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Search on for Iraqi cultural artifacts

Looting of museums, library termed unusual

The looting of Iraq's national treasures and the destruction of its central library have set off an international round of political recriminations and a frantic hunt for pieces expected to turn up on the black market in stolen antiquities.

But the looting and destruction also have raised a troubling question: How could the Iraqi people, in the space of a few days, demolish their own cultural legacy?

"Imagine having everything really important about the early United States in the Smithsonian and that it is gutted. What would that do to our sense of connection to our past?" said Janice Yellin, a professor of art history and an expert in Egyptian civilization at Babson College.

Egypt was long held as a prime example of the pillage of ancient artifacts and artwork -- from the tomb robbers of the Nile Valley to Western archaeologists and collectors who emptied chambers and transported the contents wholesale to European museums.

Yet Yellin said: "I can say with certainty that nothing of this scope has happened in Egypt. Not even the pillaging of Egyptian antiquities ... compares with the scope of the destruction that has just occurred in Iraq."

From the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths to the plunder of European artwork by the Nazis, attacks on cultural legacies have usually taken two tacks.

On one level, attacking nations seek to eradicate the icons of a culture to eliminate it, much the way the Nazis attempted to destroy all evidence of Jews in Europe and Iranian mullahs urged the destruction of Bahai temples.

At another level, invaders gather up prizes for their own enrichment. Much of Venice, for instance, is built out of pieces of the Byzantine empire brought back by invaders.

But some experts say it is unusual -- possibly unprecedented -- for people to turn against their own cultural legacy in the manner the Iraqis did.

"Obviously, the Iraqi people never really owned their past," suggested David Small, an archaeologist at Lehigh University. "Most of the archaeological work that's been conducted in Iraq, especially the stuff that produced the world-famous pieces, has been ... by British and American and German museums. It's almost seen as not the Iraqis' own but someone else's view of Iraq."

But Small's assessment of the Iraqis as a people estranged from their cultural past, as people willing to loot and sell national treasures to escape the grinding poverty of the past two decades, is far from universal among experts.

"The museums were governmental institutions, so they were symbols of governmental power, even though people do feel an affinity with these objects," said Magnus Bernhardsson, a professor of Middle Eastern History at Hofstra University.

What experts in the field do agree on, though, is that the items lost could have been protected, and that the United States established the precedent under which cultural treasures are to be guarded in time of war.

Before the allied invasion of Europe in World War II, the U.S. government created what became known as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of the military. Its mission was to identify irreplaceable cultural sites in Europe.

The group hoped to avoid a repeat of the disastrous loss of architectural treasures that happened during the attack on the Italian town of Cassino in 1944, when allied bombers destroyed Monte Cassino, a treasured Benedictine monastery that had survived attacks by the Lombards in 589 and the Saracens in 884.

American officers were dispatched throughout Europe to locate art stolen by Nazi leader Hermann Goering and to spare cultural centers such as Heidelberg, Salzburg and Vienna from bombing.

"They succeeded in preventing a great deal of damage," said Steven Garfinkle, a Mesopotamian expert at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.

But one of the men who served in that unit said the Allies were not able to prevent all looting, because sometimes, museums or other sites were abandoned by the Germans before Allied soldiers could reach them.

Bernard Taper, a former staff writer of The New Yorker and a retired University of California at Berkeley professor, said citizens looted Hitler's administrative headquarters in Munich and took many art treasures. In one case, he recalled, a woman had used an 18 th-century Dutch landscape painting as extra support under her mattress -- but had cut it to fit. When soldiers retrieved it, Taper said, "she told them, 'I didn't cut off anything important -- just some sky and clouds.'"

In another instance, Taper said, German citizens near the Munich suburb of Berchtesgarden learned that a train loaded with stolen art treasures taken by Goering had been abandoned by fleeing Nazi soldiers, and they began to take them. But soon afterward, Allied soldiers arrived and threw up a security cordon around the train and a bomb shelter in which the most valuable art had been placed.

Wherever possible, Taper said, the Allies at the end of World War II tried to provide security for museums and galleries, and he is angry that the same thing wasn't done in Iraq.

On the other hand, Taper said, the bombing restrictions in Iraq might actually have been more careful than in World War II, where Allied commanders did destroy a number of museums, particularly in the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo.

Before the attack on Iraq, both the Department of State, through its cultural heritage office, and the Department of Defense assembled a working group to protect Meospotamian artifacts and archaeological sites. The group succeeded in preventing bombings of some sites but, for reasons that have not been made clear, was unsuccessful in getting troops on the ground to protect the Iraqi National Museum.

The national library, repository to scrolls and documents that trace the history of rulers from the earliest caliph through the British administration, has been devastated by fire.

"It's a tremendous cultural loss," said Rush G. Miller, librarian at the University of Pittsburgh's Hillman Library, "not only for the people of Iraq, but for the world."

Last week, the State Department, which has not responded to inquiries about the working group and its efforts, along with Attorney General John Aschcroft announced plans to work toward recovering stolen artifacts.

"Anyone knowingly possessing or dealing in such objects is committing a crime," said Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Not all experts were hopeful that many items could be found.

"It's going to wind up in the basement of some Japanese multimillionaire or Texas oil billionaire," Small said.


Staff writer Mackenzie Carpenter contributed to this report. Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.

©Copyright 2003, Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA, USA)

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