Plundering the Museums of Baghdad

Translated by George Paxinos

Since the fall of Baghdad, anarchy has reigned in this city of five million. Everyone is armed to the teeth, and shooting can be heard around the clock, especially at night. Shots are fired in warning, in fear, or in celebration, when a district is suddenly supplied with power for two hours a day. The greatest worry is therefore security. All former government employees, hundreds of thousands of teachers, doctors, professors and civil servants, have not been paid for almost two months. Theft, robbery and murder are daily fare. Armed robbers commit carjacking in broad daylight. On the other hand, neighborly help is experiencing an upsurge. Many districts have formed citizens’ protection groups, and everyday folk control traffic with home-made signs. The Iraqis are artists at improvisation.

Particularly shocking for most Iraqis was the fervor with which their infrastructure and cultural heritage has been destroyed. Many independent eyewitnesses are unanimous about this. Apparently the infrastructure of this ancient state was systematically plundered, district by district. Whatever was not worth the taking, was destroyed. In museums, libraries and cultural centers, in the country’s 15 universities, in every ministry with the exception of the Ministry of Oil, in hospitals, state warehouses, hotels, banks, palaces of government ministers, and also in the German Embassy, the French Cultural Institute and the UN-Building. Even at the beginning of May, plundering continued throughout the day.

>>A resident reports how US soldiers commanded chance Iraqi bystanders on the museum grounds, to go into the museum and help themselves: “This is your treasure, get in!3<<

These lootings were instigated or tolerated. Many Iraqis report on futile attempts to get soldiers to intervene. Even appeals to the command center in the Palestine Hotel remained fruitless. Looters were both simple people from the poor quarters and wealthy residents of the neighborhood. People stole for reasons of poverty, anger, revenge or greed, and their spoils were often sold off the same day on the streets.

The most surprising detail in all reports was the assertion that American soldiers often made the looting possible at all, by breaking open or unlocking well-protected doors and then animating bystanders to plunder: “Go in, Ali Baba, its yours!3 — shouted the Americans, say Iraqi eyewitnesses. Among Americans., “Ali Baba” has become an almost generic term for Iraqi looters. A member of the UN Development Agency observed how Americans forced open the Technical University, opened computers and removed their hard drives, before allowing looters in.

Many Iraqis speak openly about these incidents, but wish to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisals and because they must now work with Americans. This also applies to the staff and residents of the Iraqi Museum, more especially as their observervations were so explosively shocking. On Tuesday, the 8th of April, fierce fighting occurred around the museum, as it lies in the center of town and is surrounded by strategically important points. The armed civil guard designated to protect the museum had to retreat in fear from the premises, which then fell into the hands of the Americans.

>>Only after one of the Directors managed to reach a colleague at the British Museum via a borrowed satellite phone, who mobilized British and American authorities in London, did tanks roll up, which have been there since.<<

A high-ranking museum official reports that the day after, two tanks rolled up, and American soldiers broke open the doors of the main building and spent around two hours unobserved in the display galleries. Afterward, they removed certain objects and transported them away. Which objects these were, could not be identified by him or other observers. What is certain is only that most of the large and conspicuous exhibits were still present, due to their difficulty of transportation, and that only the smaller exhibits had been removed from their display cases to storerooms.

A resident reports how US soldiers commanded chance Iraqi bystanders on the museum grounds, to go into the museum and help themselves: “This is your treasure, get in!3 For three days the plunderers worked unhindered and carried away their booty in front of running cameras. The few museum employees who had returned to work tried desperately to get American troops to protect the museum. A few soldiers turned up for a short while, looked at what was going on and disappeared again with the remark: “This is not our order.”

Afterward, employees worried that as everywhere else, fires would be laid, destroying the irreplaceable documentation, the excavation reports and the library. Two directors of the Department of Antiquities therefore went on the Sunday to the US Command Center at the Palestine Hotel. and had to wait for four hours for an audience, before they were able to plead urgently for protection. The commander promised to immediately send tanks and troops — but two days later, nothing had happened yet. Only after one of the Directors managed to reach a colleague at the British Museum via a borrowed satellite phone, who mobilized British and American authorities in London, did tanks roll up, which have been there since.

