Babylonian Booty

It had been conquered and re-conquered a dozen or more times, by (among others) the Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Parthians, Arabs, Ottomans and British, and in February 1991, yet another foreign power raised its flag over the ancient city of Ur, near the mouth of the Euphrates: the Americans. Daring the allies to bomb the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham, Iraqis had parked their jets near Ur's 4,000-year-old ziggurat, but the planes were shot up all the same. American soldiers toured the ancient tower, then got out their entrenching tools and began digging for souvenirs. A forlorn Iraqi gatekeeper ran among them, wailing protests in Arabic, until U.S. officers put a stop to the looting. Last week, when NEWSWEEK visited the site, it was virtually deserted, except for a lone guide, the son of the old gatekeeper, keeping a wary eye on the American and British warplanes streaking overhead. "Ninety-nine percent of Americans don't know the country they'll be bombing is Mesopotamia," says Dr. Huda Ammash, a high-ranking Baath Party official. "Our country has served humanity for so long, now it's up to the international community to help protect Iraq."

To the oilfields, the ecology of the Gulf and the lives of countless civilians and soldiers, add another potential casualty of the impending war: the cultural patrimony of Western civilization. In January scholars gave Defense Department officials the names of archeological sites they hoped to spare. "[The military] had a list of 150," says McGuire Gibson, professor of Mesopotamian archeology at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute. "We gave them over 4,000 more--but that only covers the 10 to 15 percent of the country we've studied." Gibson is cautiously encouraged by the record of the earlier war, in which allied bombing spared most important monuments, even those adjoining military targets that were destroyed. But he's also aware that in the featureless plains of southern Iraq, the only high ground consists of the ruins of ancient cities. If the Iraqis make a stand, these mounds, which can be as much as four miles around and 80 feet high, are the natural places to do it.

The larger danger, scholars believe, is from looting. This has been a feature of war in this part of the world since long before the seventh century B.C., when a frieze in one of the palaces at Nineveh depicted an event described thusly in Michael Roaf's "Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia": "An Assyrian soldier brings in a severed head to be counted with the rest of the booty after a battle in Babylonia." In 1991, with Baghdad's iron --control over the country shattered, "nine of 13 regional museums were completely looted," says Richard Zettler, associate curator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Iraqi civilians began tearing into unexcavated sites with front-end loaders, carrying away anything of value. The plunder has been turning up ever since in dealers' catalogs and at auctions around the world. Last week on eBay, sellers were offering 4,000-year-old cuneiform-tablet fragments ("Be sure to bid on this fantastic piece of history!") and a Sumerian silver necklace from 2500 B.C. "There are Iraqi antiquities everywhere you look," says John Malcolm Russell, an authority on the region at Massachusetts College of Art. "And they didn't all come from someone's basement. There are very few legitimate objects on the antiquities market."

This time the Iraqis seem better prepared for postwar chaos. The Iraq Museum in Baghdad was heavily sandbagged last week and closed to the public while workers frantically packed its immense treasure into metal trunks. Rare documents and books, including gold-leaf copies of the Qur'an printed on silk paper, were being packed away at Baghdad's Abdul Qader Al-Kailini mosque. "Four thousand museum pieces were stolen in 1991," says Jaber al-Tikriti, the Iraq Museum's director of antiquities. "This time we have a plan."

But, except out of professional solidarity, Western scholars care less about museum thefts than about the plundering of unexcavated sites. Objects in museums have already been photographed and studied, and if they were properly excavated, their archeological context is known. "Archeologists don't want the objects themselves," explains Russell, "but the stories they represent. When you yank a clay tablet or a cylinder seal out of the ground, you lose everything but the pretty object itself."

It's a minor irony that Saddam's brutal police state has been exceptionally conscientious about protecting Iraq's cultural heritage, partly for his own megalomaniacal reasons. A reconstruction of a Babylonian palace in the 1980s was accomplished with bricks inscribed with a tribute to Saddam Hussein, "protector of civilization, [who] rebuilt this palace which belonged to Nebuchadnezzar II." In that, of course, Saddam is no different than a hundred others who have ruled this ancient land and left their marks on it. Now, perhaps, more than ever, the world ought to be studying their fates.