NYTimes.com Article: Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure

khare at alumni.caltech.edu khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Mon Apr 14 04:40:15 PDT 2003


This article from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by khare at alumni.caltech.edu.


This is indeed a senseless tragedy. Surely even decades-old tourist guidebooks could lead the Pentagon to put these on the do-not-target lists, and hence deserving of special protection. 

Elsewhere in the Times, it was mentioned that one meme in the Arab world is that we *want* the government looted and burned to the ground to emphasize the illegitimacy of Saddam. But the library and museums are about the legitimacy of Iraq, not the dictator. 

This story has been weighing on my mind today. I have been wondering how dysfunctional a society has to become to rape its own patrimony. 

One element, clearly, is centralization; more vital cities, more local economies, more local philanthropy/pride, more local museums, less central exposure to natural and man-made disasters. Nuke DC or Paris, and there's still *some* backup copes (but the only supposedly proofed item in the collection is the constitution and declaration of independence...)

A second is institutions of civil society. Several Western universities predate the nations around them, because centers of learning that are vital, independent economic centers can afford genuine communities of scholars and command respect and loyalty from its guild. Where are the legions of staffers and students and professors to come camp out at the museums and bear witness, if not literally defend it? 

It is clear to me, though, that we, as Americans, ought to make special restitution for this oversight. A new Liberty Library and Museum ought to be the right of the Iraqi people, endowed by the people of America no less than the Statue of Liberty once was by the people of France.

And a significant share of its budget should go to enforcement, since at least those 170,000 items have cataloged descriptions to catch them when they hit the underworld art markets.

Rohit


khare at alumni.caltech.edu

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Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure

April 13, 2003
By JOHN F. BURNS 




 

BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 12 - The National Museum of Iraq
recorded a history of civilizations that began to flourish
in the fertile plains of Mesopotamia more than 7,000 years
ago. But once American troops entered Baghdad in sufficient
force to topple Saddam Hussein's government this week, it
took only 48 hours for the museum to be destroyed, with at
least 170,000 artifacts carried away by looters. 

The full extent of the disaster that befell the museum came
to light only today, as the frenzied looting that swept
much of the capital over the previous three days began to
ebb. 

As fires in a dozen government ministries and agencies
began to burn out, and as looters tired of pillaging in the
90-degree heat, museum officials reached the hotels where
foreign journalists were staying along the eastern bank of
the Tigris River. They brought word of what is likely to be
reckoned as one of the greatest cultural disasters in
recent Middle Eastern history. 

A full accounting of what has been lost may take weeks or
months. The museum had been closed during much of the
1990's, and as with many Iraqi institutions, its operations
were cloaked in secrecy under Mr. Hussein. 

So what officials told journalists today may have to be
adjusted as a fuller picture comes to light. It remains
unclear whether some of the museum's priceless gold, silver
and copper antiquities, some of its ancient stone and
ceramics and perhaps some of its fabled bronzes and
gold-overlaid ivory, had been locked away for safekeeping
elsewhere before the looting, or seized for private display
in one of Mr. Hussein's myriad palaces. 

What was beyond contest today was that the 28 galleries of
the museum and vaults with huge steel doors guarding
storage chambers that descend floor after floor into
unlighted darkness had been completely ransacked. 

Officials with crumpled spirits fought back tears and anger
at American troops, as they ran down an inventory of the
most storied items that they said had been carried away by
the thousands of looters who poured into the museum after
daybreak on Thursday and remained until dusk on Friday,
with only one intervention by American forces, lasting
about half an hour, at lunchtime on Thursday. 

Nothing remained, museum officials said, at least nothing
of real value, from a museum that had been regarded by
archaeologists and other specialists as perhaps the richest
of all such institutions in the Middle East. 

As examples of what was gone, the officials cited a solid
gold harp from the Sumerian era, which began about 3360
B.C. and started to crumble about 2000 B.C. Another item on
their list of looted antiquities was a sculptured head of a
woman from Uruk, one of the great Sumerian cities, dating
from about the same era, and a collection of gold
necklaces, bracelets and earrings, also from the Sumerian
dynasties and also at least 4,000 years old. 

But an item-by-item inventory of the most valued pieces
carried away by the looters hardly seemed to capture the
magnitude of what had occurred. More powerful, in its way,
was the action of one museum official in hurrying away
through the piles of smashed ceramics and torn books and
burned-out torches of rags soaked in gasoline that littered
the museum's corridors to find the glossy catalog of an
exhibition of "Silk Road Civilizations" that was held in
Japan's ancient capital of Nara in 1988. 

