Did anyone care?
Looting of Baghdad Museum: America's clash WITH civilizations
April 19, 2003
The tension had built up over several weeks. I was worried to death
about what might befall Iraqi heritage under heavy bombings. More
particularly, the Persian heritage on Iraq's territory. Not
a word of the risk to any heritage either in print or in image in
the United States, where I had spent Nowruz with my offspring to
the tune of bombing (and after submitting to by now familiar detention
procedures complete with fingerprints, question forms and photos,
all of which my passport emblazoned with the cross of the innocent
Swiss, had spared me until now).
Arriving soon after in London, I was shocked, upon my arrival,
to see the difference in media reporting and public reaction. The
first thing I noticed was a tabloid splashed with images of red
blood and of mangled bodies spread out all around the portrait of
a George Bush, jubilating with 'Whoops'. Crude and insensitive to
the many berieved, but you reap what you sow, and when you choose
to bed with the likes of Murdoch and Fox News, this is
what you can get. Tabloids have never been known for tact or refinement.
In a more serious vein, the better newspapers like The
gave a more balanced view of the war in Iraq, a welcome change after
the propaganda blared out by the US networks. Even BBC World
Service, which was much criticized for presenting too much
of a government view, was already concerned about the cultural heritage
of a land known as 'the cradle of civilization' and to whom we all
owe an all too ignored debt - from domestication of plants and animals
in the Fertile Crescent which extends to parts of the Zagros of
Iran, the invention of writing and the first codes of law, astronomical
charts, the division of time into 60 units, the world's first great
cities the world's first great epic (Gilgamesh) and many other firsts,
long before Greeks were Greeks.
Not to mention the art that evolved from it all, hauntingly beautiful
and often as old anything from Egypt. The public's interest in this
great heritage was also revealing with visits tripling to the Mesopotamian
galleries in the British Museum which houses monumental reliefs
and sculpture of superb quality of the Assyrians. But the same picture
must be true of some other European capitals, like Berlin which
is home to the Gate of Ishtar, which, with its massive size and
its spectacular polychrome glazed tilework, its gold lions on the
long processional way, stands as testimony to the art and culture
of ancient Babylon, offered to the Kaiser by Ottoman sultans as
a strategic gift, literally, one might say, as kiseh-e khalifeh.
But beyond the public which had never been warm towards the war
in England or elsewhere in Europe, top British diplomats and retired
statesmen of the greatest stature were expressing serious doubts
about this dangerous military adventure, in private or public, sometimes
angrily so. They could not understand why the United States had
not learnt from mistakes committed formerly by their own ambitions.
One ex-ambassador to Iran said bluntly, "Don't they see what
happened in Iran after we thwarted the efforts of an elected government
to nationalize oil? The country exploded some twenty years later."
Then Harold Nicholson, son of the couple formed by Vita Sackville-West,
the Bloomsbury author, and Arthur Nicholson, a grandee and envoy
to Iran and a fine connoisseur of Persian literature, went on air
to denounce the think tanks which decide on the fate of the world
from inside their secretive chambers, without pondering on long-term
consequences. So much for cohesion at the upper levels of Tony Blair's
Change of scene to Knightsbridge with its fancy boutiques and its
five-star hotels, to which the rich Arabs make annual offerings.
In the hotel lobbies, the dollar-heavyweights were met as usual
by little British clerks in black leather jackets, carrying briefcases,
but this time no doubt stuffed with lucrative projects for potential
contracts in a postwar Iraq, while the younger scions of the wheeler-dealers
were being entertained by their catch of the day, usually Russian,
blonde and extremely vulgar.
The war seemed far away. Even more distant from the minds of these
young men was the threat that war posed to several millennia of
civilizations to which Iraq was heir. They just pay lip service
to Islam, relegate the rest of history to the time of the jaheliya,
the 'age of of ignorance' that is supposed to have preceded the
coming of the Prophet of Islam -- an excuse to avoid learning more
about complexities to which the Arab tribes of Saudi (Oman and Yemen
are important exceptions) and the little sheikhdoms carved out by
the British as their oil suppliers cannot lay any claim.
