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Posted on Saturday, April 12, 2003 - 08:29 am:   

This is awful! For days I have been telling my wife how worried I am about the museum . . . And now it has happened. It has been looted. I feel utterly depressed. All those tablets . . . and antiquities . . . Senselessly destroyed and robbed.

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Luís Rodrigues
Posted on Saturday, April 12, 2003 - 09:22 am:   

It had already been bombed, in the early days of the conflict, but this is far worse. Though not as big a tragedy as all the people dying, it's still senseless and regrettable. And let's not forget the hospitals (already in dire straits) being sacked too . . . :-(

And somehow I have the feeling that the shitstorm is only starting. I'm not sure if the American public is aware of this, but amidst celebration for the fall of Saddam, a great deal of concern is mounting that coalition forces have "liberated" Iraq only to turn it into a second Palestine. I wouldn't be surprised if the population turns against American troops if they overextend their stay -- not in support of Saddam, but to protect their own country.

Best, Luís
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Luís Rodrigues
Posted on Saturday, April 12, 2003 - 09:25 am:   

One thing's for certain: Bush's insistence to keep the United Nations as far removed from the proceedings as possible won't do anything to allay these fears.
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Posted on Saturday, April 12, 2003 - 12:31 pm:   


Of course the human lives lost are a much, much greater tragedy . . . But I am still very sad about the artefacts. I have always wanted to visit that museum, but I suppose now there would not be much of a point.

I agree with what you say about the future of Iraq. It seems to me that the Anglo-Americans have done a really terrible job of dealing with the country post-conflict thus far, so it does not show much promise. That they could let the hospitals be robbed and such is terrible. Also, all these roadblocks will not earn them any friends. From my understanding they are making Muslim men pull down their pants to make sure they are not carrying bombs. That sort of humiliation can only make people enraged.

As far as the American public goes – I think the media keeps things relatively one-sided.

It is definitely a scary time in the world.

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KJ Bishop
Posted on Saturday, April 12, 2003 - 02:03 pm:   


Ever since I was a little girl and read the stories from the Arabian Nights, Baghdad has been a magic city in my mind. I, too, always wanted to go there, and see whatever remained of the city's history. Watching the news footage, hearing about fighting between the Tigris and Euphrates, at the same time as mourning the loss of life, I kept thinking, this is the cradle of Western civilisation - and somehow that made it even worse, as if it confirmed that in all the thousands of years since Sumer, despite all the things we've learned, we haven't really improved one iota.
While the loss of life is a worse tragedy than the loss of artefacts, the latter is still something to be extremely depressed about.
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Luís Rodrigues
Posted on Saturday, April 12, 2003 - 02:36 pm:   

Brendan: of course, I knew what you meant, and I share your outrage.

By the way, how many of those artefacts will find their way to someone's private collection, you wonder?

Best, Luís
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Posted on Sunday, April 13, 2003 - 03:20 am:   

I don't know how many Luís. A lot were really just destroyed.

Here is the best article on the subject I have seen:

A civilisation torn to pieces
Baghdad, reports Robert Fisk, is a city at war with itself, at the mercy of thieves and gunmen. And, in the city's most important museum, something truly terrible has taken place
13 April 2003

They lie across the floor in tens of thousands of pieces, the priceless antiquities of Iraq's history. The looters had gone from shelf to shelf, systematically pulling down the statues and pots and amphorae of the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Medes, the Persians and the Greeks and hurling them on to the concrete.

Our feet crunched on the wreckage of 5,000-year-old marble plinths and stone statuary and pots that had endured every siege of Baghdad, every invasion of Iraq throughout history ­ only to be destroyed when America came to "liberate" the city. The Iraqis did it. They did it to their own history, physically destroying the evidence of their own nation's thousands of years of civilisation.

Not since the Taliban embarked on their orgy of destruction against the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the statues in the museum of Kabul ­ perhaps not since the Second World War or earlier ­ have so many archaeological treasures been wantonly and systematically smashed to pieces.

