Three years after Iraq's ancient treasures were first stolen and smashed, the cradle of civilisation is still being looted. It's a catastrophe, says former arts minister Mark Fisher
'Pillagers strip Iraq museum of its treasure," the New York Times reported on April 13 2003 as Baghdad fell to coalition forces. The next day the Independent reported that "scores of Iraqi civilians broke into the museum ... and made off with an estimated 170,000 ancient and priceless artefacts".
The media joined archaeologists in condemning President Bush and the US. Eleanor Robson, a council member of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, compared the US under President Bush to the Mongol hordes, and the destruction of the museum's collection to that of the library of Alexandria in the 5th century. The president of the International Council on Monuments said that the US was guilty of committing a "crime against humanity". Interpol set up a task force to track Iraq's stolen cultural property, Unesco organised meetings of experts, and the US sent a multi-agency task force to investigate. It included specialists from the CIA, the FBI, the Diplomatic Security Service and US Immigration and Customs, and was led by Col Michael Bogdanos, a former assistant district attorney from Manhattan.
Bogdanos announced an amnesty and slowly artefacts began to be returned, including one of the museum's most beautiful and precious objects: the alabaster Warka Vase, carved in Uruk 5,000 years ago and now brought back in 14 pieces in a plastic rubbish bag. The pictures on the vase tell us much about life in ancient Mesopotamia, showing scenes of agriculture, religious and ritual offerings. Other pieces were recovered in raids, including the Bassetki statue, a copper statue base with the lower half of a man holding a standard or doorpost. It was hidden in a cesspool, submerged.
As these successes were reported, and estimates of the total losses revised down to around 15,000 artefacts, the media's initial horror was replaced by a mood of relief, even of defiant complacency. David Aaronovitch wrote in this newspaper that "the only problem with [reports that the museum 'was looted under the noses of the Yanks, or by the Yanks themselves'] is that it's nonsense. It isn't true. It's made up. It's bollocks." The robbing of the Iraq National Museum slipped from the headlines. The caravan of outrage passed on. Gradually, however, the extent of the loss and damage to Iraq's heritage across the country became clearer. Many of the Iraq National Museum's major pieces, too big and heavy to move, had been smashed. At Mosul, 16 bronze Assyrian door panels from the city gates of Balawat (9th century BC) had been stolen, as had cuneiform tablets from Khorsabad and Nineveh. In Baghdad, the National Library and State Archives building was burned down and the national collections of contemporary Iraqi and European art, including works by Picasso and Miró, were looted.
Even more serious, perhaps, has been the damage to Iraq's archaeology. In this cradle of civilisation, more than 10,000 sites of interest have been identified, of which only 1,500 have been researched. These sites are currently undefended from looters. Willy Deridder, the head of Interpol, has said that these sites - particularly those in the south, such as the 4,000-year-old ziggurat at Ur - are almost impossible to protect.
Babylon and Ur were requisitioned by the coalition and have had military camps constructed within their ancient sites. At Babylon the US forces flattened 300,000 sq metres and covered the area with compacted gravel in order to create parking lots for military vehicles next to a Greek theatre built for Alexander of Macedon. A dozen trenches, each up to 170m long, have been cut through archeological workings, destroying the evidence that they might have yielded.
A helipad was constructed in the heart of ancient Babylon. For this, ground had to be bulldozed and thousands of Hesco sandbags (made by the US-owned Handling Equipment Speciality Company) filled with earth to provide fortifications. The soil in these bags, dug up from the site, contains archaeological material now ripped out of its context, deracinated for all time. Worse, when more Hesco containers had to be filled, soil was brought in from other sites. The Hesco containers are biodegradable and are already beginning to collapse, leaving a stew of archaeological material that will eventually have to be sifted at vast expense if it is to be of value.
The military have now moved on, but while the helipad was in use the daily flights shook the foundations of Babylon's ancient walls so severely that the wall of the Temple of Nabu and the roof of the 6th-century-BC Temple of Ninmah collapsed.
In the south, the remains of the ancient city of Ur, excavated by Leonard Woolley in the 1920s, is still a military camp, while the sites of neighbouring Sumerian city-states (Lagash, Uruk and Larsa) have been so badly damaged by looters that observers have described them as resembling devastated lunar landscapes, with craters 5m deep. These craters have been dug by Iraqis who, now that the sites are not guarded, are "farming" them at night for portable antiquities that can be sold.
The damage to Umma, in the desert north of Nasiriya, is particularly serious. One of the most celebrated of the Sumerian cities, it was not officially excavated until 1996. It has now been so comprehensively looted that what it can tell us of pre-Akkadian times may be irretrievably lost.