I was angry at them for being complacent. After all, one of the
Qatari princes has been scouring art markets for some years with
guidance from a British dealer, his regular side-kick. The collection
is due to go on show soon in a purpose-built museum, designed by
I.M. Pei (in preference to designs by Zaha Hadid, the much-acclaimed
Iraqi London-based architect). Was there any concern for the sites
that supplied at least some of that art?
A passing reference to Iraq's heritage on the Al-Jazira network
did not go far, not nearly far enough, though that may have been
due to bombings aimed at their offices in Baghdad, as at those of
Reuters and other news agencies. With such lack of concern on the
part of Arabs, is it any wonder that Moslem volunteers from the
Arab countries felt so unwelcome as to want to go back home?
It is true that there were no reports of damage to any monuments
in the first days of war, just a few vague reports of museums in
Baghdad and Mosul being hit, without further details. Nor could
anyone be contacted in London to obtain precisions; all experts
were busy with a heavy workload.
We know now, however, that top archeologists and museum curators
in Britain and the United States, were busy informing their respective
governments of the great importance of Iraq's heritage not only
to Iraq but to all of mankind. Even though Tony Blair, according
to a just published open letter from British archeologists, left
the pleas unanswered, and offers of assistance were ignored, the
Pentagon was given a map of sites to be avoided.
which has been benefiting from excellent coverage, gave readers
a report on Iraqi heritage, titled ominously 'The end of civilization'.
It mentioned the risk of damage to history in a land whose every
inch of subsoil is rich with lessons from the past. Given the thoroughness
of Tomahawk missiles nothing much could survive, even at a great
depth. It came as no surprise to read that Ctesiphon, the principal
capital, for some eight centuries, of both the Parthian and Sasanian
dynasties, of which the main portal with its impressive thrust of
35 metres, is, to quote the author of the same article, 'still the
widest unsupported brick arch in the world', had been cracked already
by the carpet bombings of 1991.
Lying close to Baghdad, how could it now withstand the more sustained
bombing? Nor was the damage then limited to Persian heritage in
Iraq, for which Saddam Hussein had no great affection. For Dr. John
Curtis, the dedicated and knowledgeable keeper of the Department
of Near East at the British Museum, had told the newspaper that
bombings had also strafed the 4000-year-old great ziggurat at Ur
(i.e. stepped pyramid, as at Tchogha Zanbil in the south of Iran,
which was partly damaged by Iraqi bombing during the eight-year
war). As for Saddam Hussein, he had been known to have established
defences in the vicinity of historical sites, not only to escape
assault by enemies, but also, in fairness, to prevent the looting
which follows every war.
There was cause for worry, but one hoped that the war would not
take very long and that necessary measures had been taken to protect
the best of Iraqi heritage, if not every shard of pottery, every
seal and tablet and stone relief above ground or beneath. Even academics
and curators, who had given warnings, had assumed that the most
important museums, expecially in Baghdad, would be given the necessary
protection. But that was to discount the cultural ignorance of an
administration whose president, did not know until just a few weeks
before the long-planned war that Moslems in Iraq came in different
flavours, the Shiites and Sunnites; even worse, his spokesman did
not know that Belfast is in the Irish Republic, that indeed it was
the focal point of resistance to a united Ireland.
I know from experience and my various attempts to protest against
the assault on monuments and artworks, that to show much concern
for stones and artefacts, is often deemed to be unfeeling, when
humans suffer so. It's a flawed argument. Are humans animals that
they have no need for history or culture? History is memory, it
is identity, and national dignity, all of the ingredients that have
made great nations resilient in the face of adversity and therefore
enduring. To deny them their right to cultural memory is indeed
to deny them their future as well.