"This is what our own people did to their history," the man in the grey gown said as we flicked our torches yesterday across the piles of once perfect Sumerian pots and Greek statues, now headless, armless, in the storeroom of Iraq's National Archaeological Museum. "We need the American soldiers to guard what we have left. We need the Americans here. We need policemen." But all that the museum guard, Abdul-Setar Abdul-Jaber, experienced yesterday was gun battles between looters and local residents, the bullets hissing over our heads outside the museum and skittering up the walls of neighbouring apartment blocks. "Look at this," he said, picking up a massive hunk of pottery, its delicate patterns and beautifully decorated lips coming to a sudden end where the jar ­ perhaps 2ft high in its original form ­ had been smashed into four pieces. "This was Assyrian." The Assyrians ruled almost 2,000 years before Christ.

And what were the Americans doing as the new rulers of Baghdad? Why, yesterday morning they were recruiting Saddam Hussein's hated former policemen to restore law and order on their behalf. The last army to do anything like this was Mountbatten's force in South-east Asia, which employed the defeated Japanese army to control the streets of Saigon ­ with their bayonets fixed ­ after the recapture of Indo-China in 1945.

A queue of respectably dressed Baghdad ex-cops formed a queue outside the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad after they heard a radio broadcast calling for them to resume their "duties" on the streets. In the late afternoon, at least eight former and very portly senior police officers, all wearing green uniforms ­ the same colour as the uniforms of the Iraqi Baath party ­ turned up to offer their services to the Americans, accompanied by a US Marine. But there was no sign that any of them would be sent down to the Museum of Antiquity.

But "liberation" has already turned into occupation. Faced by a crowd of angry Iraqis in Firdos Square demanding a new Iraqi government "for our protection and security and peace", US Marines, who should have been providing that protection, stood shoulder to shoulder facing them, guns at the ready. The reality, which the Americans ­ and, of course, Mr Rumsfeld ­ fail to understand is that under Saddam Hussein, the poor and deprived were
always the Shia Muslims, the middle classes always the Sunnis, just as Saddam himself was a Sunni. So it is the Sunnis who are now suffering plunder at the hands of the Shia.

And so the gun-fighting that broke out yesterday between property owners and looters was, in effect, a conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. By failing to end this violence ­ by stoking ethnic hatred through their inactivity ­ the Americans are now provoking a civil war in Baghdad.

Yesterday evening, I drove through the city for more than an hour. Hundreds of streets are now barricaded off with breeze blocks, burnt cars and tree trunks, watched over by armed men who are ready to kill strangers who threaten their homes or shops. Which is just how the civil war began in Beirut in 1975.

A few US Marine patrols did dare to venture into the suburbs yesterday ­ positioning themselves next to hospitals which had already been looted ­ but fires burnt across the city at dusk for the third consecutive day. The municipality building was blazing away last night, and on the horizon other great fires were sending columns of smoke miles high into the air.

Too little, too late. Yesterday, a group of chemical engineers and water purification workers turned up at the US Marine headquarters, pleading for protection so they could return to their jobs. Electrical supply workers came along, too. But Baghdad is already a city at war with itself, at the mercy of gunmen and thieves.

There is no electricity in Baghdad ­ as there is no water and no law and no order ­ and so we stumbled in the darkness of the museum basement, tripping over toppled statues and stumbling into broken winged bulls. When I shone my torch over one far shelf, I drew in my breath. Every pot and jar ­ "3,500 BC" it said on one shelf corner ­ had been bashed to pieces.

Why? How could they do this? Why, when the city was already burning, when anarchy had been let loose ­ and less than three months after US archaeologists and Pentagon officials met to discuss the country's treasures and put the Baghdad Archaeological Museum on a military data-base ­ did the Americans allow the mobs to destroy the priceless heritage of ancient Mesopotamia? And all this happened while US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, was sneering at the press for claiming that anarchy had broken out in Baghdad.

For well over 200 years, Western and local archaeologists have gathered up the remnants of this centre of early civilisation from palaces, ziggurats and 3,000-year-old graves. Their tens of thousands of handwritten card index files ­ often in English and in graceful 19th-century handwriting ­ now lie strewn amid the broken statuary. I picked up a tiny shard. "Late 2nd century, no. 1680" was written in pencil on the inside.

To reach the storeroom, the mobs had broken through massive steel doors, entering from a back courtyard and heaving statues and treasures to cars and trucks.

