The Lost Heritage of Iraq: Baghdad Looting Destroys Archeological Connections to Cradle of Civilization, Old Testament and Early Christian History

Article excerpt

The transition from war to emerging peace in Iraq has been in some respects a disaster.

Important parts of the country's heritage were plundered or destroyed in the chaos that followed the collapse of the Baathist regime in Baghdad April 9, and the destruction of cultural property seems to be continuing. The greatest crime was the looting and destruction at the Iraqi National Museum, and the immediate criminals were Iraqis. In some cases international art and antiquities dealers and their customers stood behind them, directing and supplying them. Most of the museum's and library's holdings have been stolen or destroyed; the stories of a few items being returned by stouthearted individuals, often urged on by local religious leaders, are heartwarming but do not much affect the overall balance sheet.

Part of the blame for the losses must be assigned to the forces of the U.S.-led coalition. The coalition, despite repeated warnings, undertook no defense of the museum and library in the days after the battle for Baghdad was over; the protection now in place at the museum is too little too late. As we write, the fate of all the provincial museums and other libraries in the country is not yet known. However, the museums at Mosul and Babylon have been looted, reports of destruction at Baghdad University have begun arriving, and more dismal news can be anticipated, despite the international outcry against the coalition:s negligence.

The U.S. administration has refused to take responsibility, but history will judge the policy chiefs of the Bush administration to have been as reckless as those who actually robbed the art objects and burned the books. Donald Rumsfeld's arrogant claim, "We are not there to police Iraq," has elicited almost universal condemnation. The U.S. attack on Baghdad was as devastating culturally as that of the Mongols in 1258, even if the Mongols intended destruction and the coalition claimed liberation as its goal.

The history of ancient Iraq

To understand these events it is necessary to follow two stories, one about history and another about the study and preservation of the remains of history. One is the story of Iraq in its full sweep, from 3,500 years before the time of Christ to the present. The other is the story of the modern study of that history, which begins in the 19th century. The lives of people both in Iraq and in the modern industrialized West grew in part out of the heritage that has been lost. They and generations to come will be impoverished by the losses. Because the killing was largely over in Baghdad before the looting began April 11, there was no competition between the goals of saving lives and saving artifacts.

The modern state of Iraq was created in the aftermath of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In earlier history the region is generally called Mesopotamia, that is, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The development of cities began in Mesopotamia slightly later than elsewhere in the Middle East, but once urban life emerged it progressed rapidly and confidently on the flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates. A variety of developments worked together to make "the cradle of civilization" possible. The fabric of urban life was elaborated to include temples and other public buildings; the Ziggurat at Ur (near Tillil Air Base) is a familiar image from coverage of the war. The wheel was invented in Mesopotamia, and pottery began to be made there. Irrigation schemes and other systems crucial to large-scale food production were put in place.

Most important, writing was invented. There were earlier systems of records, prompted by the need to keep track of large numbers of domesticated animals. These were succeeded eventually by writing in the strict sense: the recording of a message in such a way that it could be reliably reproduced. The earliest form of writing, using cuneiform (wedge-shaped) signs, is found in Mesopotamia beginning around 3000 B. …