Sack of Baghdad: "Like a Lobotomy"
heard the news about Barbara M. on Friday.
Brilliant and witty, Barbara was a college friend. A therapist, Barbara had a unique
specialty. She worked with war trauma
victims in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and Serbia. She also worked with poverty victims in
Oakland, CA. Single moms, pressed down
by life, barely breathing under the burdens of packs of children, absent or
drug-addicted dads, and lousy or no jobs were all her ken.
stranger on the phone told me. Barbara
was dead. The cancer had spread to
every bone and organ in her body. Last
time we had exchanged e-mails she had spoken of being weak, but did not mention
and I were the kind of friends who sometimes went years without talking, but
understood each other perfectly. One
question we often discussed was could we still tolerate living in the US? She was actively considering moving to Costa
Rica or Belgrade.
the months building up to the invasion of Iraq I kept thinking, I need to write
or call Barbara. She'll know exactly
how I 'm feeling. I didn't. Now she was gone.
deaths - they leave a hole. Where there
was a shared history and an intimate communication there's emptiness. Where there was a contact that enriched me
and helped me to be more myself, there's nothing but memories.
will all experience many such deaths during our lifetimes. Friends, close and not so close, as well as
very dear family and lovers will leave us behind.
there are our collective deaths. When
something happens that rips at the fabric of our beings in a different
way. When our collective consciousness
takes a blow. A blow that hits us in
the solar plexus, redefines our lives, and transforms meaning at the very core
of our lives. We will never be the same
afterwards. Something is gone that
cannot be replaced, ever.
many of us, particularly folks alive in 1963, the shooting of President Kennedy
was one such event. We all remember
exactly where we were when we heard the news.
We remember how we felt; how a certain set of assumptions and a certain
trust of the way things were and would be was torn asunder.
is another such event.
sacking of Baghdad's cultural institutions is a third such event.
days after Barbara's death I heard about the sacking of the Museum of
Antiquities from Amy Goodman. On
"Democracy Now" she was interviewing an archeologist whose name I
missed. He said this was "an
incalculable loss." Something akin
to the "burning of the library at Alexandria and the sack of
Constantinople." Now I didn't know
much about those events. But I knew
they were BIG, BIG DEALS. DEFINING
EVENTS IN WORLD HISTORY.
also knew that when a meticulously accurate academic, who had probably spent
much of his life in the hot desert, thirsty, dirty, carefully sifting through
sand and stone, used the phrase "incalculable loss" something
extremely important had happened.
knew I had to write about this loss; it was my way to keep sane. Somehow spitting words onto the page
helped. I felt particularly daunted by
the task. Who was I to write about such a world-shattering event?
came to the rescue. I went on line and
clicked on Iraq Antiquities. There
popped up the story of John Russell, an archaeologist at the Massachusetts
College of Art. A few days before the
sacking he warned the world a disaster was in the making. .
called long distance information for the College, got the number and dialed the
phone. I hesitated. It felt a bit like calling a parent just
after their son had died. Talk about
blows! What would this loss mean to a
man whose specialty was Mesopotamia, long known as the 'cradle of civilizations'?
I reached John Russell. He was very
friendly, but in a voice laden with emotion, said, "Do you mind? I can't talk about this anymore." He referred me to about seven other
archaeologists. When you hear
heartbreak in an academic's voice, you know something terrible has happened.
next archaeologist gave me the scoop.
So here I go, with apologies to my readers, trying to write about what
is probably one of the most important events of the last five hundred years.
has happened involves the cultural heritage of all humanity. As Dr. Paul Zimansky, Professor of Near
Eastern Archaeology at Boston University says, "It's the loss of a whole
body of knowledge of the world's earliest civilization." (1)
renowned archaeologist, Dr. McGuire Gibson, Professor of Mesopotamian
Archaeology at the University of Chicago, commented: "The looting of this
museum is catastrophic. It's a lot like a lobotomy. The deep memory of an entire culture, a culture that has
continued for thousands of years, has been removed." (2)
hard for me, for us to understand. After
all, really old for American history means 1492. Or it may mean 1776.
Thousands and thousands of years of history just aren't in our lexicon.
so how would Americans react if the Library of Congress were trashed?
we appreciate it if Thomas Jefferson's handwritten draft of the Declaration of
Independence went up in flames? Would
we like it if the original 1833 Declaration of the Anti-Slavery Convention were
trashed? How about burning the document
that announced the First Women Rights Convention of 1848?
