Essays - Summer 2006

The Sack of Baghdad

The U.S. invasion of Iraq has turned cultural icons into loot and archaeological sites into ruins

By Susannah Rutherglen | June 1, 2006


In a few hundred or thousand years’ time, the looting of the Iraq National Museum in early April 2003 will fill one more paragraph in a long history of wartime plunder and spoil. From the last major looting of Baghdad’s artistic treasures, in 1258, to the sack of Constantinople by wayward crusaders earlier in that century, the Spaniards’ pillage of Aztec and Inca possessions, Napoleon’s Italian exploits, and the ongoing deracination of artifacts from “hot spots” around the globe today, world history is replete with episodes of systematic cultural theft. In 1527, Luigi Guicciardini, a Florentine observer of the sack of Rome, described a truly timeless event: “Divine things were treated no differently by them than profane ones,” he wrote of the imperial invaders, “and rushing continually here and there like Furies from hell, they searched every sacred place and, with terrible violence, broke into any building they chose.”

But if the plunder of the Iraq Museum is not unique, it is, from the vantage point of any 21st-century American, distinct—for having happened so recently, for having been precipitated by U.S. force, and, most of all, for having played out during a time of international concern about the fate of historical and artistic patrimonies. Perhaps, given the sustained reaction it has elicited, the episode furnishes a particularly appropriate case study in the meaning of cultural loss.

In April 2003, then, who were the “Furies from hell,” and what sort of damage did they cause? Was the looting preventable? What will be its longterm cost to the study of Mesopotamian and world culture, and to the conduct of diplomacy and war in the region?

As might be expected, answers to these questions are manifold and often mutually unsatisfactory. Since the first alarming news trickled out of Baghdad—170,000 or even 270,000 artifacts missing—reports of the events at the Iraq Museum have proved almost as plentiful as the objects themselves; by now, more than three years later, the looting has yielded as many narratives, and as many types of storytellers, as Guicciardini might have predicted. “To describe in detail the various and strange events that happened while the victors swept on in their raging fury,” he wrote, “would be to write not one but many terrifying tragedies.”

The Iraq Museum lies on the west bank of the Tigris River, in an 11-acre compound of galleries, offices, and courtyards flanked by covered verandas. On April 8, 2003, nearly all agree, American tanks were pushing into the center of Baghdad, the museum’s staff had fled, and Saddam Hussein’s forces had entered the complex bearing automatic weapons and grenades. Over the next two days, fighting around the museum was intense, with Iraqi sniper fire coming from within the galleries. At some point, perhaps on the 9th, looters found their way into the compound. By the time it was safe enough for the staff to return, on the afternoon of the 12th, the plunder was proceeding unchecked. Museum officials approached a nearby U.S. Army tank and asked for help in staunching the flow; but members of the unit, lacking orders from above, refused. Not until the 16th, four days later, did a quartet of American tanks arrive to protect the complex full time.

Meanwhile, it appears, hundreds of people had scoured the offices, galleries, and storage areas, stealing objects—now estimated at about 13,000—and, equally disastrously, associated records and bookkeeping devices. On or around April 21, Col. Matthew Bogdanos, a member of the Marine reserves on active duty, arrived in Baghdad with a contingent of soldiers. After hearing of the looting several days earlier, Bogdanos had, with some effort, convinced his superiors to allow him to lead an investigative and recovery operation. The group set up shop inside the trashed complex, sleeping in the library, and began to take stock of the loss.

Several of the groups at the center of these events—journalists, museum officials and curators, scholars of the region’s art and history, and U.S. troops—have produced accounts of the looting. Bogdanos’s take, Thieves of Baghdad, co-authored with novelist William Patrick and published last year, is a racier version of an article that originally appeared in the American Journal of Archaeology. In cinematic style (the text is rumored to be circulating in Hollywood), Bogdanos begins with an eyewitness report of the World Trade Center attacks, then narrates his departure from his desk job as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, his subsequent service as a Marine in Afghanistan and Baghdad, and finally his ongoing effort to repair the damage to the museum’s collection. This tale is, then, one of American military action, and it reaches back to the death of U.S. citizens on their own soil.

