Mess O’Potamian Art

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080201_at01_wide-horizontal1.jpgThe war turned the Baghdad museum into a tomb of antiquities. It’s finally time to pick up the pieces
In the renovated Assyrian gallery of Baghdad’s Iraq Museum, archeologist Amira Edan al-Dahab was doing what she likes best: explaining the priceless treasures in her care. Stately 3,000-year-old statues of royalty—a couple lost their heads during the museum’s looting in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion—have been restored and are presiding over the vast space. Ancient stone reliefs line the walls, with intricate carving depicting the rituals of early civilization. In one panel, an Assyrian and a Babylonian king are posed shaking hands to seal a treaty, not unlike a diplomatic photo op today. But in another relief, victorious soldiers are piling up their enemies’ severed heads as a tribute to a monarch in a chariot. Al-Dahab, the museum’s temporary director, shakes her head. “You can see the violence all through history,” she says. “This one was always ugly to me, but now it’s even more so.”

With the terror of the insurgency, sectarian attacks and suicide bombings, the devastation of Iraq’s museums and archeological sites has become a footnote in the ongoing violence and political crises. In 2006, after a mass kidnapping near the museum, the director, Donny George, sealed much of the complex in a concrete tomb and, like many of Iraq’s professionals, left the country. But now, with the U.S. troop surge, Baghdad is calmer. Last summer the concrete was replaced with an iron security door. Inside the museum now, nearly 300 workers and scholars are repairing and renovating the interiors and cataloging and restoring artifacts—not only those damaged in the rampage but also those stolen from archeological sites and turned in to the authorities. Though there are no plans to let the public into the museum—”I cannot risk opening this to anyone,” says al-Dahab—NEWSWEEK was invited to survey the ongoing work.

Despite the visible progress, the situation for Iraq’s lost heritage is still grim. Of about 14,000 objects looted from the museum in 2003, fewer than half have been located, many of only negligible value. A few of the most precious works have come back, including the Warka vase from 3200 B.C., on which is inscribed one of the earliest known narrative illustrations. In 2006 the United States returned the headless statue of Entemena, from 2400 B.C., to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki when he visited Washington. It had been seized by U.S. Customs officials. Jordan and Syria have also managed to stem some of the smuggling out of Iraq, but scholars despair over the laxity of law enforcement worldwide. Numerous Web sites advertise supposedly Mesopotamian artifacts from Iraq. But some of the most prized treasures, like so many of the hallmarks of civilization in this proud country, have vanished. Among the most notable: an eighth-century B.C. ivory relief of a lioness attacking a Nubian man. It was one of a pair; the other is in the British Museum.

There are bright spots. When the violence eased in southern Iraq last year, archeologists began “rescue excavations” at 11 key historical sites that were being systematically looted. The newly unearthed finds, sent to the Baghdad museum, included a stone relief dedicated to the “god Shuda,” a deity new to scholars. Iraq is pocked with 12,000 registered archeological sites, but there are fewer than 2,000 guards to protect them all. The war, a weak Iraqi government and the thievery that continues to flourish have been devastating to future scholarship. “Many of these sites are so damaged I don’t know if any archeologists are going to go back to them,” says McGuire Gibson, president of the American Academic Research Institute in Iraq. “It’ll be like trying to dig up lace.”

Why should we care about a bunch of broken artifacts? Because Iraq may be the richest repository of information about our beginnings as civilized people. The great early epic “Gilgamesh” was pieced together from shards found by archeologists there; the ground is full of such clay tablets incised with cuneiform, the first writing. When sites are crushed by bulldozers or tanks—or when looters trash broken bits as worthless—who knows what other epics are lost? Or even little non-epics. Al-Dahab was thrilled to come across a small tablet incised with cuneiform describing a Babylonian wife furious with her husband for taking off with the kids. But her scholarly work takes a back seat to the basics: running water and air conditioning—the place has neither—and security, such as bomb-screening machines, should the building open to the public. What she hopes most is that George, the director in exile, will return. But George, now at Stony Brook University in New York, has no plans to do so, though he keeps in touch. “I’m very sorry to say this, but it’s a kind of chaos,” he says. “It’s just a very, very hard situation.” And once again, the evils of modernity have become the enemies of history, too.