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Issue Date:  May 9, 2003

Fragment of a Mesopotamian stone stele dedicated by Itur-Ashdum, probably from Sippar, 1760-1750 B.C. The figure carved to the left of the inscription may represent King Hammurabi with his right arm raised in worship.
-- The British Museum
The lost heritage of Iraq

Baghdad looting destroys archeological connections to cradle of civilization, Old Testament and early Christian history


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.C. When cuneiform was deciphered in the 1840s, we learned much more about the Babylonians and Assyrians, mentioned in the Bible and the classics, and we learned about peoples we had never heard of, most important, the Sumerians. We learned about them on their own terms and were able to judge the biblical record accordingly.

In April 2000, Iraqi women look at Assyrian artifacts dating back to 2800 B.C. at Baghdad's National Archeological Museum.
-- Karim Sahib

History begins at Sumer, in the south of Iraq, in the area bordering the Persian Gulf. The earliest written records are Sumerian: the earliest receipts, the earliest law collections, the earliest diplomatic letters, the earliest notes home to Mother, and the earliest poetry. The loss of some of the surviving products of this civilization is a loss to the history of the region, to Western civilization in the broadest sense and to its religious traditions in particular, and to civilization as a whole.

In the third millennium before Christ (3000–2000 B.C.) the Sumerian city-states dominated the landscape of lower Mesopotamia. The area just north of Sumer became more important later, and numerous kingdoms put their capitals there. This is the region of Baghdad, founded in the eighth century A.D., and of Babylon, the capital of the dynasty of King Hammurabi in the early second millennium B.C. and of King Nebuchadnezzar in the mid-first millennium B.C. There, too, is located Ctesiphon, the capital of the Iranian rulers who controlled Iraq before the coming of Islam.

The period from about 2000 B.C. to 500 B.C. is the age of the Babylonians and Assyrians, nations in the background of the Old Testament. They have come to be recognized on their own merits, for their own achievements. The law collection of King Hammurabi first attracted attention for its many parallels to later biblical law, but it is now appreciated as a major stage in the growth of law as an institution. Hammurabi begins by declaring that the gods have charged him, as king, with protecting the poor and defenseless. Perhaps more important, the collection itself begins with laws that safeguard the judicial process by punishing those who bring false accusations. The other well-known monument of Mesopotamia is the earliest epic poem, the “Tale of Gilgamesh,” the restless king who wanders the world in search of answers about the inevitability of death. His love for his slain companion Enkidu drives him on his quest. Among the tablets destroyed in the Iraqi National Museum was a copy of part of “Gilgamesh,” a copy that filled in some missing features of the very opening lines of the poem. It was one of the few tablets published from an important library discovered at Sippar in the 1980s. This library itself was one of the largest organized groups of cuneiform tablets ever excavated according to modern methods.

The art of Mesopotamia was the earliest developed artistic tradition in the world. Every artistic medium was represented. The Iraqi National Museum was full of beautiful sculpture of human and animal figures, both large and small. Tiny bird figurines could be admired along with massive figures of hybrid beings, human-headed lions and eagles. The modeling was sometimes broad and sometimes amazingly intricate. Some of the attractiveness of the pieces was due to their distance from us. The beautiful Warka head of a woman derived some of its striking quality from the blankness of her eyes, but this was a historical fluke: In ancient times, her eyes would have been precious-stone inlays. The stones were lost long ago, and we have grown used to her blank stare. Now, it seems, we shall never see it again.

Mesopotamia is an important element in our understanding of the Old Testament. The earliest stages of the Hebrew people are tied to Babylon: Abraham their ancestor emigrated from Ur of the Chaldeans. Many years later, after the revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai and the founding of the Kingdom of Israel by David, the history of the Hebrews reached a climax in Babylon. Around 600 B.C. the Babylonians came and took the Hebrews, now known as Israelites or Judeans, into captivity. The exile is the central event of the Old Testament narratives. The return from exile and the reestablishment of Judah, associated with the leader Ezra, is the crowning sign of God’s willingness to maintain the relationship with the Hebrews that he began when he called Abraham out of Ur.

The latest phases of the Old Testament are also bound up with the history of Iraq. The return from exile reflects the rise of another empire, that of the Persians under Cyrus, and the Old Testament speaks of Cyrus as a messiah, a great liberator. The Book of Esther tells a fantasy about a young Jewish woman who manages to use the elaborate machinery of the Persian court to save the Jews from a planned destruction.

