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Civilization

Did anyone care?
Looting of Baghdad Museum: America's clash WITH civilizations

April 19, 2003
The Iranian

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 Independent, 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 Britain.

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.

The Independent, 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 more subtlety?

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 Independent; 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 their madness.

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 of dynasties.

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 nation.

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 threat.

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 the arch

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