Today, the Iraqi Museum is the best-protected museum on Earth. Its workers and even its directors, who are now cleaning up without pay and cataloguing the damage, are allowed in only after personal and baggage security checks — and are very indignant: “We decide, who enters and when” said a soldier on guard at the entrance. Recovered objects are stored in a side building. As the Director General showed me around, the tables held hardly more than 100 pieces, protected by perhaps a dozen soldiers, who had erected their field bunks next to them.

With certainty, some of the most well-known exhibits of the museum, which had still been in the display galleries, have disappeared (see list). The looters broke open the storeroom undisturbed, whose contents ran to over 170’000 inventoried items. Only since a few days ago, has a generator been able to restore lighting, and the staff been able to take stock of the damage. The library remained intact, also the excavation records and apparently too most of the inventory lists. There has not been a total loss, but it seems that the greater part of the collection has been looted.

Stolen antiquities were particularly sought-after by journalists, so that armed gangs specialized in robbing them along the 500-kilometre long highway from Baghdad to the Jordanian border. One of those robbed reported that after he was robbed of his car, the first thing the bandits wanted to know was: “Where are the antiquities?” In one journalist’s car, twelve boxes of antiquities were turned up.

The most precious and non-insurable artifacts, among them the famous gold-finds from the Assyrian Queens’ Graves in Nimrod, were stored in the safe of the Central Bank. Here too, looters had long had a free hand, but meanwhile it has also been protected by soldiers. Even the Directorship of Antiquities does not have any information about what remains of these treasures, or where they may be now.

On the other hand, even after the international outcry over cultural pillaging in Iraq, the ongoing destruction is still being tolerated. A European female colleague and an Iraqi lady archaeologist report that in Babylon, the most famous city of Antiquity, looting and burning had continued up until a few days ago. Among others, the documentation of Iraqi excavations there has been burned. As in Baghdad, representatives of the Department of Antiquities pleaded in vain with US troops, who had housed themselves in one of Saddam’s palaces, only to be told: “This is not our order”

The 15 universities of Iraq have been totally looted and burned. Only the University of Baghdad in Djadaria remained untouched. There, Americans had made their headquarters. Of the infrastructure of the Mustansanja University, along with that of Bologna the oldest in the world, nothing has been left — even fixed installations were dismantled — including the electrical wall-sockets, and the campus burned down. On the campus of the Arts Faculty of the University of Baghdad in Wazinja almost everything has been destroyed, also its Department of Archaeology, which as extension of the Iraqi Museum delineates the sources of the more than 5’000 year-old period of high culture. The fires have caused several buildings to collapse. Of the Library of the Germanistic Section, which contained over 15’000 volumes, only solidified slagheaps of ash remain.

In the meantime, professors and students have begun clearing up the debris. Even this is difficult: the gasoline reserves of Baghdad are being depleted, station after station is closing down, to get gas, one must line up for up to five hours, the price of gasoline has risen tenfold, and one can no longer afford to drive to the university. Some rooms have been provisionally reopened, individuals pay for padlocks out of their own pockets, so that their work is not destroyed anew.

On May 17, the universities are scheduled to reopen — without furniture, libraries, paper, or administrational records. Not textbooks and computers, but brooms and shovels, will be the most important working tools now, and the lecturers will have to each science from memory alone. Many wish to do it for the sake of the students, so that they will not lose an entire year.

“Under Saddam, it was bad, but now it is worse. Why was this done to us?” asked the director of the Department of Archaeology of the University of Baghdad: “Our future looms darkly. We have trust in nothing. We only wish to survive.”

WALTER SOMMERFELD is Professor of Oriental Philology in Marburg, and has toured Iraq for the past 20 years. He was one of the first German scientists to visit Iraq after the war.