And Iraqis, in almost a full century of coup d'etats, revolutions
and wars, had respected culture and cultural heritage, the only
one of the Arab nations to have such respect for a history that
it can hardly ignore, with some 10 000 archeological and standing
sites. But this time was different. How could one expect the US
military to know and understand the contributions made by Mesopotamia
in seven thousand years? And how can plain soldiers who do not care
two hoots about archeology, history and culture, be expected to
pay much attention to ruined bricks, when they can't even tell friend
from foe, innocent civililans, journalists from enemy fighters?
(There have been some reports by some ex-servicement that journalists
are in fact considered fair targets).
Could one seriously count on Allied officers to give their preference
to monuments and museums rather than to the men who are fighting
towards the well-specified aim of getting rid of Saddam and securing
his oil? Did the airforce fighters of the Second World War stop
to worry about the baroque architecture in Dresden, Germany, before
razing it all, or about Manichean and Buddhist frescoes brought
by mule and by camel from the caves of Xinjiang to give them protection
from iconoclam in Berlin museums where they met their death thanks
to bombs dropped at a time when the war had been won? If the Europeans,
with their dedication to culture, had no qualms, how could one then
expect American soldiers, amongst whom immigrants of fairly recent
date, fed on a poor diet of Fox News propaganda, to have
Curators in Baghdad had prepared for the worst by trying to protect
the museum's treasures as best as they could in such circumstances
and with minimum means, but that would not extend to excavated sites.
Moreover they knew that because of the sanctions both security and
climatic control, so necessary for objects of such antiquity, were
not quite adequate and rendered some pieces very vulnerable. Only
the sacred towns of Karbela and Najaf could be considered safe to
a certain degree (except from the bad taste of restoration work),
because of precautions towards religious feelings.
That looting might occur was indeed possible, as we know too sadly
from twenty years of war in Afghanistan where both treasure-hunters
with empty stomachs and well-fed officers from Pakistan helped themselves
to another unique heritage, unique in both its variety and eclectic
sources. There were sighs of relief as the war reached its end that
the much-feared damage may have been averted, and noone expected
that looting could reach down to layers and layers of museum basements
secured by their steel doors.
America was bound by both the Geneva and the Hague Conventions
not only to maintain order but to protect every cultural site, and
scholars had presumed that they would honour this if they were given
maps. And Iraq did not have the mountainous terrain that plagues
Afghanistan; Iraqis were also more educated and far more dedicated
to their pre-Islamic heritage and declared enemies of the Saudi-financed
Wahhabism that helped to provoke the Afghans, nor penetrated by
fanatic elements, CIA-promoted to fight Communism. Finally, one
believed, very erroneously, that Iraq's heritage, being the very
source of civilization, would receive attention. Well, it did, but
only from knowledgeable quarters which do not seem to have made
a great impression on the administration. which are not popular
with the present government of the United States.
On Sunday I went out to get my usual dose of The
there it was in large print, the Baghdad Museum had been looted,
ransacked, deprived of its treasures. Like the sack of Baghdad by
Hulagu the Mongol in 1258 or the destructions wrought by the Cultural
Revolution in China. In Iran the people had stopped the madmen of
Khalkhali from touching their pre-Islamic art, and although there
had been casualties, they were very minor, nothing on the scale
of what came out of Baghdad. But Iran never had such a power vacuum
opening up its jaws to welcome the pent-up frustrations of underpriveleged
ignorant layers of Iraq's society, without any police to control
Reading carefully through reports that poured in gradually after
the tragedy had occurred, it became very clear that vandalism was
just part of the story. Observers had noticed knowledgeable looters,
selecting carefully pieces they knew about. Now that the Iraqi curators
have been heard, it seems that locked steel doors were opened by
someone in the know to let in the smugglers, some of whom were acting
by orders of foreign collectors, and looters were allowed to rampage
in the vaults afterwards, the better to confuse all trace of robbery.
