A Plea for Treasures of Civilization

Times Staff Writer

While U.S. military planners were compiling a list of missile sites, communications centers, bunkers and weapons factories to target during the air campaign against Iraq, American archeologists were putting together their own list of more than 4,000 “do not bomb” sites.

The detailed list of museums, monuments, archeological digs and other key sites embedded in cities and nestled among the shifting dunes of the Iraqi desert is a virtual Baedeker guide to the cultural history not only of Iraq but of Western civilization. It is a heritage that archeologists hope to preserve amid the destruction of battle.

The artifacts housed in Iraqi museums and buried at unexplored sites “are products of human imagination and skill,” said Gus Van Beek, curator of Old World archeology at the Smithsonian Institution. “They have a life of their own. They certainly have a right to survive.”

Ancient Mesopotamia, nestled in the extremely rich soil between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is the birthplace of Western writing, mathematics, astronomy, agriculture and Hammurabi’s historic code of law.


Long before the empires of Egypt, Greece and Rome, the early Mesopotamians and the Sumerians who followed them developed the wedge-shaped alphabet known as cuneiform, produced mathematics on a base-60 system that is used today to measure time and angles, invented the plow and the wheel and developed a method to calculate and predict lunar eclipses. The constellations of the zodiac originated there, as did the idea of a horoscope.

Over the centuries, the country thrived under a succession of rulers that included not only Hammurabi, but also Nebuchadnezzar, Gilgamesh, Cyrus and Alexander the Great, who conquered the region and died there eight years later. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has frequently cited this glorious history as proof of Iraq’s place in modern society.

The history of this evolution is enshrined in tens of thousands of archeological sites scattered over a country a little larger than California.

Destruction of large numbers of these sites would be “cultural genocide,” says archeologist McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago. “Measured against human suffering, material items seem less significant,” he said, but these archeological treasures represent “an important part of the world’s cultural heritage” and every possible effort should be made to preserve them.

Pentagon officials met with archeologists in January and agreed they would make every effort to avoid damaging the sites.

But even if the sites survive the war relatively unscathed, many experts fear greater damage could occur afterward.

The 1991 Gulf War produced relatively modest damage to the country’s patrimony, but the Iraqi government’s loss of control in large regions of the country following its defeat led to massive looting of museums and archeological sites.

Archeology groups have been meeting with State and Defense department officials in an effort to forestall such problems after the current war. A coalition of such groups last week requested that any occupying authorities, as a first order of business, return the number of guards and staff at museums and other sites to levels that existed before the 1991 war.


“It would be a tragedy for the entire world if thousands of sites are lost as a result of political upheaval or decisions made for short-term economic gain,” Gibson said.

The region that is now known as modern Iraq has an amazingly rich and varied history. The first modern farmers began cultivating the “fertile crescent” more than 6,500 years ago. Following the early Mesopotamians, the region was ruled successively by the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Seleucid Greeks, Parthians, Sassanians and, ultimately, Arabs.

Humans were first attracted to the region by the richness of the soil, left behind by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers during frequent floods, which made possible for the first time the production of excess amounts of food.

Much of the origins of mathematics and literacy grew out of the need to predict and control the rivers’ activities.


In the 1991 war, U.S. forces had a short list of archeological sites to avoid and, by and large, they were successful in doing so, Gibson said.

The worst damage was to the immense ramped ziggurat, or terraced, pyramid-like tower, in Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. The massive mud-brick platform was built 2,500 years ago to support a temple to Nabu, the god of science and learning. Iraqi forces attempted to hide equipment near the ziggurat and the structure was damaged by more than 400 shrapnel holes on its southern side when the materiel was attacked.

The Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, which was used as a military headquarters, also suffered some damage when allied forces bombed a telecommunications tower across the street.

“If a country places military equipment at a cultural site, it becomes a legitimate target,” lamented archeologist and law professor Patricia Gerstenblith of DePaul University in Chicago.


The shock from nearby exploding bombs also damaged ancient buildings at the 13th century Mustansiriya University in Baghdad and the soaring brick vault at Ctesiphon, dating from the first millennium. Built by King Seleucus, successor to Alexander the Great, the Ctesiphon is the largest single-span brick arch in the world. Constructed as part of the Royal Audience Hall, the arch is 120 feet high with an 83-foot span. It was cracked by bombing in 1991, but Iraqi archeologists are believed to have repaired it.

Other well-known historic sites that are at risk include the Ishtar Gate and the recently discovered and unexcavated sites thought to be the Tower of Babel and the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The gardens, part of the palace built by Nebuchadnezzar II on the banks of the Euphrates River, was named one of the Seven Wonders of the World by the Greek historian Herodotus.

Perhaps at greater risk are the thousands of tells, or mounds, scattered throughout the countryside, each an unexcavated archeological site. Because the southern Iraqi terrain is relatively flat, the mounds represent the only high ground -- traditionally a prized military position.

During the 1991 war, U.S. soldiers dug trenches in some mounds -- such as Ur of the Chaldees and Tell al-Lahm -- as defensive positions, damaging artifacts in the process. Some soldiers even took souvenirs home.


This time, a standing order of the Department of Defense directs soldiers not to do so.

By far the greatest damage was done after the war’s end.

“The economic embargo against Iraq imposed by the United Nations has been devastating,” said Gibson, who blamed sanctions for Iraq’s inability to pay the antiquities staff and the guards who protected museums and digs.

Nine of the 13 regional museums in the south and north of the country were raided by mobs, who smashed exhibits, stole antiquities and sometimes set fire to buildings. At least 3,000 artifacts were lost, almost none of which have been recovered.


Away from the museums, the damage was even worse. Archeologist John Malcolm Russell of the Massachusetts College of Art noted that an unexcavated site at the third millennium BC city of Umma “was looted with massive earthmovers and dump trucks. I’d say tens of thousands of objects were lost.”

In the southern desert between the Tigris and Euphrates, Gibson said, the digging started as attempts by individuals to find something to sell to feed their families.

This work soon grew into an industry, financed from abroad and engaging hundreds of diggers at some sites.

The most sought-after objects were cylinder seals, statues and, especially, clay tablets with cuneiform writing, the “kinds of artifacts that have zoomed in price on the international market since the late 1980s,” he said.


At least one massive mural in Nineveh, the ancient home of Assyrian kings, was sawed into smaller pieces that could be smuggled out of the country, Gibson said. Items from throughout the country have appeared at auctions and even on the Internet auction site EBay. “The flood of objects is so great that one collector in New York was heard to remark that ‘this is the golden age of collecting,’ ” Gibson said.

In the latest wave of bombings, archeologists are most concerned about the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad and the Mosul Museum in Mosul. Both are located very close to government buildings that are likely targets of the military.

Museums throughout the country have packed up artifacts and stored them in basements. The roofs of many museums have been painted with the logo of UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

“We just hope the American pilots know what the logo is,” said Muayad Damerji, an antiquities advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Culture.