The trashing of civilisation.

By Eleanor Robson.

The allies must make every effort to piece together the fragments of Iraq's heritage, writes Eleanor Robson.

This is a tragedy with echoes of past catastrophes: the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258, and the fifth-century destruction of the library of Alexandria. For the loss is not just Iraq's but ours, too.

Iraq has not been called the cradle of civilisation for nothing. Five thousand years ago it was the birthplace of writing, cities, codified law, mathematics, medicine and astronomy. The House of Wisdom in ninth-century Baghdad kept classical scholarship alive and promoted a vigorous intellectual reaction to it while Europe was stumbling through the dark ages.

In 1976 - 10 years after its opening - the Iraq Museum published a catalogue with a mission statement. It read: "The relics of the past serve as reminders of what has been before, and as links in the chain of communication between past, present and future. The society which possesses many and fine museums has a correspondingly stronger historical memory than the society without them."

The catalogue described in loving detail many of the thousands of objects displayed in the 20 galleries, from 100,000-year-old stone tools from the Kirkuk area to Sumerian jewellery and gold from the third millennium BC, from Babylonian cuneiform tablets and Assyrian ivories to Parthian sculpture, glassware and manuscripts from medieval Baghdad.

Ten years after the 1991 Gulf War, the museum opened its doors again - despite sanctions, which meant staff went unpaid, conservation materials were unobtainable, and contact with foreign colleagues was restricted. The launch party was attended by more than 60 scholars representing the global academic community.

The museum's galleries are laid out in a quadrangle on two floors around the central courtyard. They are cool and dark, with natural light filtering through the skylights at the top of the rooms. The first galleries one enters contained sculptures from the Assyrian palaces in northern Iraq: magnificent life-size carvings showing the rulers of the Middle Eastern world in the ninth to seventh centuries BC. A sequence of smaller rooms housed innumerable fragments of exquisitely carved ivory furniture from the same palaces.

Further on are the Hatra galleries, devoted to the desert city which is Iraq's only UNESCO world heritage site. Here were displayed the funerary statues of the men and women of Hatra: inhabitants of the border between the Roman and the Iranian worlds 2000 years ago, who chose a glorious hybrid of Eastern and Western styles to commemorate their dead.

The Islamic galleries housed tilework from medieval mosques, priceless Korans, fittings and furniture from ninth-century palaces, and jewellery, textiles and coins.

There was not enough time to see everything when I visited the museum two years ago, and now I never will. Most of the collection lies in ruins, trampled and smashed by looters, if not stolen. Many objects from Iraq's long rich past are in smithereens.

After the previous Gulf War there was a project to document what had been lost to looting. It took five years to catalogue 4000 objects, few ofwhich have been recovered. This time the stakes are far higher and the problem immeasurably more difficult.

Most immediately, the museum should be treated as a crime scene, both forensically and legally. Every reporter, photographer and sightseer risks disturbing the destruction stratum (as archaeologists would describe it), which must remain intact if anything is to be pieced together again. If the debris is swept up into bin bags it will be impossible to reconstruct.

Second, border security should be stepped up to prevent as much as possible from leaving the country. Iraqi antiquities, probably from the Mosul or Basra museums, also ransacked last week, have already been spotted on the Paris art market.

Auction houses and dealers worldwide must look out for artefacts coming onto the market. Such objects will almost certainly have been illegally acquired and any documentation of ownership is likely to be fraudulent. Police must prosecute.

UNESCO is holding an emergency meeting on Iraq next week. The US authorities must allow it into the country as soon as possible to begin working with Iraqi archaeologists and curators to reconstruct the shattered remnants of Iraq's heritage and rebuild links in the chain between past, present and future.

[Source: Eleanor Robson is a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, and a council member of the British School of Archaeology in Iraq. This article first appeared in The Guardian. The Age, Melbourne, 15 April 2003]

War in Iraq and Global State of exception

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This document has been published on 19abr03 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.