How important is this? For the Iraqis, the damage strikes at the heart of their culture and history. Although the Iraq National Museum was founded only in 1923, it was an institution around which all Iraqis, regardless of religion, could attempt to create some shared national identity. There is also considerable significance for the rest of the world: in these sites are buried the roots of western civilisation. A line of influence (philosophical, scientific, artistic, aesthetic) runs from Mesopotamia through Greece to Rome and on to us. This is the birthplace of historiography in that it was here, in Babylonia, in southern Iraq, that writing was invented 5,000 years ago, when cuneiform, etched on clay tablets, allowed the transmission of ideas, of achievements, of records.
In the fertile Mesopotamian lands, we can trace man's achievements back for at least 10,000 years, to early farming communities of Nemrik, to the al'Ubaid civilisation (7,000 years ago) and to the rule of the Sumerian king, Gilgamesh, which inspired The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2000 BC), one of the greatest works of literature, written in cuneiform on 11 tablets and in which we have the earliest accounts of the great flood.
It is only in the past 150 years that we have begun to retrieve this history and the record of the astounding achievements of the Sumerian and Akkadian empires that succeeded it. We have in the Louvre, in the Philadelphia museum, the Ashmolean and the British Museum glimpses of the sophistication of Ur with its Royal Tombs; of the wonders of Sardon's palaces at Khorsabad, with their statues of winged bulls; of the Lion Hunts of Ashurbanipal, shown in reliefs from the North Palace at Nineveh.
But these treasures, though mighty, are modest when compared with those in the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad: the Lion Hunt stela from Uruk; the now-eyeless copper head of the Great King Naram-Sin; the stained ivory sculpture known as the Mona Lisa of Nimrud. This has once again survived, as it did in 612 BC when Nimrud was attacked and the head was thrown down a well where it lay submerged for 2,500 years. Along with the Nimrud gold from the tombs of the Assyrian Queens, the head was stored in the "safety" of the vaults of the Central Bank in Baghdad, along with the Nimrud gold from the tombs of the Assyrian Queens. There it avoided being looted, but both gold and head were severely damaged by an apocalyptic flood of 500,000 tons of water that may have been deliberately engineered to prevent Saddam Hussein and his sons from making off with them.
In 2003, in the months when a coalition invasion seemed likely, there was ample time in which to take steps to protect Iraq's treasures and in which the world's archeological community could, and did, make representations to the governments in Washington and London. Thousands of objects were removed to places of safety, but the pleas to Bush and Blair were ignored. When Baghdad fell in March 2003, the Iraq National Museum remained unguarded for days and the country's archeological sites for months.
What can be learned from these unhappy events? What is being done? Unesco has established an International Committee on which 30 countries are represented. The UK's delegate is Dr John Curtis, keeper of the British Museum's Ancient Near East Department. Last November the committee agreed a resolution that there should be an independent assessment made of the damage to Babylon. However, the US is reluctant to cooperate unless the assessment is under American control and employs American consultants.
On the security of archeological sites, most are agreed that, if the "farming" of sites is to end, the guards should be restored and their salaries raised. Ideally, there should be aerial surveillance over the most important sites, but here again US cooperation is uncertain.
Action needs to be taken to stop the illegal export of artefacts stolen from museums and sites. There is general agreement with the assessment of the director of the Iraq Museum, Donny George, that Iran and Turkey are "not assisting" in the control of this black market and that many of the exported artefacts are passing through Switzerland, which has the fourth largest art market in the world but continues to refuse to ratify the 1970 Unesco Convention on Illegal Exports of Works of Art.
In the medium term, responsibility for re-establishing Iraq's museums and sites should be assumed by the interim Iraqi government. This body has recently announced a reconstructing of its cultural ministry into four sections (museums, excavations, conservation, and interpretation and learning). Each section will report to a minister and the role of Dr George, who has done so much to restore order in the past 18 months, will be downgraded. He may retire.
Our worst fears, that "10,000 years of human history has been erased" may not have come to pass, but a similar catastrophe in the future may not be averted unless the US and the UK governments recognise the damage that the war has caused and accept some responsibility for it.
They might profit from reading The Epic of Gilgamesh. Like all great poems, it tells us about ourselves. It is about grief and the fear of death, about man's quest for wisdom and immortality. Its hero doesn't understand the difference between strength and arrogance. By attacking a monster, he brings down disaster on himself.
Note: This article is from the February issue of Index on Censorship (020-7278 2313). Mark Fisher is the author of Britain's Best Museums and Galleries (Penguin, £20).