Lost To The Ages

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PATRICK ROBERT/CORBIS FOR TIME

TRASHED: A storeroom at the Iraq Museum looked more like a garbage dump after looters went through it

As they so often do these days, reporters gave Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld the third degree during a press conference last week. The subject was still Iraq, but this time the inquiries were about a cultural disaster unfolding in Baghdad. After sacking government buildings, stores and the homes of Baath Party officials, looters had turned to the Iraq Museum. Within hours the building appeared to have been emptied of its archaeological treasures — and the press wanted to know why U.S. forces hadn't anticipated and prevented it. Didn't they care about Iraq's cultural heritage? Of course they did, answered a somewhat cranky Rumsfeld, pointing out that the coalition carefully avoided bombing the building: "Certainly the targeting people were well aware of where it was, and they certainly avoided targeting it ... Whatever damage was done was done from the ground."

But that was bad enough. Iraq's cultural history stretches back an astonishing 10,000 years, to the very dawn of civilization. The first cities, the earliest known legal system and the first written language all arose there — in the ancient Mesopotamian kingdoms of Sumer, Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia. And artifacts from that entire, mind-boggling sweep of time — hundreds of thousands of objects that had survived wars and successive invasions by Cyrus of Persia, Alexander the Great, the Mongols and other marauders long forgotten — might now be missing or destroyed.


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It wasn't just the museum, either. Vandals also invaded three libraries, setting fire to thousands upon thousands of records, manuscripts and rare books — including irreplaceable copies of the Koran. Says Renata Holod, a professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania: "The burning of the National Library and the National Archives is comparable to a collection of the size and importance of the Library of Congress being gutted and destroyed. It's such a tragedy, I could cry." Nor was the devastation limited to Baghdad. The University of Mosul's important rare book and manuscript collection also was sacked last week, and the University of Basra's museum and library reportedly suffered a similar fate, as did the museum in Kirkuk.

At first, authorities suspected that the crimes had been perpetrated by ordinary Iraqis desperate to sell whatever they could lay their hands on to feed their families. But while that probably accounted for part of the rampage, it quickly became clear that at least some of the looting had been planned well in advance. Whoever robbed the Iraq Museum took original artifacts while leaving behind near-perfect copies, and they evidently had keys to some of the museum's vaults. In addition, they trashed the institution's records, as if to ensure that it would be tough to alert art dealers to hot merchandise entering the black market. "I would be very surprised if it weren't professional looting," says John Malcolm Russell, an expert in Mesopotamian archaeology at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston.

Indeed, before the week was out, rumors began to surface that suspicious items were already being offered for sale in Iran and Europe. One Iraqi antiques dealer recounted how he was awakened at dawn last week by an art smuggler saying he had Japanese clients who were very interested in buying anything from the plundered museums and wanting to know if the dealer had access to such booty. "I couldn't believe it," the dealer says. "The war was barely over, and this vulture was trying to profit from our defeat. I called him a pimp."

What makes the situation all the more tragic is that scholars had warned the Department of Defense (DOD) in January that something like this might happen. The organized looting of ancient artifacts has been rampant in Iraq ever since U.N. sanctions choked off the country's legal streams of revenue following the 1991 Gulf War. "We wanted to make them aware of the importance of Mesopotamia and familiarize them with important sites," says McGuire Gibson, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, who participated in the talks. He says he gave DOD officials a list of critical sites to avoid bombing, and explicitly warned them about the possibility of looting at the Iraq Museum.

Still, while coalition forces took pains to safeguard Iraq's oil ministry in Baghdad, they left the nation's cultural heritage wide open. Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammad, an Iraqi archaeologist, told the New York Times that at the height of the ransacking, he persuaded a U.S. Marine tank crew to come to the museum, where they fired over looters' heads, dispersing several thousand of them.

But the Marines refused to bring the tank inside the grounds, and soon after they left the looters returned. "You tell me what their priorities are," said Iraqi archaeologist Salma El Radi last week after an emergency UNESCO meeting in Paris. General Richard Myers explained at a press conference last week, "At the same time that museum was being looted, we had Americans being wounded and dying in Baghdad. So your priorities, of course, are to finish the combat task." That reasoning clearly wasn't persuasive to three members of the White House's Cultural Property Advisory Committee, who resigned to protest U.S. inaction.

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