The Sack of Baghdad: "Like a Lobotomy"

by Mina Hamilton

Dissident Voice

April 21, 2003


I 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. 


The 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 the cancer.


Barbara 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. 


In 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.


These 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. 


We 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.


Then, 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. 


For 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.                                                        


9/11 is another such event.


The sacking of Baghdad's cultural institutions is a third such event.


Two 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.


I 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.


I 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? 


Google.com 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.  .


I 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'? 


When 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.


The 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.


What 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)


Another 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)


It's 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.


Even so how would Americans react if the Library of Congress were trashed? 


Would 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?


Many 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.


In 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 and mayhem.


Perhaps 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 conquistadors." (3)


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 whole days! 


There 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)


Five 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 dealers.


Yet this devastating loss was not the worst.


As 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.   


Drab 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)


The tablets in Baghdad were the earliest examples of this great human achievement.  The achievement on which all other cultural, technological and scientific advances rest. 


Here 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. 


Another 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. 


All pulverized, crushed, destroyed. 


Imagine 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. 


Every 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. 


There 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! 


There 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.)


Add 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. 


Throw 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 paper.


The 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!


How 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.  Dead end.   


It's a giant deletion of the history book of cultures; a wealth of information regarding the evolution of civilization is erased, becomes a blank page.


It's the terrible desecration of the religious heritage of 1 billion Muslims.  One-sixth of the world's population left bereft of a priceless heritage.


It's a dagger plunged right into the heart of Islam.  And it's a dagger plunged deep into the soul of Western civilization.


My 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.


Once 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.


When 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.


Yes, 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 severe threat.


Looting of museums had happened before. After Gulf War 1 looters sacked 9 of 13 museums in southern and northern Iraq. (8)


During 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 extraordinary treasures.


The warnings went unheeded.  And when the sacking started, the US troops stood by, watched - and did nothing.  They did utterly nothing, zilch.


There's 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.


In 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. 


Protect 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.


What would my friend, Barbara, who died of cancer, say? 


Perhaps, she would suggest now is the time, move to Costa Rica or Canada or France or other countries currently on your escape list. 


No, 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.


I suspect Barbara, a healer par excellence, would approve.


Mina Hamilton is a writer based in New York City.  She can be reached at minaham@aol.com




(1) Hamilton phone interview with Dr. Paul Zimansky on April 17, 2003.


(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, p. 10.


(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




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