Americans would consider the loss of these and other historical documents a
kick in the belly, a tragedy. Yet these
archives go back only a couple of hundred years.
fact, to compare the imagined loss of the Library of Congress to the actual
loss in Iraq is ludicrous. In Baghdad
it was the history of the Tigris and Euphrates Valleys pouf, lost to pillaging
the best way to describe the loss is to quote from the American Schools of
Oriental Research, a prestigious association of Near Eastern archaeologists and
scholars in existence since 1900. On
April 16th they released the following statement: "The looting of the Iraq
Museum is the most severe single blow to cultural heritage in modern history,
comparable to the sack of Constantinople, the burning of the library at
Alexandria, the Vandal and Mogul invasions and the ravages of the
New York Times and other media have focused on the photogenic, the visually
dramatic losses. Indeed, the losses
were terrible as an estimated thousand looters sacked 28 galleries for two
were intricately carved, eons-old artifacts from Sumeria, Akkadia, Assyria,
Babylon and many other ancient civilizations.
There were examples of the extraordinarily handsome, intricately painted
Halaf pottery from 5000 BC. There were
Sumerian statues inlaid with lapis lazuli that dated back to 2500 BC. There were gold bracelets adorned with semi
precious stones from 800 BC. There was
a solid gold harp. There were ivory figurines, steles, chairs, sculptures,
pillars, textiles, parts of ancient buildings, tombs, helmets, and swords. "The whole range of human productive
endeavor for 5000 years was there." (4)
thousand years! Not fifty years. Not five hundred years. Five thousands years of our, all of our,
cultural heritage carted off. Some of
it crashed down stairs, smashed. Other
parts of the loot ferreted off to line the pockets of unscrupulous antiquities
this devastating loss was not the worst.
Professor Zimansky explained to me the cuneiform tablets were the real
treasure. (Cuneiform refers to the wedge-shaped characters that were impressed
into the clay.) These not-yet-studied tablets would have continuously produced
knowledge as scholars continued their research through the centuries. There were thousands, tens of thousands, of
these ancient clay tablets.
and unexciting-looking (no photo ops here!), the tablets were the library of
our earliest ancestors. Imagine that
climatic moment when men and women who had long experimented with ways to
communicate with each other, finally, with a few strokes leapt to the
representation of thought. Imagine the
time when humanity graduated from a crude drawing - a pictogram - of say a
sheep to an abstract symbol, the written word, that signifies sheep. Archaeologists put this extraordinary
achievement somewhere between 3500 to 3000 BC. (5)
tablets in Baghdad were the earliest examples of this great human
achievement. The achievement on which
all other cultural, technological and scientific advances rest.
were tablets, cylinders and seals that documented the first everything. The first musical instruments, the first
canals, the first architecture. There
were accounts of early droughts and floods.
There were descriptions of weaving and textiles. Texts showed the Mesopotamians' profound
understanding of mathematics and astronomy. There were the predecessors to
Hammurabi's code, the first legal code.
archaeologist, Dr. Elizabeth Stone of New York State University at Stony Brook,
explained how these tablets contained "remarkably intimate details, like a
letter from a boy to his parents complaining that they don't love him because
they have not given him nice enough clothing." (6)
This insight into ordinary life of 4000 years ago gone.
pulverized, crushed, destroyed.
what was waiting to be discovered about these early civilizations, our
forebears. Strict Iraqi laws required the keeping of all antiquities within
Iraq's borders. Thus, the Museum was a
unique repository. It contained the
finds from every archaeological dig of the last eighty years.
pottery shard, every stele, every cuneiform tablet dug up since 1920 by Iraqi,
American, French, German, Italian, and other archaeology expeditions was in the
Museum awaiting further study.
were new findings Dr. Zimansky told me about.
For example, a library, known as the Sippar Library, dating from
approximately 500 BC that scholars had just started to research. A whole ancient library now gone!
were new pieces of the ancient Gilgamesh epic.
Scholars intended to compare these fragments with earlier fragments
regarding this powerful legend. This
scholarship now dead-ended. (Dr.
Zimansky explained that ever since the first Gulf War and the devastating 12
years of sanctions, archaeological work in Iraq had ground to a halt. There was no money.)
to these horrendous losses the obliteration of the National Archives. Letters, diaries, journals, books
destroyed. The documents of the Ottoman
Empire disappeared. The Royal and State
archives ruined. Medieval poetry
destroyed. Great reference works
gutted: The Dawn, by the 14th century Egyptian scholar, al-Qalqashandi, which
in 14 volumes described how each of the letters of Arabic script should be
formed. A 10th century copy of the
Arabian Nights annihilated. All in
flames. Scattered to the winds.
in the burning of the Koranic Library with its thousands, yes, thousands of
ancient, sacred Korans, many of them illuminated and hand written. These are now nothing but bits of charred
loss of the Koranic Library has received very little attention in the Western
press, but this, too, is utterly sickening.
