of Iraq's History
Fisk, In Baghdad
13 April 2003
They lie across the floor
in tens of thousands of pieces, the priceless antiquities of Iraq's
history. The looters had gone from shelf to shelf, systematically pulling
down the statues and pots and amphorae of the Assyrians and the Babylonians,
the Sumerians, the Medes, the Persians and the Greeks and hurling them
on to the concrete.
Our feet crunched on the
wreckage of 5,000-year-old marble plinths and stone statuary and pots
that had endured every siege of Baghdad, every invasion of Iraq throughout
history only to be destroyed when America came to "liberate"
the city. The Iraqis did it. They did it to their own history, physically
destroying the evidence of their own nation's thousands of years of
Not since the Taliban embarked
on their orgy of destruction against the Buddhas of Bamiyan and the
statues in the museum of Kabul perhaps not since the Second World
War or earlier have so many archaeological treasures been wantonly
and systematically smashed to pieces.
"This is what our own
people did to their history," the man in the grey gown said as
we flicked our torches yesterday across the piles of once perfect Sumerian
pots and Greek statues, now headless, armless, in the storeroom of Iraq's
National Archaeological Museum. "We need the American soldiers
to guard what we have left. We need the Americans here. We need policemen."
But all that the museum guard, Abdul-Setar Abdul-Jaber, experienced
yesterday was gun battles between looters and local residents, the bullets
hissing over our heads outside the museum and skittering up the walls
of neighbouring apartment blocks. "Look at this," he said,
picking up a massive hunk of pottery, its delicate patterns and beautifully
decorated lips coming to a sudden end where the jar perhaps 2ft
high in its original form had been smashed into four pieces. "This
was Assyrian." The Assyrians ruled almost 2,000 years before Christ.
And what were the Americans
doing as the new rulers of Baghdad? Why, yesterday morning they were
recruiting Saddam Hussein's hated former policemen to restore law and
order on their behalf. The last army to do anything like this was Mountbatten's
force in South-east Asia, which employed the defeated Japanese army
to control the streets of Saigon with their bayonets fixed
after the recapture of Indo-China in 1945.
A queue of respectably dressed
Baghdad ex-cops formed a queue outside the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad
after they heard a radio broadcast calling for them to resume their
"duties" on the streets. In the late afternoon, at least eight
former and very portly senior police officers, all wearing green uniforms
the same colour as the uniforms of the Iraqi Baath party
turned up to offer their services to the Americans, accompanied by a
US Marine. But there was no sign that any of them would be sent down
to the Museum of Antiquity.
has already turned into occupation. Faced by a crowd of angry Iraqis
in Firdos Square demanding a new Iraqi government "for our protection
and security and peace", US Marines, who should have been providing
that protection, stood shoulder to shoulder facing them, guns at the
ready. The reality, which the Americans and, of course, Mr Rumsfeld
fail to understand is that under Saddam Hussein, the poor and
always the Shia Muslims, the middle classes always the Sunnis, just
as Saddam himself was a Sunni. So it is the Sunnis who are now suffering
plunder at the hands of the Shia.
And so the gun-fighting that
broke out yesterday between property owners and looters was, in effect,
a conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. By failing to end this violence
by stoking ethnic hatred through their inactivity the Americans
are now provoking a civil war in Baghdad.
Yesterday evening, I drove
through the city for more than an hour. Hundreds of streets are now
barricaded off with breeze blocks, burnt cars and tree trunks, watched
over by armed men who are ready to kill strangers who threaten their
homes or shops. Which is just how the civil war began in Beirut in 1975.
A few US Marine patrols did
dare to venture into the suburbs yesterday positioning themselves
next to hospitals which had already been looted but fires burnt
across the city at dusk for the third consecutive day. The municipality
building was blazing away last night, and on the horizon other great
fires were sending columns of smoke miles high into the air.
Too little, too late. Yesterday,
a group of chemical engineers and water purification workers turned
up at the US Marine headquarters, pleading for protection so they could
return to their jobs. Electrical supply workers came along, too. But
Baghdad is already a city at war with itself, at the mercy of gunmen
There is no electricity in
Baghdad as there is no water and no law and no order and
so we stumbled in the darkness of the museum basement, tripping over
toppled statues and stumbling into broken winged bulls. When I shone
my torch over one far shelf, I drew in my breath. Every pot and jar
"3,500 BC" it said on one shelf corner had been
bashed to pieces.