Turning to 50 pages of items lent by the Iraqi museum for
the exhibition, he said none of the antiquities pictured
remained after the looting. They included ancient stone
carvings of bulls and kings and princesses; copper shoes
and cuneiform tablets; tapestry fragments and ivory
figurines of goddesses and women and Nubian porters;
friezes of soldiers and ancient seals and tablets on
geometry; and ceramic jars and urns and bowls, all dating
back at least 2,000 years, some more than 5,000 years. 

"All gone, all gone," he said. "All gone in two days." 

An
Iraqi archaeologist who has taken part in the excavation of
some of the country's 10,000 sites, Raid Abdul Ridhar
Muhammad, said he went into the street in the Karkh
district, a short distance from the eastern bank of the
Tigris, about 1 p.m. on Thursday to find American troops to
quell the looting. By that time, he and other museum
officials said, the several acres of museum grounds were
overrun by thousands of men, women and children, many of
them armed with rifles, pistols, axes, knives and clubs, as
well as pieces of metal torn from the suspensions of
wrecked cars. The crowd was storming out of the complex
carrying antiquities on hand carts, bicycles and
wheelbarrows and in boxes. Looters stuffed their pockets
with smaller items. 

Mr. Muhammad said that he had found an American Abrams tank
in Museum Square, about 300 yards away, and that five
marines had followed him back into the museum and opened
fire above the looters' heads. That drove several thousand
of the marauders out of the museum complex in minutes, he
said, but when the tank crewmen left about 30 minutes
later, the looters returned. 

"I asked them to bring their tank inside the museum
grounds," he said. "But they refused and left. About half
an hour later, the looters were back, and they threatened
to kill me, or to tell the Americans that I am a spy for
Saddam Hussein's intelligence, so that the Americans would
kill me. So I was frightened, and I went home." 

Mohsen Hassan, a 56-year-old deputy curator, returned to
the museum on Saturday afternoon after visiting military
commanders a mile away at the Palestine Hotel, with a
request that American troops be placed in the museum to
protect the building and items left by the looters in the
vaults. Mr. Hassan said the American officers had given him
no assurances that they would guard the museum around the
clock, but other American commanders announced later in the
day that joint patrols with unarmed Iraqi police units
would begin as early as Sunday in an attempt to prevent
further looting. 

Mr. Hassan, who said he had spent 34 years helping to
develop the museum's collection, described watching as men
took sledgehammers to locked glass display cases and in
some instances fired rifles and pistols to break the locks.


He said that many of the looters appeared to be from the
impoverished districts of the city where anger at Mr.
Hussein ran at its strongest, but that others were
middle-class people who appeared to know exactly what they
were looking for. 

"Did some of them know the value of what they took?" he
said. "Absolutely, they did. They knew what the most valued
pieces in our collection were." 

Mr. Muhammad spoke with deep bitterness toward the
Americans, as have many Iraqis who have watched looting
that began with attacks on government agencies and the
palaces and villas of Mr. Hussein, his family and his inner
circle broaden into a tidal wave of looting that struck
just about every government institution, even ministries
dealing with issues like higher education, trade and
agriculture, and hospitals. 

American troops have intervened only sporadically, as they
did on Friday to halt a crowd of men and boys who were
raiding an armory at the edge of the Republican Palace
presidential compound and taking brand-new Kalashnikov
rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons. 

American commanders have said they lack the troops to curb
the looting while their focus remains on the battles across
Baghdad that are necessary to mop up pockets of resistance
from paramilitary forces loyal to Mr. Hussein. 

As reporters returned from the national museum to their
hotels beside the Tigris tonight, marines guarding the
hotels were caught in a heavy firefight with Iraqis across
the river, and the neighborhoods erupted with tank and
heavy machine-gun fire. Western television cameramen who
went onto the embankment beside the Palestine Hotel to film
the battle were pulled from danger by helmeted marines who
dragged them down behind concrete parapets and waved to
reporters on the hotel's upper balconies to get down. 

Mr. Muhammad, the archaeologist, directed much of his anger
at President Bush. "A country's identity, its value and
civilization resides in its history," he said. "If a
country's civilization is looted, as ours has been here,
its history ends. Please tell this to President Bush.
Please remind him that he promised to liberate the Iraqi
people, but that this is not a liberation, this is a
humiliation."

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/04/13/international/worldspecial/13BAGH.html?ex=1051306015&ei=1&en=467cc56eeb7de305



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