A past pillaged

Published : May 09, 2003 00:00 IST

A U.S. tank outside the Iraqi National Museum. The American forces arrived there long after the looters had left. - GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS

A U.S. tank outside the Iraqi National Museum. The American forces arrived there long after the looters had left. - GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS

An important part of human history is lost as crowds loot and destroy institutions such as the Baghdad National Museum of Antiquities thanks to the apathy of the invading forces.

IN what is perhaps one of the most tragic civilisational losses of our times, the priceless collection of the Baghdad National Museum of Antiquities, which constitutes an irreplaceable part of the record of human history itself, was ransacked and much of it looted in the aftermath of the war. The looting and arson that followed the American occupation of Baghdad destroyed the collection in the National Museum, the seventh largest in the world and the repository of some of the earliest artefacts known to humankind.

The Baghdad National Library and Archives, a treasure house of the historical records of the Ottoman Empire, and the Library of the Korans in the Ministry of Religious Endowment have also been subjected to similar treatment. The two libraries were doused with petrol and set alight by mobs.

Crack troops and tanks of the United States occupation forces, which were within blocks of the museum, did nothing as mobs ransacked the buildings, broke display glasses, smashed historical antiquities and looted or destroyed over 170,000 items of historical value. If the Americans had posted one tank and two soldiers on guard, the museum could have been saved, Nabhal Amin, the Museum's Deputy Director, pointed out. Indeed, the official U.S. response to this catastrophe has been typically insensitive and stupid. "Stuff happens" was how U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the violence when asked for his comments. He even justified it by saying: "It's untidy. And freedom's untidy. And free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes."

The occupation forces were well aware that the threat to Iraq's cultural and historical remains came from possible direct missile hits on historical and archaeological sites and from looting in the immediate aftermath of war. Iraq suffered considerable losses on both accounts after the 1991 war and the bombings in 1998. Iraqi archaeologists, historians and curators played a heroic role in those years in defending the antiquities from destruction by moving them to safer places and ensuring their safekeeping. The 12 years of stiff sanctions imposed on Iraq put even more pressure on the programme for the preservation and restoration of historical sites and museums. Looted antiquities appeared in the art markets of the Western world, while in Iraq the government imposed death penalty for exporting antiquities.

The Baghdad Museum of Antiquities, which suffered much damage in the 1998 bombings, was opened for public viewing only six months ago.

When it became clear that the U.S. and the U.K. would attack Iraq this year, there were widespread fears that war this time around presented a far greater threat to heritage sites in the `cradle of civilisation'. Coalition forces were, after all, threatening to unleash unparalleled destruction. Antiquities experts, archaeological associations, and even the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) today say they had provided the Pentagon with information on Iraq's cultural sites well before the war. Western media reports quote University of Chicago Professor McGuire Gibson, who said that he and a group of antiquities experts had met Pentagon officials several times with lists of historical sites to be protected, the Baghdad National Museum being among the most valuable of them. He claims that they had been assured that these would be secured.

The U.S. and the U.K. are two countries which refused to sign the Hague Convention of 1954, which prohibits the targeting of cultural and religious sites during war. The U.S. and the U.K. blocked an Iraqi appeal in the United Nations Security Council for a UNESCO commission to conduct a survey of the damage to historical and cultural sites during the 1991 war. The results of such a survey would almost certainly have put much of the blame for the damage to these sites on those countries. In the early days of the current invasion, a direct missile hit from an American bomber destroyed the elegant building of the Mustansiriyah School, a reputed 13th century university built during the reign of the 37th Abbasid Caliph, Mustansir Billah.

The occupation forces must surely bear the responsibility for the damage to the Baghdad museum and its splendid collection. It is a loss that has been valued at several billion dollars, but unlike other losses it is irreplaceable. The museum houses exhibits, artefacts and memorabilia that go back 5,000 years to the dawn of civilisation in Mesopotamia, and spans the period of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Sumerians, Medes, Greeks and Persians. There are artefacts from ancient Babylon and Nineveh, and gold and silver items from the cemetery at Ur. Carvings on marble, cuneiform writing on stone and clay, ancient pottery and some of the earliest known samples of writing were destroyed.

One of the museum's most fascinating exhibits was an ancient pebble with 12 deep scratches on its surface, thought to be one of the first calenders. A Sumerian seal dating from around 5,000 years ago shows the first pictorial representation of two people shaking hands. Three of its priceless antiquities, which it is now believed were "stolen to order", are a 5,000-year-old vase, an Akkadian (Babylonian-Assyrian) statue base from 2000 B.C. and an Assyrian stone statue from about 800 B.C. Several stolen items have already shown up for sale in Paris.

IN a poignant piece on the destruction of the cultural heritage and identity of Iraq, the veteran West Asia correspondent, Robert Fisk of The Independent, wrote of how, when he caught sight of the flames coming out of the Koranic library, he raced to the office of the U.S. Marines' Civil Affairs Bureau in Baghdad. He gave them the map location, and the name of the library in Arabic and English. It was a five-minute drive to the burning library, but half an hour later there was no sight of the Americans. The documents and records of the Baghdad National Archives and Library, an epoch of history from the Ottoman period to the present, were burnt to ashes.

Eyewitness accounts of the looting from Baghdad do not endorse the view promoted from Washington that the populace of Baghdad perpetrated this crime in a senseless celebration of `freedom'. Khaled Bayomi, a West Asia expert teaching at the University of Lund, was in Baghdad as a human shield. In an interview on April 11 to the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, he described how U.S. troops in tanks watched the plunder, including the ransacking of the museum. "There were two crowds, one that plundered, and one which watched with disgust," he said.

The UNESCO is to send a team to Baghdad to assess the damage. An anonymous private benefactor in the U.K. has provided the money for a team of conservators and curators to begin work on what was stolen and what remains of the collection. But the damage in this case is irreversible. The Iraqis have been left to grapple with the human consequences of war with nothing, not even the remains of their proud past.

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