Strips of picture told the story: the great mound of sand and rubble, the busy natives hefting baskets and hauling ropes under the stalwart Englishman’s eye, the mighty winged bull restored to civilization at the British Museum. At least that’s what I remember reading in an old British edition of The Book of Knowledge as soon as I learned to read. The story was a dose of romance and Victorian rectitude, one of the draughts that nourished my mind.
Then at age eight, I was given J. H. Breasted’s Ancient Times with a white lion from Nebuchadnezzar’s Processional Way for its frontispiece. Years later, I would embroider that image along with a dragon from the Ishtar Gate. At age nine came Gods, Graves, and Scholars by C. W. Ceram with the stories of great archaeologists, including an account of how Austin Henry Layard had dug up that Assyrian bull. Shortly afterwards I came across an account by Leonard Wooley, the excavator of Ur, with photographs of the royal death pit and the imprint of a harp almost 45 centuries old embedded in the earth. The strings were ever so faintly visible.
And so I came to love the things of the past with a deep and abiding passion. The prospect of war in Iraq brought me great anxiety for her ancient treasures. Would bombs fall on the sites of ancient cities? Staff at the Baghdad Museum assured the world that come what may, their treasures would be well buffered, battened, and defended. Some of them would sleep in the halls to keep things secure. The director of Iraq’s antiquities department expressed fear that Americans would want to steal their masterpieces “in order to restock their museums.”
Security was a valid concern. Government-sanctioned looting of Kuwait’s national museum occurred during the first Gulf War, and freelance looting in Iraq followed in the disorders afterward. The Baghdad Museum’s turn came on April 11—the day after Saddam’s statues came crashing down. Unstoppable mobs poured through the doors and stripped the place bare, smashing what they could not grab.
Or did they? First reports told of an unprecedented cultural tragedy—170,000 precious artifacts gone. The number has since been revised downward to a few dozen major pieces and 10,000 lesser ones. The deepest museum vaults had not been broached and many treasures that had been dispersed to secret hiding places are now coming to light. A few stolen antiquities have even been returned—including the Warka Vase, a marvel from the city of Gilgamesh.
But troubling accounts have emerged about materials removed and possibly sold by Saddam’s circle before the war. Were the looters ordinary Iraqis out for goods to barter for food? Or were they taking revenge on symbols of a hated regime that had identified itself with the empires of antiquity? Why were some looters armed with box cutters and duplicate keys to vaults? Why did they have the cunning to destroy museum inventories and the wit to distinguish the valuable items from replicas? Did antiquities department officials have clean hands?
A museum spokesman initially misled reporters out of hatred for America. Baathist elements hoped to embarrass occupation forces for their failure to guard the facility.
First news of the outrage gave me a sleepless night. It seemed as if greed and malice had led a people to chop off its own historical roots. I found some comfort in checking the locations of major pieces. Many are still safe in European and American collections. The crown of golden beech leaves and lapis beads worn by Queen Shubad of Ur resides in Philadelphia, although it was displayed this summer at the Metropolitan’s “Art of the First Cities” exhibition. The reconstructed Ishtar Gate and Processional Way still stand resplendent in Berlin. Nevertheless, gangs armed with Kalashnikovs are churning through archaeological sites throughout Iraq even as I write, carrying away booty by the truckload.
The pillage of museums in Baghdad and smaller cities weighs against the “retentionist” policy favored by the American Institute of Archaeology, in which all finds are left in their home country. Dispersion offers better assurance of survival. Mass plundering has also spurred debate about loosening up the antiquity trade.
Public reactions to the tragedy varied, from Donald Rumsfeld’s callous “stuff happens” to John Ashcroft’s vow to aid recovery of the lost artifacts. Even conservative commentators questioned making a fuss over some old stones. One blogger likened the antiquities to the spotted owl, a matter of interest only to pampered elites.
So how can I ask others to share my grief? Mesopotamian art is long on staring eyes, short on charm. And yet, as a participant in Western civilization, I know that our history began at Sumer. The Land Between the Rivers marks us to this day: Why else does a watch face have twelve hours and a week seven days? Mesopotamia was the rock from which the Hebrews were hewn. As a Christian and an heir of Jews, I look to the cultural matrix of the Bible, with its alternate models of the Creation, Noah’s Flood, and the Tower of Babel. From Ur came Abraham, “our father in faith.” To Babylon went Daniel and captive Judah until Cyrus of Persia sent survivors home.
Their journeys left visual souvenirs for Christianity. The harping jackass from Ur played again on the capitals of Romanesque cathedrals. The composite beasts called lamassu that guarded Assyrian and Babylonian gates inspired Ezechiel’s tetramorph and ultimately the iconography of the Four Evangelists. Through Arabic intermediaries, the gods of Babylon lived on as planetary symbols in late medieval Italy.
Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar are gone, but we can still see some of the same art their eyes beheld—a few treasures of darkness restored to light over the past 160 years. In both their recovery and their loss, they remind us of what Muslims, Abraham’s other children, say: “Everything is perishing except the face of God.” And yet every good and beautiful thing made by men endures forever in His Divine mind. As Blake wrote, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”