Alas, Babylon! How the Bush Administration Allowed the Sack of Iraq's Antiquities. (Arts)

By Poudrier, Almira | The Humanist, July-August 2003 | Go to article overview

Alas, Babylon! How the Bush Administration Allowed the Sack of Iraq's Antiquities. (Arts)


Poudrier, Almira, The Humanist


From April 8-11, 2003, U.S. armed forces rolled through Baghdad, Iraq, meeting only sporadic resistance. The looting began before the fighting ended. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's palaces and the houses of his cronies were only the beginning. Hospitals, schools, university buildings, private offices, and businesses were all targeted by looters. The Iraq Museum, the national museum of antiquities in Baghdad and the most complete collection of Near Eastern artifacts in the world, wasn't spared. Over the course of two days, the Iraq Museum was systematically pillaged and vandalized. Waves of looters stripped the museum's 120 offices to the walls, taking computers, furniture, office supplies; smashing replicas and personal items; and destroying everything they didn't take. They pulled doors off their hinges, ripped down wallpaper, and smashed holes in walls. All over the offices and into the galleries they scattered files, papers, photos, and records which catalogued the museum's holdings.

More importantly, of course, the collections themselves were ransacked. Since the staff had removed all but the heaviest artifacts from the twenty-eight public galleries of the museum, the first waves of looters found only large items. While gunfire was audible in the background, they overturned statues, took what pieces they could carry, and left others lying broken on the floor. They shattered pottery and scattered the fragments, crushing shards to dust underfoot. Some came prepared, using trucks and other vehicles to haul away items too heavy to carry. Some treasures hidden in vaults escaped the pillage only for a short time. Groups of looters returned later, broke through a bricked-up door, and entered the vaults below the museum, where more of the collections were stored. In these dark recesses, looters grabbed anything that looked valuable, broke open sealed containers, and swept objects from shelves onto the floor, creating paths of destruction as they walked over the ruins of their own heritage.

For historians, archaeologists, and museum professionals, the pictures of smashed pottery and shattered stone that circulated in the news media were unimaginable--as wrenching as the pictures of injured children, dead soldiers, and the wreckage of homes. Nothing can replace the loss of human life, and no price can be placed on human suffering. The artifacts lost and destroyed at the museum are irreplaceable as well. These objects weren't just stone and metal and clay. They were windows to the ancient world; they shed light on the humans we used to be. The loss of each one darkens the room and hinders our understanding of our own history.

What has been lost at the Iraq Museum is the tangible and beautiful evidence of some of our first achievements as human beings. The museum boasted eighty thousand tablets full of cuneiform, the oldest known form of writing. Humanity's first written laws, recorded in Hammurabi's Code, were housed at the Iraq Museum. Dedicatory statues from religions that predated the Greeks by centuries were part of the collection. The exquisite bronze head of Sargon of Nineveh, roughly dating 2350 BCE, is an artifact of one of the world's first military superpowers. At 5,500 years old, a woman's head in stone is one of the earliest known examples of human self-representation. The Warka Vase, a five thousand year old alabaster bowl, came from Uruk, the city featured in the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest hero stories created by human beings.

The Iraq Museum at Baghdad housed the most spectacular items, but there were losses in many other places as well. The damage to Iraq's thousands of archaeological sites may take months to all be reported, but many of the smaller museums at these sites were also looted. Some were burned, such as Babylon's Nebuchadnezzar Museum. The Mosul Museum was bombed and looted; losses there may turn out to be more extensive than those in Baghdad. …

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