Since the modern decipherment of cuneiform, we have learned a great deal about the setting of the Bible. Biblical scholars are able to fill out, supplement, and nuance the views of Mesopotamia given in the Bible. The languages used in the region, Babylonian and Assyrian, are Semitic languages, related to Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic. The poetry and imagery of cuneiform literature is related to biblical poems and stories. Also important to understanding the Bible is the artistic record of Mesopotamia. The images that are described in the Bible often coincide with or can be better understood by looking at the sculpture and paintings of the Babylonians and Assyrians. Archeology also yields discoveries. The systematic excavation of Mesopotamia provides a sense of how society worked, telling us the place of farmers and priests and kings in the social scheme, and more simply, how people lived, what food, houses and roads were like. The losses here, too, are significant to history in the broadest sense, beyond the biblical connections.

Iraq in late antiquity and the Middle Ages

The historical significance of Iraq is not limited to its ancient witness. In the first millennium A.D. as well, Iraq made important contributions to the growth of civilization. Christianity spread through the Middle East at the same time as the early church spread in Europe and North Africa. The church struggled and grew in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Turkey just as it was developing in Greek- and Latin-speaking regions. The earliest notice of Christians in Iraq comes from the second century A.D. The best-known contribution of the church’s “Oriental” branches is the monastic tradition, and recent interest in asceticism and monasticism has directed attention again to eastern Christianity. Further, the church in the Middle East was constantly in dialogue with related religious traditions, and recent Jewish-Christian dialogue has prompted a review of its earliest stages. With the spread of Islam in the seventh century A.D., Christianity found a new dialogue partner. There are recorded instances of three-way conversations, among Christian, Jewish and Muslim thinkers, sometimes set in the court of a ruler who is deliberating on a choice among the religions or is considering how practitioners of the three can best live together. Alongside such conversations there are, to be sure, also records of bitter and violent clashes among followers of the religions.

Parts of a beheaded sculpture lie among rubble after a mob of looters ransacked Iraq's largest archeological museum in Baghdad April 13.
-- AFP/Patrick Baz

The Syriac tradition of Christianity, at home in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, is as rich as the better-known Greek and Latin traditions. Syriac is a form of Aramaic, another of the Semitic languages. The Syriac tradition has its own translation of the Bible and unique liturgical and patristic texts. Numerous writers in the early Christian period produced a body of material comparable in every way to the patristic library of the churches of Rome and Constantinople. St. Ephrem the Syrian (about 306–373 A.D.) is the one name from this tradition that is likely to find some recognition in the West; many works attributed to him have been transmitted in Latin and Greek, and some of them have been translated into modern Western languages. In 1920 Pope Benedict XV named him a doctor of the universal church. He was long ago so regarded by all the Christian communities who lived in Iraq.

In early Christian times the Persian empire controlled the area of Iraq. From the fifth century most of the Christians living there were part of the community that is today called the “Assyrian Church of the East”; in earlier times their adversaries often called them “Nestorians.” They carried Christianity in its Syriac expression eastward across Central Asia into China by the seventh century and southwards into India at an even earlier date. Northern Mesopotamia, in the areas around Mosul and Tikrit, was home to the Syriac-speaking members of what is today called the “Syrian Orthodox church”; in earlier times their adversaries called them “Jacobites.” Neither of these churches has been in communion with the sees of Constantinople or Rome since the time of the Roman emperor Justinian I (527–565), who tried to enforce loyalty to the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon (451) throughout the territories of the eastern Roman Empire. For many centuries after the Islamic conquest, members of these communities lived peaceably among the Muslims, often contributing significantly to the growth and development of the distinctive culture of the world of Islam.

The relations between Muslims and Christians were not confined to religious dialogue.