The looters had left only a few hours before I arrived and no one ­ not even the museum guard in the grey gown ­ had any idea how much they had taken. A glass case that had once held 40,000-year-old stone and flint objects had been smashed open. It lay empty. No one knows what happened to the Assyrian reliefs from the royal palace of Khorsabad, nor the 5,000-year-old seals nor the 4,500-year-old gold leaf earrings once buried with Sumerian princesses. It will take decades to sort through what they have left, the broken stone torsos, the tomb treasures, the bits of jewellery glinting amid the piles of smashed pots.

The mobs who came here ­ Shia Muslims, for the most part, from the hovels of Saddam City ­ probably had no idea of the value of the pots or statues. Their destruction appears to have been the result of ignorance as much as fury. In the vast museum library, only a few books ­ mostly mid-19th-century archaeological works ­ appeared to have been stolen or destroyed. Looters set little value in books.

I found a complete set of the Geographical Journal from 1893 to 1936 still intact ­ lying next to them was a paperback entitled Baghdad, The City of Peace ­ but thousands of card index sheets had been flung from their boxes over stairwells and banisters.

British, French and German archaeologists played a leading role in the discovery of some of Iraq's finest treasures. The great British Arabist, diplomatic schemer and spy Gertrude Bell, the "uncrowned queen of Iraq" whose tomb lies not far away from the museum, was an enthusiastic supporter of their work. The Germans built the modern-day museum beside the Tigris river and only in 2000 was it reopened to the public after nine years of closure following the 1991 Gulf War.

Even as the Americans encircled Baghdad, Saddam Hussein's soldiers showed almost the same contempt for its treasures as the looters. Their slit trenches and empty artillery positions are still clearly visible in the museum lawns, one of them dug beside a huge stone statue of a winged bull.

Only a few weeks ago, Jabir Khalil Ibrahim, the director of Iraq's State Board of Antiquities, referred to the museum's contents as "the heritage of the nation". They were, he said, "not just things to see and enjoy ­ we get strength from them to look to the future. They represent the glory of Iraq".

Mr Ibrahim has vanished, like so many government employees in Baghdad, and Mr Abdul-Jaber and his colleagues are now trying to defend what is left of the country's history with a collection of Kalashnikov rifles. "We don't want to have guns, but everyone must have them now," he told me. "We have to defend ourselves because the Americans have let this happen. They made a war against one man ­ so why do they abandon us to this war and these criminals?"

Half an hour later, I contacted the civil affairs unit of the US Marines in Saadun Street and gave them the exact location of the museum and the condition of its contents. A captain told me that "we're probably going to get down there". Too late. Iraq's history had already been trashed by the looters whom the Americans unleashed on the city during their "liberation".

"You are American!" a woman shouted at me in English yesterday morning, wrongly assuming I was from the US. "Go back to your country. Get out of here. You are not wanted here. We hated Saddam and now we are hating Bush because he is destroying our city." It was a mercy she could not visit the Museum of Antiquity to see for herself that the very heritage of her country ­ as well as her city ­ has been destroyed.
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Posted on Monday, April 14, 2003 - 09:34 am:   

Pentagon Was Told Of Risk to Museums
U.S. Urged to Save Iraq's Historic Artifacts

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2003; Page A19

In the months leading up to the Iraq war, U.S. scholars repeatedly urged the Defense Department to protect Iraq's priceless archaeological heritage from looters, and warned specifically that the National Museum of Antiquities was the single most important site in the country.

Late in January, a mix of scholars, museum directors, art collectors and antiquities dealers asked for and were granted a meeting at the Pentagon to discuss their misgivings. McGuire Gibson, an Iraq specialist at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, said yesterday that he went back twice more, and he and colleagues peppered Defense Department officials with e-mail reminders in the weeks before the war began.

"I thought I was given assurances that sites and museums would be protected," Gibson said. Instead, even with U.S. forces firmly in control of Baghdad last week, looters breached the museum, trashed its galleries, burned its records, invaded its vaults and smashed or carried off thousands of artifacts dating from the founding of ancient Sumer around 3,500 B.C. to the end of Islam's Abbasid Caliphate in 1258 A.D.

Asked yesterday about the looting of the museum, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld blamed the chaos that ensues "when you go from a dictatorship" to a new order. "We didn't allow it. It happened," Rumsfeld said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "There's a transition period, and no one is in control. There is still fighting in Baghdad. We don't allow bad things to happen. Bad things happen in life, and people do loot."

