Iraqis deny thefts from the Muslim shrines of Kerbala and Najaf

Follows disappearance of jewels, manuscripts


Two of the holiest Shia Muslim shrines at Kerbala and Najaf in Iraq suffered severe damage and looting following the recapture of the towns by the Iraqis after the Shia Muslim uprising last March. Speaking for Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Abul Qassim al-Khoei, the most senior Shia cleric, his grandson said: “Jewels, gold, manuscripts, all invaluable, have disappeared. They were gifts made over a thousand years by princes and kings, mainly from Persia and India.” Most of the treasures were held in the treasury of the shrine of Imam Ali in the centre of Najaf; according to the custodians of the shrine all the objects stored in two large rooms have disappeared. The Najaf shrine and the shrines of al-Abbas and al-Hussein in Kerbala, sixty miles to the north, have been extensively damaged by machine-gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar bombs and many of the clergy who attended the shrines have disappeared. The Iraqi government has denied any involvement in the thefts and accuses the rebels of stealing their own treasures.

No complete list of the contents of the shrines had been made at the time of the rebellion, indeed the contents of the shrines were a closely guarded secret according to Nicholas Postgate at the Department of Middle Eastern studies at Cambridge University. Mr Postgate suggested that the fate of the treasures was by no means clear; they may have been removed for safe custody by the Iraqi authorities; destroyed by Shi’ite rebels in a backlash against Iraq’s cultural patrimony, or spirited away by members of the ruling classes only to re-appear in Swiss bank vaults at a later date.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 15 February 1992