.  During the Portuguese days, it was also the Chinese who collected coffee from remote mountain villages and supplied villagers with goods.  There were 20,000 Chinese-Timorese in 1975, before the Indonesians invaded. They ran the local economy - banknotes of those days had Portuguese and Chinese on them. 90% fled to Australia or Portugal when Jakarta invaded, while some of the remaining 10% died in the horrific massacres that other Timorese were also subject to. Since 1999, some of these Chinese sons of Timor Leste have also returned, to reclaim their ancestral properties and apply for a new Timorese passports. They bring with them their entrepreneurial skills as well as the international connections built over the last two decades of exile.  I was told that relations between the Chinese-Timorese and other Timorese are generally good.


Saturday, April 23, 2005

Japan & History

To The Editor, The Economist

I wonder if the views expressed in The Economist’s leader “History, Riots & Trade Rows” (22 April 2005) would be any different if Japan denies Pearl Harbour and Changi Prison in its textbooks. Placing the blame of the protests on China is like blaming the Jews for Nazi atrocities. Protestors in China and South Korea have expressed the views long felt by the people of many parts of Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. Japan has never admitted to the murder of 50,000 Singaporeans in the first week of Japanese occupation in Singapore.

Tan Wee Cheng

Singapore accuses Japan of straining Asian ties

"Singapore accuses Japan of straining Asian ties"
Fri Apr 22, 2005 04:01 AM ET

By Jason Szep

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The predominantly ethnic Chinese city-state of
Singapore accused Japan on Friday of straining relations with its
neighbours for approving school textbooks that critics say whitewash
its wartime atrocities.

In an unusually blunt statement, Singapore's foreign affairs ministry
said Japan should not have approved the privately published textbooks,
which have prompted protests across China.

"It is unfortunate that the textbook authorities in Japan had chosen
to approve this rather strange interpretation of the Pacific War in
Asia," the Singapore statement said.

"It has strained relations between Japan and its neighbours, in
particular China and Korea. This is not in the interest of the entire

Thousands have demonstrated in China against the textbooks, which
critics say play down the 1937 Nanking Massacre, when Japanese
soldiers killed Chinese civilians.

China says 300,000 people were killed in the massacre, while some
scholars put the figure at about half that.

Japan's neighbours are also upset that the textbooks also make no
mention of "comfort women", a euphemism for sex slaves taken by the
Japanese army.

Japan occupied Singapore from 1942 until 1945 and renamed it "Syonan"
or "Light of the South".

On beaches off eastern Singapore in February 1942, Japanese soldiers
shot dead or beheaded thousands of ethnic Chinese Singaporeans in a
massacre known as the "Sook Ching" -- or "purification by

The official death toll was 6,000 but unofficial figures ranged from
25,000 to 50,000, and many older Singaporeans still vividly remember
the mass killings.

"If there is one single event that still resonates it would be
so-called Sook Ching round up," said National University of Singapore
history professor Brian Farrell, author of "Between Two Oceans: A
Military History of Singapore".

During a visit to Indonesia on Friday, Japanese Prime Minister
Junichiro Koizumi apologised for the "tremendous damage and suffering"
caused by Japan's wartime past in an apparent effort to help douse the
row with China.

The apology conforms with past statements by Tokyo but such an
admission in front of an international audience is rare.

The statement comes eight months after Singapore riled Beijing when
now Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited Taiwan as deputy premier.
After that incident, Singapore took pains to assuage Beijing to limit
the damage to its trade with China.

The Singapore foreign affairs ministry said World War Two should not
be forgotten.

"But we hope that the countries concerned can keep emotions in check
and work towards a solution so that, while history is properly
remembered, it does not become an insurmountable problem in the
development of good relations," it added.

(c) Reuters 2005

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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Japan's Quarrel with China & Korea: A Singaporean View

I have always told people this story. Years ago, when I was in business school in London, I caught a Japanese classmate telling an European classmate that "actually, we were trying to liberate Asia..." Then he turned around and saw me. A silence and then awkwardness between us. How can I allow that to be said about the 50,000 to 100,000 who were massacred in the first two weeks of Japanese rule in Singapore? I never spoke to him again.

I don't think we should hold present day Japanese for what was done two generations ago. But by constantly revising history textbooks and visiting the Yakusuni War Shrine, they are rubbing salt into an old wound, and insulting the people of other Asian countries.

To those Western editorials that blame China and South Korea for "flaming" nationalistic passions, I wonder what they would say if the Japanese change their textbook accounts of the Pearl Harbour. But maybe the right-wing of Japan have no guts at the moment to do that - yet. It's easier to bully fellow Asians.

As for Yakusuni, I am surprised that they haven't found a more imaginative way of honouring war dead, such as building a new shrine that excludes the names of the 14 "Class A" convicted war criminals, or moving the tablets of the war criminals out of Yakusuni.  It is hard to imagine the German chancellor visiting a war memorial commemorating Hitler or Goering.

Until they stop humiliating Asians via the textbooks and Yakusuni, past grievances would always be a stumbling block to true warmth between Japan and Asia.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Royal invite for tiffin carriers

Royal invite for tiffin carriers
Prince of Wales in Mumbai
Prince Charles met the carriers on his visit to Mumbai in 2003
Two of the famous lunch-box, or tiffin, carriers from the Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay) have been invited to Prince Charles' wedding on Saturday.

Raghunath Medge and Sopan Mare are two of the dabbawallahs who pooled money a few weeks ago to send Charles and wife-to-be Camilla Parker Bowles gifts.

Prince Charles met the tiffin carriers on his trip to India two years ago.

Mumbai has an estimated 5,000 tiffin carriers delivering about 175,000 lunch boxes daily in a century-old tradition.

Unique system

Mr Medge, president of the Bombay Tiffin Box Supply Charity Trust, which represents the dabbawallahs, said the expenses-paid invitation was a "dream come true".

Prince Charles with Raghunath Medge
Prince Charles... chose to meet us instead of the high-profile people
Raghunath Medge

"It is a noble gesture on his part as we are poor, hard-working people and never ever imagined to be part of such a grand royal wedding," Mr Medge told the AFP news agency.

"We are on our way to the British High Commission for our visas and are looking forward to an exciting week."

The dabbawallahs had sent wedding gifts that included a traditional Indian headdress for Prince Charles and a sari, blouse and bangles for Camilla.

Mr Medge said he and his colleague were planning to take some more gifts for the prince and his bride.

The dabbawallahs collect tiffin boxes from suburban homes and deliver them at their offices and factories at lunchtime.

"Tiffin" is an old English word meaning midday snack.

Prince Charles headdress
A headdress for Charles was among the carriers' gifts (Photo: Milind Wadekar)

A unique tracking system ensures that all the lunch boxes reach their rightful owners in time, earning a rating of 99.99% for precision and accuracy from Forbes magazine.

That's one error in 10,000 deliveries.

The tiffin carriers say that they can never forget their meeting with the Prince of Wales.

"It was because of his visit that people around the world came to know about our work. For the first time in our 114-year history, our achievements were noticed," said Mr Medge.

"Prince Charles gave us so much importance. He chose to meet us instead of the high-profile people."

The vocation of supplying tiffin in Mumbai began in 1890, when the British and Parsi communities in the city needed convenience lunches.