The heritage of ancient Greek and Hellenistic thought came from the Greek-speaking world into Islam via Syriac-speaking Christian translators. This included work in philosophy, medicine, botany and architecture as well as poetry and rhetoric. In earlier times translation went from Greek to Syriac to Arabic; later on, the Syriac speakers would work with Arabs in translating. These texts were then studied and commented on by generations of Muslims. Much of this work was done in Baghdad, the intellectual center of the Middle East from the ninth to the 13th centuries. As a major commercial center, Baghdad had money to support the arts and scholarship, and as a major transit point between the Far East and Europe countless people passed through it. For the West, the next step in the transfer of Arab learning happened in Spain, Italy, and Sicily. The Catholic philosophical tradition associated with St. Thomas Aquinas was conceived in dialogue with the books of the Arab philosophers. (St. Thomas and his teacher, St. Albert the Great, never actually met any Arab philosophers.) Knowledge of ancient natural science and literature also came to the modern West through Islam.

The Christian heritage of the Middle East persisted through the centuries despite the dominance of Islam, although the numbers diminished, especially after the Mongol destruction of Baghdad in 1258, reaching demographic insignificance by early modern times. Doubtless the social and economic pressures of life as a protected but socially inferior (dhimmi) population in the Islamic world also contributed to the decline in population. Today about half of the indigenous, Syriac-speaking Christians in Iraq are members of the “Chaldean” community, communicants of the “Church of the East” who came into union with Rome beginning in the 16th century. Their current patriarch, who lives in Baghdad, is Raphael Bidawid. Many of them now live in a diaspora community in the West, with a large concentration in the Detroit area. Similarly, some members of the “Church of the East” still live in Iraq, and they too have diaspora communities in the West, in the Chicago and Los Angeles areas. Currently the head of the church, called the catholicos, lives in the United States; a rival catholicos is resident in Baghdad.

The damage of the recent war

The March war in Iraq was anticipated and prepared for, and scholars alerted the U.S. Defense Department to two sets of dangers the war posed. The first involved ancient monuments above ground. There is a sense in which the entire country of Iraq constituted an archeological site, as Elizabeth Stone, an archeologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, repeatedly claimed. Stone and other archeologists met with the Pentagon planners in the early months of this year to provide guidance about particularly critical sites that should not be directly bombed during a U.S. attack on Iraq. This was a difficult task because the regime of Saddam Hussein was known to have used archeological sites to store weapons during the Gulf War. Nonetheless, it appears that this phase of the warnings worked: No intentional coalition damage to major sites has been reported.

The second danger involved museums and other cultural repositories, and this takes us to the second story mentioned earlier, the story of the study and preservation of the remains of history. When modern archeology began, in the years after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, it was customary for European scholars to take home whatever they found while digging and studying in the Middle East. This extended from the tiniest ancient jewelry all the way to massive sculptures. In some cases, it went further: The city gates of ancient Babylon were removed from that site and reconstructed in Berlin. This phase of plunder often directed materials into academic and public collections, where they could be studied and preserved in a responsible way. (Archeology is an inherently destructive enterprise: Objects that have survived for thousands of years underground can fall apart after a few years of exposure to too much humidity or harsh light.) Some materials went into private collections, some of which were closed to scholars and many of which were inadequately conserved.

Face detail of a gigantic winged human-headed bull with five legs, from the period 722-705 B.C.
-- KRT/Stephanie Sinclair

Such European and American plunder was eventually regulated. Over the course of the 20th century, it became increasingly common for some or all of the results of an archeological excavation to be kept in the country of origin. All results of Iraqi excavations since 1970 have been retained by Iraq. Middle Eastern museums developed slowly, often with scholarly help and financial support from abroad. The Iraqi National Museum was founded in 1923, not long after Iraqi independence; the current building was opened in 1966. Parallel developments are associated with libraries of manuscripts and early printed books.

At the same time that these institutional developments were ongoing, the desires of private collectors supported a thriving black market in antiquities and rare books and manuscripts. The details of the black market, and its shadow side, the forgery industry, change constantly in response to laws and policies put in place to defend the integrity of national collections and to discourage illicit archeological work. In the years following the Gulf War, when Iraqi access to food and medical supplies was limited by the sanctions imposed on Iraq by the international community, the black market in Iraqi antiquities bloomed. In part this was due to ordinary greed -- thieves desire money and art collectors desire objects or books. This was exacerbated by the desperate situation of the Iraqi population, outside the Baathist elite, who had little money and few legal ways of making any.

