What there was in the beginning, in the world of the Bible, is what there was in the land now called Iraq. There is nothing left of the Garden of Eden, no artifact at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where myth has placed the Temptation and the Fall. But the great cities and empires from the Books of Genesis and Kings and Chronicles have left their traces: Ur, where Abraham was born; rapacious Assyria with its capital, Nineveh, and Babylon, where the ancient Israelites were carried into captivity and where, as the psalm tells us, they wept when they remembered Zion.
Beneath the sands and silt of Iraq, for millennium after millennium, truths have waited to be pieced together about these legendary places that loom so large in the faith and culture of Jews, Christians and Muslims. "This is where the first writing began, where the first ideas of law and religions were written down," says archeologist McGuire Gibson at the University of Chicago. Golden calves, winged bulls and rampant lions have emerged from the dust, helping explain the consequential journey from the opulent polytheism of Mesopotamia to the more ascetic monotheism of the Promised Land. It is a story that has emerged slowly, painstakingly, over the past century from some 10,000 scientific excavations in Iraq and innumerable ones in Israel.
Across the Middle East, the quest for sacred artifacts and for the lessons they can teach us is taking on new urgency. Archeology is growing more sophisticated; the technology of dating relics is improving. Driven by curiosity and faith, ambition and sometimes avarice, diggers yearn to unearth the Bible, to try to solve its mysteries and reveal its secrets.
It is the most challenging of archeological obstacle courses. In Iraq, the fall of Saddam Hussein raised hopes that new money and new freedoms would help open up many sites to more scientific investigation and restoration. But the ravages of war are clouding that prospect. In Israel, a rising tide of funds for Bible-related projects is flowing into Jerusalem and its environs, but archeology is an overlooked casualty of the intifada: the violence has cut down the number of active digs.
Indeed the hunt for treasure and truth is growing ever wilder and more worrisome. In the lawless deserts of occupied Iraq, history--both of the Bible and of the larger ancient world that scriptures only hint at--is being pillaged on an epic scale for a black market where irreplaceable fragments of our past are sold to sophisticated collectors, or just to the highest bidder on eBay. "It's wiping out a whole field of knowledge, of social and cultural history," says Gibson, "just so somebody can have a beautiful object sitting on the mantelpiece."
In Israel, much care is taken to preserve the slightest trace that might reveal literal truths about the mystical teachings of scripture. The tragedy of Iraq is that contexts are disappearing as fast as the objects them--selves. Archeologists are like crime-scene investigators trying to discover how whole societies lived and died. And to do that they need to know when, how--and especially where--each clue is found. "You take an object out of context, you are losing about 80 percent of the information it can give you," says Gibson. Near Nasiriya, in southern Iraq, a 2,700-year-old Sumerian site known as Um Al Agareb, "Mother of Scorpions," is crisscrossed by the tire tracks of looters' trucks. Holes are everywhere. "It makes you cry," says John Russell, an American archeologist who advised the Iraqi Culture Ministry until June. The thieves no longer wait for the cover, or even the cool, of the night. One day last week a portly 35-year-old who said his name was Hassan clawed the earth with a pickax and shovel in 120-degree heat. When asked why, his answer was simple. "We are poor people," he said. According to Donny George, director of the Iraqi National Museum, laborers like Hassan sell the pieces they find for as little as $10 to $15. Those same artifacts may be sold for thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars in Europe, the United States or Japan.
The looting of the museum itself last year created an international sensation as American troops were accused of standing by while more than 100,000 artifacts were stolen. Those numbers were inflated. But more than 8,000 pieces are still missing, of which almost 30 are considered of unique historical and artistic importance. Col. Matthew Bogdanos, a Marine reservist and Manhattan assistant district attorney who led the investigation of the museum theft last year, believes that most of this hoard is being held off the market by organized gangs waiting for prices to rise. In New York, Middle East scholar and author Joseph Braude pleaded guilty this month to smuggling three delicately etched ancient seals into the United States. He said he paid only $200 for the three of them together. The cylinders were marked with the letters IM, for Iraqi Museum, as well as with serial numbers from the collection. Braude's lawyer, Benjamin Brafman, tells NEWSWEEK his client had no part in any looting.
Treasures stolen from the ground can't be traced easily--if at all. "If you are a bad guy [looting a dig], your chances of being caught go way, way down," says Bogdanos. Artifacts can make their way to high-end boutiques, along with papers from unscrupulous dealers "proving" they were found a century ago.
On the ground in Iraq the pillaging is all but impossible to stop. Earlier this month American journalist Micah Garen was abducted while working on a documentary about efforts to protect Iraq's treasures. His captors have threatened to behead him. With the future of Iraq so uncertain, the protection of its buried past is not really a priority of the occupation troops or the newly sovereign regime of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. "The reality is, we put Iraqi guards on many of the most important sites with little training, and at first they weren't armed," says Bogdanos. "Four men pull up in a pickup truck, and they are armed: What are you going to do? Is the guard going to lay down his life for antiquities? Do you put an American platoon on every site?"
As it is, the Coalition military sometimes makes matters worse. When Columbia University professor Zainab Bahrani visited the site of Babylon late last spring, she was stunned to see an American military base spreading across the hallowed ground. Workers scooped up earth potentially rich in relics to make blast walls. Bulldozers carved out helicopter landing pads, and the vibrations from the choppers themselves did still more damage. Portions of two ancient temples have collapsed and Nebuchadnezzar II's palace is threatened. "We're very worried about the palace walls," said Bahrani. "They're made of brick. They rattle when the helicopters take off."
For believers contemplating the rise of the looters, lines from the Revelation of Saint John the Divine may come to mind: "Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen." For archeologists, for the faithful, for all of us, the loss of this past impoverishes the future. Ripping artifacts from their contexts takes away the last chance we have to know those civilizations--from the world of Abraham to that of Nebuchadnezzar--that gave us our own.