Lawless in Mesopotamia

By Bahrani, Zainab | Natural History, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Lawless in Mesopotamia


Bahrani, Zainab, Natural History


Iraq's antiquities were looted mostly by professional thieves, not by random hooligans. Archaeological sites are still imperiled by looters, as well as by hastily planned reconstruction.

Standing in the storerooms of the Iraq National Museum one morning last summer, I found myself surrounded by the appalling chaos left by looters. Everywhere manuscripts were strewn about, mixed with modern catalogue cards and broken bits of 6,000-year-old pottery. Smashed ancient glass lay where looters had dropped objects in their haste. Scanning the scattered shards, as an art historian and specialist in the archaeology of the ancient cultures of the Tigris-Euphrates valleys, I automatically began to identify objects and assign them dates. On the Hour in iront of me were remains of Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization: the land where the first cities were built, where writing was invented, and where human beings first conceived of institutionalized government and codes of law. The irony was that I now stood in a land without law, where the want of law had led to the plunder and destruction of so much of humanity's cultural heritage.

I had come to Baghdad in june 2003 to help the Iraq Museum in the wake of the looting. I had learned of the disaster in the early morning hours of April 12, from a good friend and colleague at the University of Oxford, Eleanor Robson. She had broken the news to me gently, as one would report the death of a very close friend. Still, I was devastated. In the lead-up to the war, the two of us had been working together closely to identify endangered sites and monuments; members of the archaeological community had provided a list of vulnerable sites to the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon. Along with other Mesopotamian scholars, we warned that without preventive action during any military incursion, looting at museums and archaeological sites was likely.

It was against that backdrop that we in the international scholarly community greeted the news of April with outrage and disbelief: in spite of all our pleas, from both sides of the Atlantic, orders had not been given to protect the museum.

On April 16, four days after the news of the looting had become public, U.S. troops secured the Iraq Museum, and by April 22 a team headed by Marine Colonel Matthew R Bogdanos arrived at the museum to investigate. The international community also took initial steps toward a rescue effort immediately after the news of the looting broke: UNESCO called an emergency meeting in Paris, even before the Iraq Museum had been secured. Soon afterward, JNeil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, convened a second emergency meeting in London to develop plans for taking inventories, undertaking the emergency conservation of objects, and providing equipment and supplies to the national department of antiquities. I was called to both meetings to discuss practical plans and strategies.

At the time I tried to be optimistic. Surely, I thought, concrete assistance would soon follow the urgent recommendations that we had drawn up at the London meeting. But we quickly found that many obstacles prevented immediate action in Iraq. Frustrated by the lack of institutional action, I resolved to travel to Baghdad-on my own, if necessary. As a scholar of Mesopotamian culture and as a native of Iraq, I felt compelled to assist in the rescue of Iraq's cultural heritage.

As it turned out, two colleagues travelled with me, Elizabeth C. Stone of Stony Brook University in New York and Paul E. Zimansky of Boston University. Driving from Amman, Jordan, we carried computers, digital cameras, satellite phones, and office furniture. In Baghdad, each of us became occupied with a different part of the rescue effort. My colleagues worked to install communications systems and lay the groundwork for Iraqi collaboration with colleagues at universities outside Iraq, while I focused on assessing museum losses.

Those losses, as all the world knows, were tremendous. …

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