Spotlight on Iraq’s plundered past

Times Staff Writer

If anything good has come of wartime pillage in Iraq, it’s a vastly increased appreciation for the nation’s cultural heritage.

That point is made in the new book “The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad: The Lost Legacy of Ancient Mesopotamia.” And Donny George, director of the embattled museum, couldn’t agree more.

“Many people did not know about Iraq,” George said, speaking by cellphone from Baghdad. “They only knew that Iraq had a lot of oil, but it has a wonderful history, and not only for Iraqis. It is the history and culture of mankind. Everything started here.”

Written language, philosophy, religion, aesthetics and international trade all have roots in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, once known as Mesopotamia and now part of modern Iraq, he said. “It’s important for everybody to know that.”

Conceived as an educational tool and a plea for help, the book offers a history of the region and its art, as well as an account of the devastation that occurred in April 2003, when looters ran rampant through the museum in Baghdad.


The collection of essays by 22 scholars, archeologists, conservators and journalists was edited by photojournalist Milbry Polk and Angela M.H. Schuster, an editor of archeology periodicals. Part of the proceeds from book sales will be donated to a fund established by the J. Paul Getty Trust and the World Monuments Fund to help reconstruct the museum and preserve Mesopotamian art.

The museum so violently thrust into the public eye two years ago was founded in 1923 to house artifacts excavated at Assyrian, Babylonian and Sumerian sites. Originally contained in one room of a government building on the eastern bank of the Tigris, the museum moved across the river in 1966 and doubled the size of its two-story brick building -- expanding to about 36,000 square feet -- in 1986. The collection encompasses monumental reliefs and statues, ceramic and glass vessels, ivory carvings, textiles, stone cylinder seals, clay cuneiform tablets, jewelry and other objects made of precious metal, including a cache of gold excavated at Nimrud from 1988 to 1990.

Early estimates of losses turned out to be wildly inflated. The Nimrud gold, initially thought to have been stolen, had been locked in vaults of the Central Bank of Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and remained there during the 2003 looting. Boxes of ancient manuscripts also had been safely stored, in a bomb shelter.

However, about 15,000 objects were stolen from galleries and storerooms of the museum, raising questions about whether it was in part an “inside job.” The stolen objects included about 5,000 cylinder seals, ancient wood doors, metal and stone statuary, pottery and gold and silver objects. Some large works that couldn’t be removed were seriously damaged by looters, who also wrecked showcases and doors.

“It is very important to have a book such as this, so that this tragedy will not happen in another museum,” said George, who wrote the foreword. “People who work in museums should be aware, and protect their museums by other means than just guards and electronics. When such situations happen, as in Baghdad or in natural disasters -- floods, earthquakes, fire -- there is no one to stay at the museum to protect it. Everybody just takes off and goes home to their families. There will always be people waiting for that moment. Museums should be built so that they can defend themselves with special doors and showcases that shut down automatically and cannot be easily smashed as they were at our museum.”

Memories of the looting are still fresh to George and his associates, but there’s more than one way to interpret the situation.

The good news is that about half the loot has been recovered, including an elegantly carved 3-foot alabaster vessel thought to have been made between 3300 BC and 3100 BC. Known as the Warka Vase and considered one of the museum’s most valuable possessions, it sustained considerable damage but has been restored by conservators.

The bad news is that about half the loot is still missing, including many significant pieces.

“One of them is a very important half-natural-size statue of a Sumerian king,” George said. “It’s a headless statue made of diorite.” Created circa 2400 BC and excavated at Ur, the sculpture depicts King Enmetena dressed in a fleece skirt, hands folded on his chest. A cuneiform inscription on his upper right arm states that Enlil, the supreme Sumerian god, loves him.

Thieves apparently love the statue too, if only for its market value. But well-known works such as this are not easy to peddle.

“This is good luck for us and bad luck for the people who got them,” George said. “It would be very hard to sell them anywhere.”

That may not offer much consolation to scholars and others who hope to see all the missing objects returned, but George focuses on the bright side of the ongoing drama.

“I’ll tell you the truth,” he said. “Somehow, in an almost daily action, people -- police, customs officers at the airport -- are bringing objects to the museum. In some cases, we have Iraqi people finding pieces and buying them with their own money and bringing them back to the museum. This is very important.

“All the material that has been found is not necessarily in Baghdad now,” he added. “We have a good number of things in Baghdad that were recovered in Iraq. We also have over 2,000 pieces in Jordan, in the department of antiquities, and over 300 pieces in Syria. We have a good number in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. In Italy, there are over 300 pieces; in the United States, there are over 1,000 pieces.

“Most of these objects are documented; many bear Iraq Museum identification numbers. We have pictures of the objects and contacts with authorities in these countries. When the good time comes here, we will have them back in Baghdad for sure.”

No one can predict when the newly fortified and refurbished museum will open, but work is underway.

“One of our projects is installing surveillance cameras outside the museum and motion detectors inside the galleries,” George said. “We have some special electronic locks for the doors. And it goes on.”

So does the conflict.

“The museum is in a very hot spot in Baghdad,” he said, noting that nearby Haifa Street has been a center of insurgent activity. Two museum guards, recently shot while on duty, had to be hospitalized and are recovering.

Nonetheless, George is not discouraged.

“Within two years, we got 50% of the items back,” he said. “We got a lot of work done on the museum building, and there have been courses for my staff, mostly outside the country. So I am really hopeful. I am working on all these things: the antiquities, the building, the capacity of the staff. We will reopen the Iraq Museum at a very high standard. I am looking forward to the party.”