The fact that computers and data were destroyed lends credence
to the theme of a well-thought-out plan, in which the Shiite poor
were just incidental. Not that it absolves them, but at least they
have the excuse of poverty, in which case they would have preferred
to take away computers rather than destroy them. This was organized
crime right under the nose of occupying forces who did not do a
thing, except for five Marines who appeared for a brief half an
hour and even then, upon the insistence of museum guardians.
A government concerned with the future welfare of Iraqi people
would have had ample time to get information, to divert a few men
from the protection of sacrosanct oil wells and the edifice of the
Ministry of Oil to save the museum. With warnings given by art scholars,
with the precedent of some 4,000 pieces stolen during the last war
against Iraq (some of which had turned up in an exhibition held
later in Israel) and the fresh precedent of looting of rare and
precious mansucripts in the Museum of Mosul (no doubt mostly Persian),
and the devastation of the Natural History Museum of Basra, they
should have known better than to let it happen. Did anybody care?
It took them a full week to pay heed to outrage from civilized
quarters. Iraq and Iraqis are bereft, 'liberated' as one angry letter
aptly says, from its past heritage, of its rich memory of seven
thousand years, memories that belong to mankind, memories of many
dynasties come and gone, -- Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian,
Achaemenid Persian, Seleucid Greek, Parthian and Sassanid, the Abbasid
caliphate, dubbed justifiably 'Golden Age of Islam'. The museum
contained some 170,000 pieces spanning several millennia.
Not every piece could be considered a beauty like the head of Sargon,
the gold jewellry from the Royal tombs of Ur (birthplace of Abraham),
or an alabaster vase with the first frieze of a ritual procession
(among the items that are presumed to have been stolen 'upon order'),
but every piece had value in terms of scholarship, from small cylinder
seals to the large-size sculptures and reliefs from Khorsabad, ceramics,
pottery, jewellry, rare bronzes (including a bronze head which,
weighing hundreds of kilos, was carted off), and gilded ivories,
and of special interest to us Iranians, two full rooms of sculpture
in a syncretism of Greek and Iranian styles, including large statues
in full Parthian dress (pointed hats, trousers and belted tunics
and boots) from Parthian Hatra - a staggering record of civilization,
without which we would be the 'degenerate apes' that Faulkner considers
us hominids to be.
The better pieces were abducted, or much worse, cut up into fragments,
the better to make them unrecognizable, and whatever was left was
shattered and broken by unruly looters who were let in by those
who had helped themselves to the real masterpieces. Among the smashed
fragments were neolithic tools, must be such rarities as mathematical
and astronomical tablets, the first recipes of court cuisine, annals
We are told that some of the better pieces may have been deposited
in the Central Bank vaults, but information about whether those
vaults were looted or not is vague and contradictory. Many of the
looters were Shiites from the most underprivileged part of Baghdad,
the by now notorious Saddam City suburb, the worst slum in Iraq.
They and the masterminds, who knew well the value of what they
were taking, were at it for two days, on Thursday and Friday, two
whole days during which the US government could have been alerted
and issued orders for stopping the worst carnage. They did not bother
to, so that by the next day the looters were at it once again, burning
calligraphied Korans from Abbasid Iraq, old copies of the Torah
and valuable archives. All of this can only play into the hands
of the fundamentalists, for when national pride in a long history
that preceded Islam is obliterated, then only through Islam will
discontenment find an immediate outlet.
That the occupation forces took no action is, to say the least,
odd. Either those people are even more ignorant and barbaric than
any had believed (and Rumsfeld's cynical comments indicate it),
or they were in the know, or much worse, did not care. Either way,
it is a heinous crime, due to the failure to respect obligations
according to every internationally accepted convention.
