Why Should We Care?

While Europeans were still swinging stone clubs, the peoples of Mesopotamia were swinging into gear. By around 3000 B.C., they had invented everything from writing to irrigation. Kings and queens dressed to kill in gorgeous golden jewelry, studded with lapis and carnelian--or dressed to die, since this is how archeologists found them in their tombs. Their artwork depicts--often with delicacy--the detail of daily life and holy ceremony. Until a month or so ago, the best of the best from that early civilization, in what is now Iraq, was in Baghdad's National Museum. That's why scholars around the world have been so upset by the museum's looting in the last days of the war.

This week the American public can discover firsthand why all of us should care about a trashed museum half a world away. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is opening "Art of the First Cities," a long-planned show of ancient treasure from the region--and Met curator Joan Aruz admits the coincidental timing may spark more than the usual interest. "It's such a tragedy," she says. "It has nothing to do with politics. What we're trying to show is that this world is our world."

Ancient places with such Seussian names as Uruk, Eridu and Kish--to say nothing of that ur-urban place called Ur--were in fact the world's first real cities, the show argues, with a level of social organization that can truly be called civilized. These cities weren't dinky--in 3200 B.C., Uruk had a population of 40,000--and trade routes reached east to the Indus Valley (modern Pakistan and northwest India) and west to the Mediterranean. To keep the necessary records, people developed the first written language, cuneiform--marks incised on clay tablets. To enforce rules of conduct, they developed systems of government. Yet they believed their "kingships," or city-states, were gifts dropped from heaven, so the biggest and best architecture was saved for the temples and palaces--a tradition that hasn't really changed in 5,000 years.

Most of the 400 pieces in the Met show came on loan from U.S., European and Middle Eastern museums. (Syria, in the end, pulled all its pieces but three.) Aruz couldn't borrow from Iraq because of the post-gulf-war embargo, but she'd always planned to include in the exhibit photographs of similar objects from the Baghdad museum, whose collections she calls "Art History 101." Now there's an added poignancy. In the very first gallery stands a small statue of a "Nude Priest-King" with an old photo of his alabaster doppel-gnger from Baghdad--God knows where it is right now. One of the show's masterpieces is the "Great Lyre" from circa 2500 B.C., with a golden bull's head above a panel inlaid with intricate images made of shell; a similar--and similarly priceless--lyre was destroyed in the Baghdad pillaging. "For people wondering what was looted," says Met director Philippe de Montebello, "this show will give an immediate sense of the losses."

The Met show devotes one gallery just to gold and jewels--all from the Royal Cemetery at Ur, whose burial treasures rival King Tut's. Queen Puabi's headdress is an elaborate confection of golden leaves, golden ribbons and rosettes, set off with lapis flowers. Lesser golden headdresses were also found in her tomb, belonging to the 11 handmaidens buried with her. (Nice job, huh?) But the more modest pieces can be equally fascinating and beautiful. Small cylinder seals are intricately carved with goats and lions, heroes and gods, farmers and soldiers, rituals and --battles; when a cylinder is rolled onto soft clay, it leaves a relief with astonishingly sharp detail--a little filmstrip of daily life.

There must have been thousands of such cylinder seals in the Baghdad museum, each a bearer of potent images. So where are they now? Many smaller artworks were packed into the museum's storage vaults; three of those vaults were broken into, and curators still have no list of what's missing. Last week the chief U.S. military investigator, Marine Col. Matthew Bogdanos, said far less had been lost in the rampage than was first reported. Gold objects and jewelry from the museum were moved to a bank vault before the war started and may still be safe. The most serious losses seem to be 49 artworks that were in either the main gallery or the restoration room. They've vanished, difficult as some must have been to move.

The Americans' downplaying of the looting--and the suggestion by one official that some of the thefts may have been an inside job--infuriated scholars. "It's not surprising that the American military would want to shift the burden of responsibility," says curator Irving Finkel of the British Museum. "The Americans basically sat there while the museum was raped and pillaged." It's likely to take months to assess the losses. "I was horrified at the devastation," says John Curtis, also of the British Museum, who visited Baghdad two weeks ago. "All the offices were trashed--every folder ripped, every computer disk torn from shelves." And no one can just sweep up: conservators will have to sift the trash for precious shards. Still, at least 100 objects have been returned under an amnesty program advertised on local radio, and promoted by imams in the mosques. An effort to prevent the smuggling of the best-known objects is underway, and scholars are organizing through the British Museum and UNESCO to send volunteers to help catalog and restore pieces that have been saved.

This work, of course, is predicated on the current belief that a country's patrimony ought to remain within its borders. But the archeologists who excavated in Mesopotamia during the past century or so took half the booty home with them. That's how so many magnificent pieces wound up in London and Philadelphia and Berlin. It's the cream of those collections that is now at the Metropolitan--once respectably looted, now ironically safe and sound, as artifacts of the first great burst of ancient civilization. "That period marked the emergence of just about everything that defines us today," says John Malcolm Russell of the Massachusetts College of Art. This is why it matters so much that the ancient objects from Baghdad's museum be brought back to safety if they can be. They represent Iraq's cultural patrimony--and everybody else's.

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