From: Michael Everson (email@example.com)
Date: Sun Apr 13 2003 - 06:35:36 EDT
From the New York Times. ©2003 The New York Times.
Unicode topicality: This very sad story should remind us all about
the fragility of data and the promise of Unicode: to enable the
preservation of the recorded history of humankind. Let us hope that
the cuneiform tablets will not be destroyed, whatever may happen to
Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure
By JOHN F. BURNS
BAGHDAD, Iraq, April 12 - The National Museum of Iraq recorded a
history of civilizations that began to flourish in the fertile plains
of Mesopotamia more than 7,000 years ago. But once American troops
entered Baghdad in sufficient force to topple Saddam Hussein's
government this week, it took only 48 hours for the museum to be
destroyed, with at least 170,000 artifacts carried away by looters.
The full extent of the disaster that befell the museum came to light
only today, as the frenzied looting that swept much of the capital
over the previous three days began to ebb.
As fires in a dozen government ministries and agencies began to burn
out, and as looters tired of pillaging in the 90-degree heat, museum
officials reached the hotels where foreign journalists were staying
along the eastern bank of the Tigris River. They brought word of what
is likely to be reckoned as one of the greatest cultural disasters in
recent Middle Eastern history.
A full accounting of what has been lost may take weeks or months. The
museum had been closed during much of the 1990's, and as with many
Iraqi institutions, its operations were cloaked in secrecy under Mr.
So what officials told journalists today may have to be adjusted as a
fuller picture comes to light. It remains unclear whether some of the
museum's priceless gold, silver and copper antiquities, some of its
ancient stone and ceramics and perhaps some of its fabled bronzes and
gold-overlaid ivory, had been locked away for safekeeping elsewhere
before the looting, or seized for private display in one of Mr.
Hussein's myriad palaces.
What was beyond contest today was that the 28 galleries of the museum
and vaults with huge steel doors guarding storage chambers that
descend floor after floor into unlighted darkness had been completely
Officials with crumpled spirits fought back tears and anger at
American troops, as they ran down an inventory of the most storied
items that they said had been carried away by the thousands of
looters who poured into the museum after daybreak on Thursday and
remained until dusk on Friday, with only one intervention by American
forces, lasting about half an hour, at lunchtime on Thursday.
Nothing remained, museum officials said, at least nothing of real
value, from a museum that had been regarded by archaeologists and
other specialists as perhaps the richest of all such institutions in
the Middle East.
As examples of what was gone, the officials cited a solid gold harp
from the Sumerian era, which began about 3360 B.C. and started to
crumble about 2000 B.C. Another item on their list of looted
antiquities was a sculptured head of a woman from Uruk, one of the
great Sumerian cities, dating from about the same era, and a
collection of gold necklaces, bracelets and earrings, also from the
Sumerian dynasties and also at least 4,000 years old.
But an item-by-item inventory of the most valued pieces carried away
by the looters hardly seemed to capture the magnitude of what had
occurred. More powerful, in its way, was the action of one museum
official in hurrying away through the piles of smashed ceramics and
torn books and burned-out torches of rags soaked in gasoline that
littered the museum's corridors to find the glossy catalog of an
exhibition of "Silk Road Civilizations" that was held in Japan's
ancient capital of Nara in 1988.
Turning to 50 pages of items lent by the Iraqi museum for the
exhibition, he said none of the antiquities pictured remained after
the looting. They included ancient stone carvings of bulls and kings
and princesses; copper shoes and cuneiform tablets; tapestry
fragments and ivory figurines of goddesses and women and Nubian
porters; friezes of soldiers and ancient seals and tablets on
geometry; and ceramic jars and urns and bowls, all dating back at
least 2,000 years, some more than 5,000 years.
"All gone, all gone," he said. "All gone in two days."
An Iraqi archaeologist who has taken part in the excavation of some
of the country's 10,000 sites, Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammad, said he
went into the street in the Karkh district, a short distance from the
eastern bank of the Tigris, about 1 p.m. on Thursday to find American
troops to quell the looting. By that time, he and other museum
officials said, the several acres of museum grounds were overrun by
thousands of men, women and children, many of them armed with rifles,
pistols, axes, knives and clubs, as well as pieces of metal torn from
the suspensions of wrecked cars. The crowd was storming out of the
complex carrying antiquities on hand carts, bicycles and wheelbarrows
and in boxes. Looters stuffed their pockets with smaller items.
Mr. Muhammad said that he had found an American Abrams tank in Museum
Square, about 300 yards away, and that five marines had followed him
back into the museum and opened fire above the looters' heads. That
drove several thousand of the marauders out of the museum complex in
minutes, he said, but when the tank crewmen left about 30 minutes
later, the looters returned.
"I asked them to bring their tank inside the museum grounds," he
said. "But they refused and left. About half an hour later, the
looters were back, and they threatened to kill me, or to tell the
Americans that I am a spy for Saddam Hussein's intelligence, so that
the Americans would kill me. So I was frightened, and I went home."
Mohsen Hassan, a 56-year-old deputy curator, returned to the museum
on Saturday afternoon after visiting military commanders a mile away
at the Palestine Hotel, with a request that American troops be placed
in the museum to protect the building and items left by the looters
in the vaults. Mr. Hassan said the American officers had given him no
assurances that they would guard the museum around the clock, but
other American commanders announced later in the day that joint
patrols with unarmed Iraqi police units would begin as early as
Sunday in an attempt to prevent further looting.
Mr. Hassan, who said he had spent 34 years helping to develop the
museum's collection, described watching as men took sledgehammers to
locked glass display cases and in some instances fired rifles and
pistols to break the locks.
He said that many of the looters appeared to be from the impoverished
districts of the city where anger at Mr. Hussein ran at its
strongest, but that others were middle-class people who appeared to
know exactly what they were looking for.
"Did some of them know the value of what they took?" he said.
"Absolutely, they did. They knew what the most valued pieces in our
Mr. Muhammad spoke with deep bitterness toward the Americans, as have
many Iraqis who have watched looting that began with attacks on
government agencies and the palaces and villas of Mr. Hussein, his
family and his inner circle broaden into a tidal wave of looting that
struck just about every government institution, even ministries
dealing with issues like higher education, trade and agriculture, and
American troops have intervened only sporadically, as they did on
Friday to halt a crowd of men and boys who were raiding an armory at
the edge of the Republican Palace presidential compound and taking
brand-new Kalashnikov rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other
American commanders have said they lack the troops to curb the
looting while their focus remains on the battles across Baghdad that
are necessary to mop up pockets of resistance from paramilitary
forces loyal to Mr. Hussein.
As reporters returned from the national museum to their hotels beside
the Tigris tonight, marines guarding the hotels were caught in a
heavy firefight with Iraqis across the river, and the neighborhoods
erupted with tank and heavy machine-gun fire. Western television
cameramen who went onto the embankment beside the Palestine Hotel to
film the battle were pulled from danger by helmeted marines who
dragged them down behind concrete parapets and waved to reporters on
the hotel's upper balconies to get down.
Mr. Muhammad, the archaeologist, directed much of his anger at
President Bush. "A country's identity, its value and civilization
resides in its history," he said. "If a country's civilization is
looted, as ours has been here, its history ends. Please tell this to
President Bush. Please remind him that he promised to liberate the
Iraqi people, but that this is not a liberation, this is a
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