Pondering over how and why it had happened, I recalled a report
from UPI about the president of the American association of antique
dealers in the United States, having asked the White House, as soon
as war began, for authorization to help themselves freely to the
antiquities of a conquered Iraq. The report was quite vague about
the reaction, but my own impression, optimistically, was that obscene
demands such as these had been cold-shouldered by the White House.
I forgot about it and just hoped for the best. Could the antique
dealers have taken the vagueness of the White House answer as a
green light to loot through their local agents?
After all, for years now, scholars have been fighting to ban sales
of ancient artefacts, in order to arrest the flow of antiques from
the illegal digs that erase the data so vital to scholars. More
damning is the new revelation contained in an open letter by top
archeologists in Britain about the American Council for Cultural
Policy having persuaded the Pentagon to relax legistlation that
prevented the sale of Iraqi heritage, advancing the spurious argument
that objects would be much safer in American museums and collections
than in Iraq, whereas, as said above, the museum objects had survived
several revolutions and wars until the arrival of these 'liberators'.
Acutally, the Iraqi archeologists are generally much praised for
both dedication and professionalism. Opposed in the meantime by
the Archeological Institute of America and many others, they are
in denial and have now joined the chorus of protests against possible
sales of antiquities from the Museum of Baghdad.
This is for the record, but we may never know whether any of the
unethical requests were given any heed. The result is the same,
it's a terrible stain on humanity and more especially, on those
with the power to use it, but who choose to use it uniquely for
their own short-term aims. The official excuse is that there were
no men to spare for the job of protecting museums. Well, how come
there were men to protect the oils wells, and also the building
of the Minsitry of Oil, but not for hospitals and not for museums?
This is not a a clash of civilizations, it is more like a clash
with civilization. (Actually museum curators in Baghdad and Mosul
are Christians). The barbarity of SUV gas-guzzlers has gotten the
better of knowledge and culture. Is overconsumption by wasteful
consumers more important than what they can store in their minds?
Is oil more important than treasures of the mind, of the creative
minds which opened up the way for civilization? This is a cultural
disaster of epic proportion that can only compare with northern
Crusaders pillaging Byzantium's 'oriental' luxury, the Arab Moslem
sacking of the Taq-e Kasra at Sasanian Ctesiphon, the aforementioned
sack of Baghdad and other cities by the Mongols, the bombing of
Dresden. And for no good reason.
If only it were just one isolated case. Looking back on the last
twenty years, one can see an ugly pattern of destruction, negligence
and silence emerging from the mist of disinformation. It is disquieting.
When Saddam was bombing Isfahan and the west of Iran (the eastern
parts were spared, because his SCUD missiles could not reach quite
that far), I and many others, contacted by students in Isfahan,
had tried to alert the media and obtain a petition against the bombing
of a World Heritage site of special beauty. Nobody was willing to
sign a petition. As one Frenchman said to me years later, "all
of us in the West wanted to destroy you", regardless of the
fact that world heritage sites belong to everyone, not to just one
Newspapers in the West would not write anything without facts and
figures, in other words they could not protest until the destruction
had occurred, and when occur it did in the case of the acknowledged
masterpiece of the main prayer hall of the Friday Mosque in Isfahan,
one person, art critic and scholar Melikian, was allowed to report
the damage only thanks to his many years with the Herald Tribune.
When Herat was being shelled by the Soviet troops, an exhibition
planned about the heritage of a city which had, in better days,
been termed the 'Florence of the Orient', was refused funding of
just one million dollars.
Then when the Soviets went, and civil war ensued, in part because
of the US refusal to give any assistance to Ahmad Shah Massoud,
attempts to tell the world that pillage, mostly by Pakistan, but
also by Afghans with no food nor shelter, was taking heavy tolls
on unique monuments and artworks, both at the Museum of Kabul and
at sites which which were of much greater beauty than the better
known Bamian. Meanwhile, economic sanctions were taking a bit toll
on Iraq's heritage. One wonders why sanctions against Saddam should
ban cultural assistance.