Although the National Museum may have been the biggest prize, Iraq also has 13 regional museums at risk, including another world-renowned facility in the northern city of Mosul, as well as thousands of archaeological sites, ranging from the fabled ancient cities of Ur, Nineveh, Nimrud and Babylon to medieval Muslim villages abandoned in the country's vast western reaches.

"To the extent possible, and as soon as though it were yesterday, someone needs to post border guards to intercept antiquities as they try to leave the country," said archaeologist and art historian John Russell, of the Massachusetts College of Art. "There is a smuggling network in Iraq, and there could have been professional thieves among the looters."

Scholars first sounded a public alarm about the possible destruction of Iraqi antiquities in January, when a statement from the Archaeological Institute of America called on "all governments" to protect cultural sites during an expected conflict and in its aftermath.

Gibson and others said they were especially concerned because of the example provided by the 1991 Gulf War. Allied forces had scrupulously avoided targeting Iraqi cultural sites during the bombing of Baghdad 12 years ago -- one attack put only a shrapnel dent in the National Museum's front door even as it leveled a telecommunications facility across the street.

The end of that war kicked off a looting rampage, and eventually allowed systemic smuggling to develop. Artifacts from inadequately guarded sites were dug up and hauled away during the 12 years between the wars. "We wanted to make sure this didn't happen again," Gibson said, and Pentagon officials agreed.

"They said they would be very aware and would try to protect the artifacts," Gibson said, recalling January meetings with Pentagon officials charged with target selection and the protection of cultural sites. "We told them the looting was the biggest danger, and I felt that they understood that the National Museum was the most important archaeological site in the entire country. It has everything from every other site."

Pentagon officials knowledgeable about those meetings referred questions to the public affairs office, which said the military has tried to protect the sites.

Indeed, since the 1920s, Iraq has required that anyone digging within its borders file a report with the museum. In more recent years, expeditions had to submit all excavated material to the museum for formal cataloguing after each year's digging "season."

Looters apparently burned or otherwise destroyed most of those records last week, but Gibson suggested that scholars worldwide could duplicate the archive by copying their own files and reports and resubmitting them to Iraqi authorities.

The museum's artifacts, however, are another matter. Although the damage done is almost certainly catastrophic, Russell said, "it's going to be a matter of weeks or months before we're going to be able to identify any particular thing."

The possibilities are almost infinite. Iraq is the home of ancient Mesopotamia and has a cultural heritage that extends for thousands of years and encompasses the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Parthians, Sassanids and Muslims, to name only the best-known civilizations.

"There are thousands of unique items," said Boston University archaeologist Paul Zimansky. "If somebody walks off with those things, we'll never see them again. It is a disaster of major proportions."

The museum houses the 5,000-year-old alabaster Uruk Vase, which shows a procession entering a temple -- the earliest known depiction of a ritual. Also from Uruk is the "White Lady," the stone face of a woman that looks as if it was carved during the Greek Classic period but is 5,500 years old, one of the earliest known examples of representational sculpture.

The bust of an Akkadian king, dated 2300 B.C., is the earliest copper casting ever found. The Neolithic collection, of items about 9,000 years old, includes small sculptures of birds' heads from Nemrik, north of Mosul.

Russell said the museum staff attempted to pack up all the portable items on display and stash them in vast below-ground storage rooms and vaults, but looters found them. The museum also contained a spectacular cache of gold artifacts from the burial tombs of Assyrian queens in Nimrud.

"They were sent away to the Central Bank, and I told the Pentagon about those, too," Gibson said. "But I hear they looted the Central Bank as well."

Zimansky said Iraq's isolation during Hussein's rule meant that a great deal of material had remained unstudied and uncatalogued for years. An as-yet unresearched Sippar library of cuneiform clay tablets lay in the museum's basement and -- if it survived -- may contain the missing pieces of the Gilgamesh Epic, a heroic tale conceived by the Sumerians and written and rewritten in Mesopotamia for more than 1,000 years.

"I wasn't there [when the looting took place], and I don't know what the situation was, but I do know what's at stake," Russell said. "The need for policing should have been obvious. If it was impossible to do, then I'm sympathetic; if it wasn't, then I'm really irritated."

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