Whatever the reasons, archeologists and art historians became aware of the increase in the number of stolen goods flowing out of Iraq. Unscrupulous antiquities dealers have long experience in disguising the fact that their goods have been stolen, and they have the patience to wait until hot objects cool down, often only after decades. In one case a scholar was able to prove the theft and bring into play the laws of the country where the sale was taking place in order to block it. John Malcolm Russell, an art historian at the Massachusetts College of Art, had spent some years in northern Iraq immediately before the Gulf War, and he was able to use his detailed photographic archive to stop a sale of stolen sculpture in Britain.

Western archeologists were prepared for the second set of dangers, the dangers of looting and theft, and they warned U.S. military planners about the need to protect museums and similar collections. McGuire Gibson, of the University of Chicago, put the Baghdad museum first on a list of 150 crucial locations to be spared. The looters and thieves, however, were ready at the end of the major phase of fighting for Baghdad, before the coalition forces even thought about the need to safeguard the museum. In fact, some of the thieves entered the museum with detailed plans for theft and with keys to the vaults and safes. They were also equipped to carry off huge pieces of sculpture.

Irrevocable losses

The news came abruptly, two or three days after the fighting seemed to have calmed down, and the news was chilling. No reports said that the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad was in the process of being looted. Rather the reports said: It’s all gone. The entire collection seems to have been taken or vandalized in a period of a few days, April 11-14. The U.S. troops did nothing to stop the process, while they carefully defended the Ministries of Oil and the Interior. Most of the goods will flood into the black market and be dispersed all over the world; some will never be seen again. During the Gulf War, eight provincial museums were looted and 4,000 pieces lost; only 54 (less than 1.5 percent) have been retrieved or found. Scholars were quick to point out that some of the best-known pieces will be impossible to sell, since they appear in dozens of books clearly labeled as to their origin. The restoration of works of art with disputed ownership is a very slow process. Even today, some paintings stolen or displaced during the Second World War have not been returned to their rightful owners. The objects from the Iraqi National Museum are less well known than the paintings of Rembrandt and Klimt, and if restoration to a new museum becomes possible, it could take centuries. One part of the destruction can never be reversed: Everything in the Iraqi National Museum had an archeological provenance, a link to people’s lives; the associations among various pieces can never be restored, even if individual items are eventually returned to the museum.

Among the most significant losses from the museum are clay cuneiform tablets, mostly documentary records. It is possible that they were looted, because they can be sold as relatively cheap art objects. Although cuneiform does not have the visual allure of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the tablets can be attractive. Some of them have been published, but most had not been studied.

No simple statement about responsibility is possible. If we highlight the role of the U.S. military, that is because they were warned about the dangers and because we are Americans. Some of the responsibility has to rest on the shoulders of the Iraqis who stole the goods and on those of the European and American antiquities dealers who traffic in such things and who will make enormous profits from the sales of these pieces. One can imagine a markup of 5,000 percent as a small piece moves across Iraq, to the border with Turkey or Syria, into Swiss or French or American showrooms, and finally into a collector’s hands. Various pieces from the museum are rumored to have turned up in Paris and Tehran, and the first attempts to smuggle stolen museum goods into the United States were reported April 21.

-- AFP

The news about the museum was quickly followed by the news about the National Library and the library of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Awqaf). The Saddam Manuscripts Library, part of the National Library, was founded in 1988 to hold the 40,000 manuscripts that had previously been in the National Iraqi Museum. With these institutions as well, the U.S. forces did nothing to stop the destruction, which took the form of burning rather than looting. All sorts of manuscripts and books were burned. In recent years the government of Iraq funded a project to assemble in the national library as many as possible of the remaining, ancient Syriac manuscripts for cataloguing and safekeeping, as important parts of the national heritage. The recent destruction of the library thus marks a particularly sad moment in the history of the ancient Christian communities of Iraq, as does the damage to a number of ancient shrines and churches in Mosul and elsewhere. The library destruction was not primarily directed against Christian remains, although its actual focus remains unclear. It extended from a collection of Qurans to Ottoman administrative records. This loss will cripple efforts to understand and preserve every phase of the history of the country’s medieval and modern history, just as the looting of the museum has devastated the ancient history. Eleanor Robson of Oxford University, who worked with the tablet collection at the museum most recently two years ago, commented, “It will take a decade to get Iraq’s historical infrastructure working as well as it was a month ago, and a generation to train new scholars so that Iraqis can fully participate in the work.” She may be too optimistic.

Michael Patrick O’Connor and Sidney H. Griffith teach in the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 2003

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