Treasures at risk

The war in Iraq endangers some of Westen civilization's oldest artifacts.

April 10, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The war in Iraq put at risk not only the lives of innocent Iraqi civilians but also a 4,000-year-old cultural heritage preserved at the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad and other sites around the country.

The Iraq Museum in central Baghdad reopened in 2001, after being closed for a decade after the first Persian Gulf War. At that time its collection included some 250,000 objects - from the earliest written documents, ancient religious sculptures, mathematical texts and artworks dating back to 7000 B.C. - that together represented the cultural patrimony of Western civilization.

"It's a world-class museum," said University of Chicago archaeologist Gibson McGuire, who has worked on excavation projects in Iraq since the early 1970s. "The majority of what they've got relates to ancient Mesopotamia, but the collection is very important from the Neolithic era around 9000 B.C. on."

FOR THE RECORD - In an article about the Baghdad museum in Thursday's editions of The Sun, the name of a University of Chicago Iraq scholar was stated incorrectly. His name is McGuire Gibson.
The Sun regrets the error.

In addition to the Iraq Museum - which ranks high on a list of historic and cultural sites U.S. forces are trying not to bomb - there are thousands of known archaeological sites scattered across the country, most of which have been only partially excavated. Thousands more sites remain undiscovered, and their destruction would represent an irreparable loss for scholars' understanding of past civilizations.

"We don't have a good picture of this history," said Regine Schulz, curator of ancient art at the Walters Art Museum. "But we do know there is much more to be discovered and that the material is important to our knowledge of the history as well as to our understanding of the country today."

Modern Iraq occupies the area once known as Mesopotamia -the "land between the rivers" - in the fertile valley of two great waterways, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

It was here that the Biblical cities of Nimrud, Nineveh, Assur and Babylon arose and flourished as great trading centers, that cuneiform ("wedge-shaped") writing on clay tablets was invented, and that the first monumental architecture was constructed in the Sumerian city of Uruk some 5,000 years ago.

Perpetual conflict

But unlike ancient Egypt, which emerged roughly around the same time and which grew up on a strip of fertile land along the Nile River protected from invasion by deserts on both sides, the region of the Tigris and Euphrates resembles a wide, shallow trough offering few natural defenses, making it vulnerable to attack from any direction.

As a consequence, the area has been the scene of perpetual conflict, invasion, war and civil strife since its beginnings.

"It started out totally different from Egypt," Schulz said. "Instead of one powerful ruler, there were many smaller city states that were competing with each other. So the culture developed very differently."

Over the millennia, the region has been conquered by Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Parthians, Arabs, Ottomans and British. Now the American invasion once again threatens the artifacts of a millennia-old culture.

In January, the American Association for Research in Baghdad, a consortium of 30 U.S. universities and museums, gave the Pentagon a list of more than 100 places in Iraq that U.S. military forces should avoid in order to protect important cultural and archaeological sites.

The military knows

Other research groups have also provided the military with lists of such sites, which may number as many as 5,000 across the whole of Iraq.

"The military knows about those sites and is aware of the cultural heritage," McGuire said. "During the last war only one Islamic building was damaged by direct bombing, a mosque in Basra. "There were instances where there was total destruction of buildings right next to some 13th-century mosques without destroying them," he added, though some sites may have been damaged by the intense, ground-shaking blasts.

In Baghdad, the most prominent of such sites is the building housing the Iraq Museum, which sits only a few hundred yards from several important government ministries and the state-run TV station, McGuire said.

Before the 1990-91 gulf war, the Iraq Museum was one of the largest museums in the world. Built as a state-of-the-art facility in 1967 and added to during the 1970s, it is comparable in size to the Louvre in Paris.

However, unlike its counterparts in Europe and America, the museum's collections have always emphasized artifacts from ancient and modern Iraq rather than a comprehensive survey of world art.

Among the Iraq Museum's prized possessions are huge Sumerian relief sculptures, Assyrian and Islamic architecture and more than 25,000 clay tablets covered with the cuneiform writings that constitute the earliest known written records.

During the Persian Gulf War, museum officials sought to protect their most valuable objects by storing them underground or, in the case of very large objects, surrounding them with sandbag walls. Smaller objects were dispersed among Iraq's 13 regional museums.

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