A civilisation torn to pieces
Baghdad, reports Robert Fisk, is a city at war with itself, at the mercy
of thieves and gunmen. And, in the city's most important museum,
something truly terrible has taken place
[The Independent - 13 April 2003]:
They lie across the floor in tens of thousands of pieces, the priceless
antiquities of Iraq's history. The looters had gone from shelf to shelf,
systematically pulling down the statues and pots and amphorae of the
Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Medes, the Persians and
the Greeks and hurling them on to the concrete.
Our feet crunched on the wreckage of 5,000-year-old marble plinths and
stone statuary and pots that had endured every siege of Baghdad, every
invasion of Iraq throughout history only to be destroyed when America
came to "liberate" the city. The Iraqis did it. They did it to their own
history, physically destroying the evidence of their own nation's
thousands of years of civilisation.
Not since the Taliban embarked on their orgy of destruction against the
Buddhas of Bamiyan and the statues in the museum of Kabul perhaps not
since the Second World War or earlier have so many archaeological
treasures been wantonly and systematically smashed to pieces.
"This is what our own people did to their history," the man in the grey
gown said as we flicked our torches yesterday across the piles of once
perfect Sumerian pots and Greek statues, now headless, armless, in the
storeroom of Iraq's National Archaeological Museum. "We need the American
soldiers to guard what we have left. We need the Americans here. We need
policemen." But all that the museum guard, Abdul-Setar Abdul-Jaber,
experienced yesterday was gun battles between looters and local
residents, the bullets hissing over our heads outside the museum and
skittering up the walls of neighbouring apartment blocks. "Look at this,"
he said, picking up a massive hunk of pottery, its delicate patterns and
beautifully decorated lips coming to a sudden end where the jar perhaps
2ft high in its original form had been smashed into four pieces. "This
was Assyrian." The Assyrians ruled almost 2,000 years before Christ.
And what were the Americans doing as the new rulers of Baghdad? Why,
yesterday morning they were recruiting Saddam Hussein's hated former
policemen to restore law and order on their behalf. The last army to do
anything like this was Mountbatten's force in South-east Asia, which
employed the defeated Japanese army to control the streets of Saigon
with their bayonets fixed after the recapture of Indo-China in 1945.
A queue of respectably dressed Baghdad ex-cops formed a queue outside the
Palestine Hotel in Baghdad after they heard a radio broadcast calling for
them to resume their "duties" on the streets. In the late afternoon, at
least eight former and very portly senior police officers, all wearing
green uniforms the same colour as the uniforms of the Iraqi Baath party
turned up to offer their services to the Americans, accompanied by a US
Marine. But there was no sign that any of them would be sent down to the
Museum of Antiquity.
But "liberation" has already turned into occupation. Faced by a crowd of
angry Iraqis in Firdos Square demanding a new Iraqi government "for our
protection and security and peace", US Marines, who should have been
providing that protection, stood shoulder to shoulder facing them, guns
at the ready. The reality, which the Americans and, of course, Mr
Rumsfeld fail to understand is that under Saddam Hussein, the poor and
always the Shia Muslims, the middle classes always the Sunnis, just as
Saddam himself was a Sunni. So it is the Sunnis who are now suffering
plunder at the hands of the Shia.
And so the gun-fighting that broke out yesterday between property owners
and looters was, in effect, a conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. By
failing to end this violence by stoking ethnic hatred through their
inactivity the Americans are now provoking a civil war in Baghdad.
Yesterday evening, I drove through the city for more than an hour.
Hundreds of streets are now barricaded off with breeze blocks, burnt cars
and tree trunks, watched over by armed men who are ready to kill
strangers who threaten their homes or shops. Which is just how the civil
war began in Beirut in 1975.
A few US Marine patrols did dare to venture into the suburbs yesterday
positioning themselves next to hospitals which had already been looted
but fires burnt across the city at dusk for the third consecutive day.
The municipality building was blazing away last night, and on the horizon
other great fires were sending columns of smoke miles high into the air.
Too little, too late. Yesterday, a group of chemical engineers and water
purification workers turned up at the US Marine headquarters, pleading
for protection so they could return to their jobs. Electrical supply
workers came along, too. But Baghdad is already a city at war with
itself, at the mercy of gunmen and thieves.