For the international scholarly community, on the other hand, the looting is above all a story of material and historical loss, and an occasion for remembering the Mesopotamian tradition. The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, edited by the journalists Milbry Polk and Angela M. H. Schuster and published in 2005, brings together essays by nearly two dozen scholars of Near Eastern culture, who furnish an introduction to the museum’s artifacts and history. Although permeated with references to the looting, the text largely sidesteps legal and forensic details, choosing instead to focus on high-quality photographs and eloquently informed descriptions. Another work, Iraq Beyond the Headlines, co-authored by the scholars Benjamin R. Foster and Karen Polinger Foster and also released last year, traces events in Iraq from prehistory down to the latest American invasion. The text concludes with a timely digest of antiquities-trafficking issues by the legal scholar Patty Gerstenblith.

Finally, the stream of press attention flows on, with Andrew Lawler, Micah Garen, Marie-Hélène Carleton, Roger Atwood, Dan Cruickshank, Roger Cohen, and others attending to a still-breaking story. First word of the sack, in fact, reached American forces by way of the media, which, despite their exaggerated early reports, continue to provide compelling eyewitness accounts of the recovery and regulation effort.

Viewed as a whole, this kaleidoscope of published material suggests the complexity of the events of April 2003, as well as the elusive and inconclusive nature of the loss. Because the museum lacked a comprehensive inventory, there was no way to gauge the magnitude of the thefts—hence the widely divergent estimates of the overall toll. In the above-ground storage rooms, as-yet-uncatalogued items were arranged on shelves according to the excavation sites where they had originated. When looters stormed through these rooms, knocking the contents of entire shelves into bags, they stole items that the museum had never firmly documented as its own. Furthermore, they separated individual pieces from the archaeological contexts that lent them meaning. “Each object is a unique window into the human past, not a massproduced item in a modern warehouse inventory,” write Benjamin and Karen Foster, reminding readers of the folly of attempts to quantify the thefts. “Damaged pieces returned through amnesty or detective work do not simply transfer from one side to another of a balance sheet, but are forever deprived of their former integrity.”

Of course, looters also took some well-tracked, extensively researched and photographed pieces—most famously, the Warka Vase, product of one of the great urban cultures of the late fourth millennium B.C.E. A tall, slender alabaster container, elegant as a reed, it carries registers of relief carvings depicting the Sumerians’ most precious objects and values: at the base, flowing water and waving grains; above, sheep and rams; higher yet, human processions and gift offerings; finally, close to the rim, the complex traffic between ruler and resident goddess, an exquisitely choreographed exchange of reverence and gifts for expectations of sustenance and protection. The vase was stolen from the museum but eventually returned in 14 pieces, after curators advertised an amnesty policy across the country.

This comparatively happy ending was not in store for the museum’s collection of documentary tools, another major monument of the early Mesopotamian city-states. In these centers, the art of writing and literature first flowered, as scribes used reeds, stone cylinders, or seals to impress symbols on wet clay tablets. As the scholar Robert Biggs explains in The Looting of the Iraq Museum, the earliest writers progressed from a primarily pictographic system—if it looks like a pig, it must be a pig—toward the symbolic systems of cuneiform and Aramaic, which transformed written language into the ductile instrument we use today. Biggs notes that these early documents are primarily cultural; works of literature and tiny images survive in far larger quantities than do bureaucratic or economic records. During the looting, much of the museum’s collection of cylinder seals and stamps, the precious instruments with which these artifacts were made, was taken—perhaps 5,000 objects in all, the earliest records of human record keeping gone. Recoveries from this vast cache have been spotty, difficult to authenticate, and colored by suspicions that the objects’ theft from locked cabinets in an underground storage room was an inside job.

Other big-ticket items remain missing, as well. A headless black diorite statue of Entemena, king of one of the prominent city-states of southern Iraq during the third millennium B.C.E., has not resurfaced. Neither have innumerable smaller pottery shards, seals, and jewelry pieces. American officials, in concert with a worldwide network of police and military authorities, have recovered several thousand of the lost objects. But the restoration of the museum’s collection “as it was” will never be possible. In this sense, the U.S. invasion and subsequent events mark a tragic dividing line in human history.

Who is to blame for these losses? To more than one spectator, the panorama of early human culture and the desecration of its memory in April 2003 present the temptation of an eerie fatalism. Invasions, after all, bring disorder, and wherever disorder reigns there is looting and the destruction of major monuments. The museum’s plunder might have been prevented by avoiding war altogether—but we all know that war is inevitable, the drunken uncle at the picnic of world culture.