Not a word of protest. Nor any interest. Nor could UNESCO do much
in the absence of fund contributions from Britain and the United
States, both of which had withdrawn from its ranks. I know well
what I say; I followed every stage, and found out that the world
was not interested, indeed, had forgotten and did not care to know.
Only when Taliban became a dirty word, did the world turn against
their iconoclasm, even then only in the case of the massive and
more specatacular but not so attractive colossi of Bamian.
Even then, just a word from Saudi Arabai could have still turned
the tide, but with no pressure put on them by the White House, the
Saudis did nothing. Now their oil company, Aramco, gloats about
helping with the restoration of the Afghan monuments. What crass
hypocrisy! In the case of Iraq, the sheer magnitude and cultural
importance of heritage was so great that warnings were sounded and
assistance offered, but alas, all in vain.
From Kabul to Baghdad, through Isfahan in Iran, there has been
such cultural destruction that in expert circles people are whispering
of some sinister plot. This may be an extreme reaction, but it's
true that when humans fail to show their respect for culture, when
the very sources of civilization are thus obliterated without any
reason other than big money, and negligence by a bunch of uncaring
philistines, one can surely predict that civlization is under serious
Where are the Fallaccis and Rushdies who condemn what suits them
for the life they now lead in New York? Or will they find fodder
in these recent events to spit out as venom and say, as ignorant
Fallacci does so well, that the 'Moors' having now invaded all Europe,
the assault on Iraq is therefore warranted; she has not moved beyond
the Dark Age when Fathers of the Church accused 'Moors' of planting
'Arabic' numerals and zero as a sinister plot to mislead good Christians.
All the more surprising that Iraq adviser Khalilzad, who has seen
his country's heritage vandalized and destroyed, should not have
guided the White House and the Pentagon on the path of warning that
scholars had traced out.
We are now left only with patches of memory. Like the exhition of
'Treasures of Baghdad Museum' I saw in Geneva long ago. Much mention
has been made in the press of the famous items, the solid gold harp
from Sumer, the Ram in the Thicket and Assyrian reliefs. A year
or two ago, searching for evidence that eye make-up was first used
for magic and ritual purposes, I happened upon the painted eyes
of beautiful sculptures from Mesopotamia, revealing kohl-lined eyes
that, beyond the need of the required evidence, left a haunting
imprint of their gaze in my mind. They will come back to haunt those
who lacked them respect and looted them just for gains.
Is this the 'creative destruction' we were led to believe would
occur? Gone are precious treasures. Some of them will turn up at
auctions in Paris (manuscripts from Mosul have already reached it),
in London, in New York, if they haven't been sold privately beforehand.
Luckily the outrage the destruction aroused is also leading to some
measures to limit the damage from this point on, including funding
from private sources that have remained anonymous. There is always
a ray of illumination in the darkest moments.
This should serve as lesson to all those who would like to see
a regime change in Iran overnight, for a power vacuum is the worst
thing to fear. This should serve as lesson to Moslems who prefer
to ignore all culture that came before Islam, for only in the rich
diversity of their past will they find the force to advance and
seek justice. The scale of the outrage should serve as a lesson
to future destroyers. If ever a neon double-arch replaces the arch
of Ctesiphon, history will judge the perpetrators badly. If ever
the ziggurat at Ur collapses, Gilgamesh will cry out from the depths
of his grave to add a new chapter to his famous epic.
My heart cries for Iraq, my heart cries for mankind, Yes, it cries
in spite of the wreckage that was wrought by Saddam on Iran. It
cries for the nation that has shared history with Iran ever since
the Medes took Nineveh and brought back the lessons that would build
the empires that impressed the Greek and the Roman historians. This
close historical relationship with Iraq and the lack of concern
by Iranians outside and inside for both the Iraqi heritage and their
own in Iraq, will be the subject of the sequel >>>
Part II: Under
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