Why? How could they do this?
Why, when the city was already burning, when anarchy had been let loose
and less than three months after US archaeologists and Pentagon
officials met to discuss the country's treasures and put the Baghdad
Archaeological Museum on a military data-base did the Americans
allow the mobs to destroy the priceless heritage of ancient Mesopotamia?
And all this happened while US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld,
was sneering at the press for claiming that anarchy had broken out in
For well over 200 years,
Western and local archaeologists have gathered up the remnants of this
centre of early civilisation from palaces, ziggurats and 3,000-year-old
graves. Their tens of thousands of handwritten card index files
often in English and in graceful 19th-century handwriting now
lie strewn amid the broken statuary. I picked up a tiny shard. "Late
2nd century, no. 1680" was written in pencil on the inside.
To reach the storeroom, the
mobs had broken through massive steel doors, entering from a back courtyard
and heaving statues and treasures to cars and trucks.
The looters had left only
a few hours before I arrived and no one not even the museum guard
in the grey gown had any idea how much they had taken. A glass
case that had once held 40,000-year-old stone and flint objects had
been smashed open. It lay empty. No one knows what happened to the Assyrian
reliefs from the royal palace of Khorsabad, nor the 5,000-year-old seals
nor the 4,500-year-old gold leaf earrings once buried with Sumerian
princesses. It will take decades to sort through what they have left,
the broken stone torsos, the tomb treasures, the bits of jewellery glinting
amid the piles of smashed pots.
The mobs who came here
Shia Muslims, for the most part, from the hovels of Saddam City
probably had no idea of the value of the pots or statues. Their destruction
appears to have been the result of ignorance as much as fury. In the
vast museum library, only a few books mostly mid-19th-century
archaeological works appeared to have been stolen or destroyed.
Looters set little value in books.
I found a complete set of
the Geographical Journal from 1893 to 1936 still intact lying
next to them was a paperback entitled Baghdad, The City of Peace
but thousands of card index sheets had been flung from their boxes over
stairwells and banisters.
British, French and German
archaeologists played a leading role in the discovery of some of Iraq's
finest treasures. The great British Arabist, diplomatic schemer and
spy Gertrude Bell, the "uncrowned queen of Iraq" whose tomb
lies not far away from the museum, was an enthusiastic supporter of
their work. The Germans built the modern-day museum beside the Tigris
river and only in 2000 was it reopened to the public after nine years
of closure following the 1991 Gulf War.
Even as the Americans encircled
Baghdad, Saddam Hussein's soldiers showed almost the same contempt for
its treasures as the looters. Their slit trenches and empty artillery
positions are still clearly visible in the museum lawns, one of them
dug beside a huge stone statue of a winged bull.
Only a few weeks ago, Jabir
Khalil Ibrahim, the director of Iraq's State Board of Antiquities, referred
to the museum's contents as "the heritage of the nation".
They were, he said, "not just things to see and enjoy we
get strength from them to look to the future. They represent the glory
Mr Ibrahim has vanished,
like so many government employees in Baghdad, and Mr Abdul-Jaber and
his colleagues are now trying to defend what is left of the country's
history with a collection of Kalashnikov rifles. "We don't want
to have guns, but everyone must have them now," he told me. "We
have to defend ourselves because the Americans have let this happen.
They made a war against one man so why do they abandon us to this
war and these criminals?"
Half an hour later, I contacted
the civil affairs unit of the US Marines in Saadun Street and gave them
the exact location of the museum and the condition of its contents.
A captain told me that "we're probably going to get down there".
Too late. Iraq's history had already been trashed by the looters whom
the Americans unleashed on the city during their "liberation".
"You are American!"
a woman shouted at me in English yesterday morning, wrongly assuming
I was from the US. "Go back to your country. Get out of here. You
are not wanted here. We hated Saddam and now we are hating Bush because
he is destroying our city." It was a mercy she could not visit
the Museum of Antiquity to see for herself that the very heritage of
her country as well as her city has been destroyed.