In this instance, however, such tidy conclusions are not possible. The Iraq Museum belonged to the party apparatus of Saddam Hussein; as a Ba’athist tool, it was controlled and staffed by members of his regime. When the government fell, Iraqis expressed their rage against Saddam by taking vengeance on the museum. They gutted the offices of prominent Ba’ath party officials—removing everything “right down to the telephones and the paperclips,” as Bogdanos notes—but then, apparently, skirted the gallery areas. Opportunistic thieves and conniving antiquities traffickers surely slipped in with the mob, but it was the politically motivated disorder that made their hauls possible.

This is an old story: the looter’s sack brims with grievances against the powerful. Even as it happened in 1527, the plunder of Rome was widely understood as retaliation for the excesses of the popes. Invaders paraded through the streets on mules clad in ecclesiastical garments—one priest was executed for failing to administer the most holy sacrament to such a beast—and their concubines wore jewels pried from papal tiaras. When crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204, they likewise interpreted their gargantuan thefts as just payment for their mission. One leader of the Christian looting, Baldwin of Flanders, made an eerily prescient declaration, one that would have found agreeable ears among angry Iraqis: “Those who denied us small things have relinquished everything to us by divine judgment.”

Whatever their own motivations, American forces well knew the political valence of institutions associated with Hussein’s regime. In January, archaeologists and civilian advisors had met with Joseph Collins, deputy assistant secretary for stability operations at the Department of Defense, to warn that the museum would attract violent reprisal in the aftermath of an invasion. An internal memo from the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, circulated two weeks before the invasion, made the same point. Later, an anonymous official within the military itself made a plea for tanks to guard the complex. Aside from confirming that U.S. soldiers were under orders not to loot, military officials did nothing—made absolutely no provisions for the site’s protection. This was not all, however. Gen. Tommy Franks mapped a course of invasion that directly exposed the museum to battle action: the “Thunder Runs” through which American tanks pushed their way into the center of Baghdad swept directly past the museum. No wonder, then, that in the days before the invasion, Saddam’s forces had appropriated the site and retrofitted it as a combat zone: from a strategic point of view, they simply had made a correct guess about where U.S. fire would originate.

It may be impossible to assign blame, but it is easy to pinpoint alternate courses of action. The events at the gallery compound could have been mitigated by any number of choices on the part of U.S. forces: not to invade Iraq at all; to deliver orders for the site’s protection; to circumvent it in battle plans; and then to deliver soldiers and protection once the looting had begun—once, indeed, museum officials had requested help. But such choices were never made, or never acted upon.

After the looting had occurred, the United States had a chance to stave off similar catastrophes. Today, however, archaeological sites across Iraq continue to witness ruinous plundering. At Isin, in the south, the thefts are presided over by the site’s chief guards, who take a cut of all finds; an archaeologist fighting to stop the destruction there was abducted for three weeks last December. Aerial views of Umma, a Sumerian city-state of the third millennium B.C.E., reveal a scene of surgical devastation: a dense honeycomb of cavities from which looters nightly extract thousands of artifacts. “A sea of holes in the desert—negative spaces in history,” write Garen and Carleton in The Looting of the Iraq Museum, noting that “a landscape as desolate as the surface of the moon during the day springs to life after sunset with generators, lightbulbs, trucks, and shovels, as hundreds of looters dig till dawn.”

Where are the American forces? According to the Geneva Convention of 1949, the Hague Convention of 1954, and the UNESCO Convention of 1970, foreign powers owe full responsibility for the protection of cultural treasures in the lands they choose to occupy. But at Isin, not a troop is in sight. At least one officer in the U.S. military, Lt. Col. Daniel O’Donohue, has told a New York Times reporter that the Iraqis must defend any “fixed site” on their own.

Coalition soldiers are not only shirking responsibility for the protection of Iraq’s cultural centers, they are studiously wreaking their own havoc. Soon after the invasion, U.S. forces rolled into the ancient city of Babylon and constructed a helipad in its center, blasting through major archaeological strata in the process. Before long, the gusts from departing and arriving helicopters had leveled the wall and roof of two nearby temples dating from the sixth century. American forces have since left Babylon, only to move on to a new site—Malwiya tower, a smooth sandstone spiral minaret built by Abbasids during the ninth century. Recently commandeered as a lookout by U.S. snipers, the tower has, predictably, attracted rebel fire and sustained substantial structural damage.

