`Life is meaningless to us - we will protect this museum until the last drop of our blood." This is what Saba al-Omari, the young curator of the Mosul Museum, told me when I visited Iraq last November. She wore a black head scarf and black gloves and had a strange, earnest expression in her eyes and a smile on her lips as she spoke of her resolve. She was deadly serious. Her director - who stood by and nodded agreement - is older and did not wear a scarf. She is a Christian, her young companion a Muslim, yet both - sensitive, educated and highly intelligent people - were adamant. Foreign aggression - no matter its reason - would be stoutly resisted.
As we spoke a US or British jet flew overhead to reinforce the necessity of the blast-proof walls that fill the building's upper windows and justified the evacuation of all the museum's most fragile objects. The rows of empty cases were far from mute. The absence of objects revealed the fact that art and culture is in the firing line in Iraq and that the country's truly unique and internationally precious cultural treasures could suffer horribly if the country becomes a battlefield. Almost daily - so my Iraqi companions insisted - Western jets attack targets in the north Iraq exclusion zone, in which Mosul is the main city, as well as in the southern exclusion zone near Kuwait. The targets are said to be military. But such attacks can - through error or recklessness - have human and cultural consequences. The young curator insisted that even now the museum is regularly rocked by near misses from bombs or missiles. I saw no evidence of this - but then I was in Mosul for only three days.
Both these women share a great love - veneration might be a better word - for the astonishingly rich and ancient culture of their country. This is not surprising. Iraq is the cradle of world civilisation. Most things that the West regards as fundamental to the progress of man have their origins in Mesopotamia - the ancient land that forms the heart of modern Iraq. Mesopotamia - the name means the land between the rivers - was so called by the Greeks because the wide alluvial plain between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates was fertile and a paradise in a hot and arid part of the world. It was here, around 7,000 years ago, that the people of southern Mesopotamia learned to irrigate the land, by means of canals and ditches, and so make productive use of the sun-baked but fertile soil. This brought wealth and plenty to the region and stimulated the growth of intellectual and spiritual life. Around 5,500 years ago the Sumerians - the first great civilisation in the region - invented writing, the wheel, mathematics, our modern concept of time (the division of a unit of time into 60 portions is Sumerian), pottery and the arts (the oldest book now known, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was written in Mesopotamia around 4,500 years ago) and theology (the origin of much Greek, Roman, Jewish and Christian myth and scripture is found in Sumerian religious writings). Later, in around 2,000 BC, came codes of law and the calendar. But perhaps most compelling for modern man is that this extraordinary sequence of events took place within a series of mighty cities. As far as we now know the world's first city was built in southern Mesopotamia and it was here that urban civilisation - for good and for ill - has its roots. The first city - Uruk, where Gilgamesh was king - was founded around 6,000 years ago and the story of Uruk and its king reveal the sacred - divine - origin of the city. Gilgamesh went on a quest for knowledge and immortality and, after many adventures realised that immortality could only be gained through architecture, through city building - an activity that would honour a man's gods and allow the builder's name to live forever.
I was in Iraq to make a programme for BBC2. The aim was simple: to see what damage 20 years of …