Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Under American Eyes: Not Liberation, but End of Beginning of History

By Samir Rebeiz in Beirut (ICR No. 15, 17-April-03)

When the Iraqi army occupied Kuwait in 1991, there was looting by soldiers - especially of the residences of the ruling Sabah family - but the National Museum was not touched. It was immediately protected by a special brigade. Museum staff who came to Kuwait from Baghdad inventoried and professionally packed objects, and took them to the storerooms of the Baghdad museum for safekeeping. Even Kuwaitis admit that the first serious inventory of the objects in their National Museum was done by Iraq.

After the Iraqi army withdrew from Kuwait, which Saddam Hussein considered a province of Iraq, the thousands of objects taken from Kuwait were returned. Some were broken, but the damage to most objects was very minor. When the Kuwaitis were asked how many items they expected to be returned, they were told the figure they gave was wrong: the real figure was much higher.

The destruction we have seen in recent days - the looting of almost all of the 170,000 artifacts in Baghdad’s National Museum, the best collection of Mesopotamian archaeology in the world; the burning of the National Library including the entire royal court records and files from the days when Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire, the destruction of the Awqaf religious library and its magnificent medieval manuscripts - was a predictable outcome of the loss of control in Baghdad.

The National Museum contained the beginning of history. What has been lost, under the eyes and the complete disinterest of American soldiers, is the earliest manifestation of human consciousness and thought.

Dr. Lamia Gailani, one of Iraq’s most respected archaelogists, had warned both the State Department and the Pentagon that the National Museum could be looted. American archeologists familiar with Iraq had given US officials maps on which they had marked sites to look out for. UNESCO had impressed upon the US administration that Iraq is the cradle of civilisation, the repository of many icons of human achievement.

Why could American forces protect Iraq’s oil wells and oil ministry, but not its antiquities? Was it because there is no direct profit from protecting Iraqi culture? Was it because the more destruction there is, the more money can be earned from reconstruction?

Iraq, among all other countries in the area, has always been systematically looted. You only have to walk into the main galleries of the British Museum to realise the extent: the walls of the Assur Nasser Palace, for example, have been completed dismantled and moved to the British Museum. But what we have seen in Baghdad is difficult to comprehend. Although the vast majority of Iraqi antiques are outside Iraq, the National Museum was still mind-boggling. Many of the items it contained were the cornerstones of world culture: the Lady from Warka, a priceless alabaster sculpture dating back to 3000 BC, “the Mona Lisa of the East”; the bronze of Sargon the Great of Akkad; the jewellery from the Ur tombs; the Tablets; the first writing in the world…

It is as difficult for us to comprehend the extent of the loss as it to imagine how Iraqis can treat their own heritage like this unless they were incited to do so. If the Americans cared, they could have protected these things. But they don’t care. This confirms the suspicions Arabs have always had about the undeclared interests of the American occupation of Iraq. How can the Americans establish peace and democracy if they cannot save the property of the Iraqi people?

Who is going to buy all these things? Where can they possibly be sold? They are just too well-known. They will be swallowed up by private collectors with more money than morals - or they will be destroyed.

The assistant curator of the British Museum this week reminded Dr. Gailani of just one of the objects in the museum - the Warka vase. Dr. Gailani begged her not to remind her of specific objects. “It’s unbearable to think about it,” she said. “They were like our children.”

Samir Rebeiz is a Lebanese architect and conservationist who has worked in Iraq and Kuwait.