Disagree as they might, all the recent books and articles on the Iraq Museum converge on this present-day calamity—the destruction of monuments and the rapid hemorrhage of artifacts from unprotected sites. The harm, particularly to the integrity of the archaeological settings from which objects are being uprooted, is immeasurable. Any assignment of responsibility, any diagnosis of what actually occurred in April 2003, must be made in light of this continuing, evolving crisis.

In his book and articles, Bogdanos has presented a case for the good intentions of American forces—before, during, and especially after the looting. But his defenses ring hollow before the current problems. The incidental destruction of cultural buildings and sacred spaces during war is one thing, but flagrant refusal even to make a show of protecting such treasures is quite another. The indifference of American forces to the fate of Iraq’s archaeological sites betrays a larger lack of concern for the region’s cultural infrastructure. Without schools, without concert halls, without places of worship—and without intact museums and archaeological sites—Iraqis have nothing, no fixed core around which to reconstruct their homes and lives. No wonder the country’s “reconstruction” over the past three years has taken the course it has.

Is it foolish to mention culture when Iraq lurches toward civil war? Not for those who realize what the preservation and study of the region’s heritage have accomplished over the past century. For all the talk about the Middle East and its problems, there has been little recognition of the pragmatic work that culture can do, and is already doing, to bring about change there. At this point, indeed, culture might be the region’s only hope.

The Iraq Museum itself presents a model of the progress that works of art and educational institutions can bring about. Over the past 80 years, it has become a center of international cooperation, where American, Italian, British, and Middle Eastern scholars collaborate on the preservation and study of objects. This work began despite political hazards and administrative problems, and now continues even in the wake of the looting.

The museum has also furnished opportunities for Iraqi women. When Lamia Al-Gailani Werr, a Baghdad native, sought to begin her archaeological career there in the 1960s, few if any women were working in the field. Acceding to persistent requests, the Iraqi government granted her permission to excavate only in the vicinity of Baghdad. Her first dig turned up finds of unsurpassed importance, including a proof of the Pythagorean theorem that beat the Greek mathematician to the punch by 2,000 years.

This pattern continued in succeeding decades. By 2003, of the museum’s 53 employees 47 were female, and three women had served as director. No other major museum in the world—not the Met, not the Louvre—could boast this record. Under one of the most repressive political regimes on the globe, the prospect of advancement for women had—in this sphere at least—become a matter-of-fact reality.

Across the Middle East, similar advances are occurring. At the Halil River valley in Iran, Andrew Lawler reports in Smithsonian, an innovative dig is being conducted by the archaeologist Yousef Majidzadeh. He employs and trains native Iranians—including numerous women—as archaeologists, and encourages the participation of local workers. As at many other sites, the steady employment opportunities furnished by archaeological research help to lessen the temptation of looting and to improve local understanding of the region’s history. Majidzadeh himself tours neighboring towns, exhibiting and lecturing on cultural and historical topics, including his own team’s potentially revolutionary find, the fabled Bronze Age culture of Aratta.

The most vivid testimony to this phenomenon, however, comes from Polk and Schuster’s book, as individual scholars describe their contacts with native workers, the connections (some successful, some less so) they have forged with difficult political regimes, and the international effort to safeguard cultural objects. If there is any basis for a shared understanding between the West and the peoples of the Middle East, it is this common heritage. The region’s museums and archaeological sites provide a point of convergence for cultures across the globe: a vertical sample reaching down to the earliest deposits of our common existence. For all the discussion of globalization today, there has been little attention to the truly global history that lies packed in Mesopotamian soil—a conceptual and practical ground on which to build relationships among nations.

Perhaps it is time to take seriously again the claim, most memorably made by Friedrich Schiller, that art’s quality of constructiveness can extend into the political realm; that culture can further the ends of freedom and individual moral autonomy; and, beyond this, that its contributions to the social sphere are in concert rather than in conflict with its more accepted functions—visual pleasure or creative expression. Until we take such a view of art and its meaning for civilized life, our view of politics and national identity will always be truncated and shortsighted.

During the last three years, the United States and the international community have worked to repair the damage done to the Iraq Museum, but, as the present-day crisis suggests, this effort hardly stands at the forefront of American concerns. Our ignorance of what is at stake in the preservation of this cultural legacy sets up impassable barriers to political progress. Moreover, it suggests for our own society a devastating diagnosis—that we have forgotten our own human heritage, one that we share not least with the peoples of the Middle East. In April 2003, did we destroy something we had already lost?

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