Mr. Abdel Karim Anwar Obeid of the Koranic Library said, "If you talk
to any intellectual Muslims in the world, they are crying over this right
now." He also pointed out,
"When Baghdad fell to the Mongols in 1258, these books survived." (7) The Bush war machine outdid the Mongols!
does one human being grasp the enormity of what's happened? The combination of these losses is almost
unfathomable. It has the same quality
as the extinction of not one, but many animal species. Gone.
a giant deletion of the history book of cultures; a wealth of information
regarding the evolution of civilization is erased, becomes a blank page.
the terrible desecration of the religious heritage of 1 billion Muslims. One-sixth of the world's population left
bereft of a priceless heritage.
a dagger plunged right into the heart of Islam. And it's a dagger plunged deep into the soul of Western
godchildren, my nieces and nephews, future children, future archaeologists,
future scholars, future humanity all have been deprived of an extraordinary
legacy. As Dr. Kimansky said, " A
whole body of knowledge" snatched away.
we had a certain skyline in Manhattan and then a terrible event destroys that
skyline, leaving us devastated and disoriented. In the case of Baghdad we had access to our past, access to the
minds of this brilliant peoples who discovered writing. Now that skyline is gouged by a gaping hole;
we'll never know more than we currently know about the Einsteins of
Mesopotamia. We'll never know more
about the thought processes of these brilliant synthesizers! We'll never get more information regarding
how we got to be whom we are.
I look this loss right in the eye, I feel tears building up behind my
eyes. I also feel sick. The awareness of what we've done is like
Barbara's cancer, it's in my bones, in my internal organs, in my heart.
we, my country, the country that I both love and hate are responsible. It was foreseen! There were warnings!
Warning after warning! Before
the war archaeologist after archaeologist, scholar after scholar had warned the
US government that the sacking of the cultural institutions of Iraq was a
of museums had happened before. After Gulf War 1 looters sacked 9 of 13 museums
in southern and northern Iraq. (8)
the winter and spring of 2003 archaeologists and scholars had numerous meetings
with the Pentagon and the State Department.
In January 2003, there was a meeting with a Pentagon official who
reports directly to Paul Wolfowitz. (9) February 2003: the
Archaeological Institute of America added its voice to the rising concern. (10) March 2003: more scholars sent an urgent plea to
President Bush, Kofi Anan and Tony Blair saying, please protect Iraq's
warnings went unheeded. And when the
sacking started, the US troops stood by, watched - and did nothing. They did utterly nothing, zilch.
a sad and tawdry finale to this awful tale: There were also warnings regarding
the oil fields. Bush, Cheney & Co
knew the oil fields were torched in the first Gulf War. They knew it could happen again. Unlike the warnings regarding the Museums, these
warnings were heeded.
the case of oil, the US acted promptly and efficiently. Get those
machine-gun-toting soldiers (2000 of them for the oilfields of Kirkuk alone)
and tanks and barbed wire in place.
something that belongs to Iraq, not the US, something that will run out in a
few decades. Meanwhile, ignore that
which is priceless and belongs to the world and can never, ever be replaced.
would my friend, Barbara, who died of cancer, say?
she would suggest now is the time, move to Costa Rica or Canada or France or
other countries currently on your escape list.
Barbara, I'm staying. I will raise my
voice and scream bloody murder. I will
do what I can in the way of healing - and restitution.
suspect Barbara, a healer par excellence, would approve.
Mina Hamilton is a writer
based in New York City. She can be
reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(1) Hamilton phone interview with Dr. Paul Zimansky on April 17,
(2) McDougall, Dan, "US Shamed by Looting of Antiquities,"
The Scotsman, April 19, 2003 at www.thescotsman.co.uk
(3) American Scholars of Oriental Research statement of April 16,
2003 at www.asor.org/policy2.htm
(4) Foster, B.R., Foster, K.P. "Missing in Action," the
New York Times, April 17, 2003, p. A25.
(5) Reade, Julian, Mesopotamia, British Museum Press, p. 27
(6) Goodheart, Adam, "Missing: A Vase, a Book, a Bird and
10,000 Years of History," New York Times, April 20, 2003, Week in Review,
(7) Fisher, Ian, "Free to Protest, Iraqis Complain About the
U.S.," New York Times, April 16, 2003, p. B6
(8) Onion, Amanda for ABC News, "Vulnerable Moment:
Archaeologists Say Iraq's Treasures are Most Vulnerable Now," April 10,
2003 at www.ABCnews.go.com
(9) The Canadian Press, "Archaeologists Say Iraq Invasion
Could Destroy Remains of Oldest Civilization," 2003 at www.cp.org
(10) National Public Radio, "Protecting Ancient History In
Iraq," February 20, 2003 at www.npr.org