There is no electricity in Baghdad as there is no water and no law and
no order and so we stumbled in the darkness of the museum basement,
tripping over toppled statues and stumbling into broken winged bulls.
When I shone my torch over one far shelf, I drew in my breath. Every pot
and jar "3,500 BC" it said on one shelf corner had been bashed to
Why? How could they do this? Why, when the city was already burning, when
anarchy had been let loose and less than three months after US
archaeologists and Pentagon officials met to discuss the country's
treasures and put the Baghdad Archaeological Museum on a military
data-base did the Americans allow the mobs to destroy the priceless
heritage of ancient Mesopotamia? And all this happened while US Secretary
of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, was sneering at the press for claiming that
anarchy had broken out in Baghdad.
For well over 200 years, Western and local archaeologists have gathered
up the remnants of this centre of early civilisation from palaces,
ziggurats and 3,000-year-old graves. Their tens of thousands of
handwritten card index files often in English and in graceful
19th-century handwriting now lie strewn amid the broken statuary. I
picked up a tiny shard. "Late 2nd century, no. 1680" was written in
pencil on the inside.
To reach the storeroom, the mobs had broken through massive steel doors,
entering from a back courtyard and heaving statues and treasures to cars
The looters had left only a few hours before I arrived and no one not
even the museum guard in the grey gown had any idea how much they had
taken. A glass case that had once held 40,000-year-old stone and flint
objects had been smashed open. It lay empty. No one knows what happened
to the Assyrian reliefs from the royal palace of Khorsabad, nor the
5,000-year-old seals nor the 4,500-year-old gold leaf earrings once
buried with Sumerian princesses. It will take decades to sort through
what they have left, the broken stone torsos, the tomb treasures, the
bits of jewellery glinting amid the piles of smashed pots.
The mobs who came here Shia Muslims, for the most part, from the hovels
of Saddam City probably had no idea of the value of the pots or
statues. Their destruction appears to have been the result of ignorance
as much as fury. In the vast museum library, only a few books mostly
mid-19th-century archaeological works appeared to have been stolen or
destroyed. Looters set little value in books.
I found a complete set of the Geographical Journal from 1893 to 1936
still intact lying next to them was a paperback entitled Baghdad, The
City of Peace but thousands of card index sheets had been flung from
their boxes over stairwells and banisters.
British, French and German archaeologists played a leading role in the
discovery of some of Iraq's finest treasures. The great British Arabist,
diplomatic schemer and spy Gertrude Bell, the "uncrowned queen of Iraq"
whose tomb lies not far away from the museum, was an enthusiastic
supporter of their work. The Germans built the modern-day museum beside
the Tigris river and only in 2000 was it reopened to the public after
nine years of closure following the 1991 Gulf War.
Even as the Americans encircled Baghdad, Saddam Hussein's soldiers showed
almost the same contempt for its treasures as the looters. Their slit
trenches and empty artillery positions are still clearly visible in the
museum lawns, one of them dug beside a huge stone statue of a winged
Only a few weeks ago, Jabir Khalil Ibrahim, the director of Iraq's State
Board of Antiquities, referred to the museum's contents as "the heritage
of the nation". They were, he said, "not just things to see and enjoy
we get strength from them to look to the future. They represent the glory
Mr Ibrahim has vanished, like so many government employees in Baghdad,
and Mr Abdul-Jaber and his colleagues are now trying to defend what is
left of the country's history with a collection of Kalashnikov rifles.
"We don't want to have guns, but everyone must have them now," he told
me. "We have to defend ourselves because the Americans have let this
happen. They made a war against one man so why do they abandon us to
this war and these criminals?"
Half an hour later, I contacted the civil affairs unit of the US Marines
in Saadun Street and gave them the exact location of the museum and the
condition of its contents. A captain told me that "we're probably going
to get down there". Too late. Iraq's history had already been trashed by
the looters whom the Americans unleashed on the city during their
"You are American!" a woman shouted at me in English yesterday morning,
wrongly assuming I was from the US. "Go back to your country. Get out of
here. You are not wanted here. We hated Saddam and now we are hating Bush
because he is destroying our city." It was a mercy she could not visit
the Museum of Antiquity to see for herself that the very heritage of her
country as well as her city has been destroyed.