Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure

From: Michael Everson (everson@evertype.com)
Date: Sun Apr 13 2003 - 06:35:36 EDT

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    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
    the gold.

    Pillagers Strip Iraqi Museum of Its Treasure


    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
    collection were."

    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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