Museum, memory and mankind
By Gulshan Dietl

The self-proclaimed aim of the U.S. war was the liberation of the Iraqis and securing a better future for them. Will that future be built on their stolen past?

On April 10, the United States President, George W. Bush, went on TV to speak to the Iraqis. "You are the heirs of a great civilization that contributes to all humanity," he said. How right he was on this!

Iraq occupies the greater part of the ancient land of Mesopotamia. Ur, where according to the Bible, Abraham was born. Nineveh, capital of King Asurbanipal. Uruk, the scene of the Gilgamesh epic. Hatra, the Parthian desert city. Assur, the first capital of the Assyrian kingdom with the Ishtar temple. Babylon, the seat of Hammurabi who codified the first laws governing life of the citizens. And Samarra, the mosque with 55-metre-high spiralling minarets. The world's first city, first writing, first library, first calendar, and the first democracy - all these can be traced to this cradle of mankind. And of special significance for the Bible-minded Bush administration, most of the early chapters of `Genesis' are believed to have been written in Mesopotamia.

It was a past of incomparable richness. A major repository of its cultural heritage going back 7,000 years has been the National Museum of Baghdad. Two hundred years of work by archaeologists, excavators, museologists, curators, historians, art-restorers, patrons and protectors went into the creation of that emblem of human history. Its collection, till recently, included a three-foot Sumerian vase that was 5,200 years old; a bronze figure of an Akkadian king that was 4,500 years old; a 4,600-year old headless statue of the Sumerian king, Entemena; and a silver harp from the ancient city of Ur that was 4,000 years old. Its Sippar library - the oldest ever found intact on its original shelves - comprised 800 cuneiform clay tablets of hymns, prayers, lamentations, bits of epics, glossaries, astronomical and scientific texts, missing pieces of a flood legend that parallels the Biblical story of Noah, prologue to the code of Hammurabi and so on.

Unintentionally and ironically, Mr. Bush was sharing the television spot with some powerful images from Baghdad that day. There were well-dressed men with walkie-talkies outside the museum and others with glasscutters and hammers inside it. They knew what they were looking for and went for them directly. The dealers had ordered specific pieces well in advance. Inside help was available as the vaults where the best pieces were kept were opened with keys. Orderly convoys of vans were waiting at the gate to transport the treasure. There were the odd amateurs also on the scene grabbing what they could. Within days, 1,70,000 artifacts had disappeared under the benign gaze of the coalition forces.

For good measure, the "Palace of Wisdom" or the National Library that also housed the national archives was set on fire after its contents were looted. Among them, the world's oldest Koran. The Hewar Art Gallery, in the midst of a major exhibition, was pillaged. "The Magic Lantern", a children's theatre and cinema, was sacked.

The museum at the Nebuchadnezzar Palace was swept clean of its statues, burial masks, vases and other relics of the distant past. The Nimrud museum in Mosul was plundered as well. Artists and art-lovers were aghast that the coalition forces had permitted this catastrophe to occur and go on for days. According to Eleanor Robson, Professor at All Souls College, Oxford, "You'd have to go back centuries to the Mongol invasion of 1258 to find looting on this scale."

The irrepressible Donald Rumsfeld at one of his Pentagon briefings trivialized the entire episode. It was not the act that was wrong, but the television that showed "over and over and over... the same picture of some person walking out of a building with a vase". Did he realize that he was reacting to the Iraqi equivalent of the pillaging of the National Archives, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.? Only much older, much more precious? The entire mankind had a claim on that treasure trove.

The White House spokesman, Ari Fleisher, went a step further. "What you are seeing is a reaction to people's oppression." Was it a spontaneous and random vengeance against the hated state? If it was just that, it would have been enough to scare the mobs away.

The American Presidential Advisers on Culture do not think so; and three of them have resigned in protest. They claim to have repeatedly warned of just such an eventuality. A pre-emptive war does permit its planners to take precautions, where needed. In fact, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) had sent a memo to the Pentagon listing 16 sites that were crucial to protect in Baghdad. The museum was number two after the National Bank. The Ministry of Oil that was number 16, at the very bottom, was ultimately the only one that the warriors chose to defend to the hilt; and understandably so!

During the Gulf War of 1991, nine out of 13 of Iraq's museums were looted flooding the antiquities market with booty for years. There was no reason to expect anything different this time. There is a well-developed global network of shadowy art thieves that specializes in stolen antiquities.

The loot from Baghdad is already moving through the underground channels to dealers, auction-houses, private collectors, souvenir hunters and culture connoisseurs. Some objects of art may already have found new homes - coffee tables and showcases in the villas of businessmen and bankers in London, Zurich, New York and such other places. After a spell of discreet hibernation, they may even resurface in the megalopolis' museums.

In the meanwhile, the local clerics have urged the people to return the stolen pieces generating a steady trickle of repentant thieves and their booty to the neighborhood mosques. The UNESCO has appealed for contributions from the member-states to which Italy has responded with a pledge to contribute a million dollars. Curators of museums the world over are deliberating strategies to intercept, regain and restore the priceless treasure of mankind. It is proposed to declare an amnesty and a reward to the thieves who return the stolen artifacts, to seal the Iraqi borders to prevent their rapid dispersal, to set a moratorium on trade in antiquities from Iraq and so on. A concerned scholar of Iraqi history and civilization has come up with a novel suggestion; that the scholars everywhere pool their photographs, drawings and descriptions of the museum's artifacts and archives to create an electronic "Virtual Museum" from the wreckage of the old.

The international law in this context needs to be mentioned. According to the Hague Convention of 1954, the states "undertake to lessen the consequences of armed conflict for cultural heritage and to take preventive measures for such protection". The Protocols to the Convention are more specific. They prohibit the export of cultural property from the occupied territory; require the return of such property to the territory of the state from which it was removed; and expressly forbid the appropriation of cultural property as war reparation.

The U.S. is not a signatory either to the convention or to the protocols. Does that absolve it of any obligation in this regard? Not necessarily. The U.S. is, in any case, a member of UNESCO. Its Charter states that "cultural heritage reflects identity. Its preservation helps rebuild broken communities, re-establish their identities and link their past with their future."

The self-proclaimed aim of the U.S. war was the liberation of the Iraqis and securing a better future for them. Will that future be built on their stolen past? How will Mr. Bush address the "heirs of a great civilization that contributes to all humanity" in his next televised speech?

Loss of a museum effectively means the loss of contact with the worlds we have lost. It does not erase our memory of those worlds, thank God. The worlds of mankind.

[Source: The Hindu, 3May03. Gulshan Dietl is Professor, School of International Studies, JNU.]

War in Iraq and Glabal State of exception

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This document has been published on 07apr03 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.