Magazine article Newsweek

Babylonian Booty: Ancient Mesopotamia, Modern Iraq: Once Again, Bombing and Looting Threaten the Cradle of Civilization

Magazine article Newsweek

Babylonian Booty: Ancient Mesopotamia, Modern Iraq: Once Again, Bombing and Looting Threaten the Cradle of Civilization

Article excerpt

Byline: Melinda Liu and Anne Underwood

It had been conquered and re-conquered a dozen or more times, by (among others) the Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Parthians, Arabs, Ottomans and British, and in February 1991, yet another foreign power raised its flag over the ancient city of Ur, near the mouth of the Euphrates: the Americans. Daring the allies to bomb the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham, Iraqis had parked their jets near Ur's 4,000-year-old ziggurat, but the planes were shot up all the same. American soldiers toured the ancient tower, then got out their entrenching tools and began digging for souvenirs. A forlorn Iraqi gatekeeper ran among them, wailing protests in Arabic, until U.S. officers put a stop to the looting. Last week, when NEWSWEEK visited the site, it was virtually deserted, except for a lone guide, the son of the old gatekeeper, keeping a wary eye on the American and British warplanes streaking overhead. "Ninety-nine percent of Americans don't know the country they'll be bombing is Mesopotamia," says Dr. Huda Ammash, a high-ranking Baath Party official. "Our country has served humanity for so long, now it's up to the international community to help protect Iraq."

To the oilfields, the ecology of the Gulf and the lives of countless civilians and soldiers, add another potential casualty of the impending war: the cultural patrimony of Western civilization. In January scholars gave Defense Department officials the names of archeological sites they hoped to spare. "[The military] had a list of 150," says McGuire Gibson, professor of Mesopotamian archeology at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. "We gave them over 4,000 more--but that only covers the 10 to 15 percent of the country we've studied." Gibson is cautiously encouraged by the record of the earlier war, in which allied bombing spared most important monuments, even those adjoining military targets that were destroyed. But he's also aware that in the featureless plains of southern Iraq, the only high ground consists of the ruins of ancient cities. If the Iraqis make a stand, these mounds, which can be as much as four miles around and 80 feet high, are the natural places to do it.

The larger danger, scholars believe, is from looting. This has been a feature of war in this part of the world since long before the seventh century B.C., when a frieze in one of the palaces at Nineveh depicted an event described thusly in Michael Roaf's "Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia": "An Assyrian soldier brings in a severed head to be counted with the rest of the booty after a battle in Babylonia. …

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