Cry Iraq

or: Bagdad and the world, today and yesterday, by Mustapha Marrouchi, 13 January, 2007, on

Excerpt: … Let’s first take on the antiquities of Mesopotamia, which reveal the constants of Middle Eastern politics. Endlessly fluctuating frontiers and proliferating religions mean endless wars. Here, in the sculptured reliefs, are the cities bombarded, the women and children abused and killed, the aggressive signs of military power displayed, the brutality of militaristic regimes paraded, the puppet rulers installed, deposed, and at times hanged. Baghdad fell in 2003, but Babylon falls everyday in the National Gallery. In Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast, painted in Amsterdam in the 1630s, a corrupt and doomed ruler is about to be deposed by foreign armies, all supposedly in the name of a God he had disparaged. The writing on the wall announces that Belshazzar has been found wanting and that his kingdom will be divided among foreign occupiers. In a few hours divine retribution will strike. It is the biblical story as depicted by the 17th century Dutch painter. And if the National Gallery shows the night before the debacle, the morning after the invasion is exhibited at the British Museum.

In 539 BC, Cyrus, the King of the Persians, entered Babylon and overthrew the tyrannical regime. The event is well known from Hebrew scriptures. But the British Museum also has evidence from another perspective–a cylinder of baked clay about 30 cm long, known as the Cyrus cylinder. It is an extraordinary document, in which Cyrus, using the script and language of his new kingdom, decrees that the cults of the different gods are to be restored and honored, and that the deported populations are to be allowed to return home. Unlike the Hebrew scriptures or Rembrandt’s painting, this is the story as it seemed in Mesopotamia itself.

The Iran-Iraq war of 539 BC introduced a new order to the Middle East. A great Persian empire ultimately spread from the borders of China to the Bosphorus. For modern Iranians, Cyrus’s great victory and the empire are the basis of a national myth. Under Persian protection Jews returned from Babylonian exile to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem (though many remained in Baghdad until the 1950s). For the Jews, this became a crucial memory that remains alive in modern Israel. If Babylon has this enduring topicality for Iranians and Israelis, it need hardly be said that its resonance for Iraq is enormous. Saddam Hussein, a potentate sans pareil, except perhaps for Suharto of Indonesia, was fascinated by ancient Babylon and Assyria. He made money available to protect and develop the archaeological sites. The great achievements of Mesopotamian civilization were pressed into the service of the Ba’athist regime, which labored hard to protect the cradle of human civilization (MacGregor, “In the Shadow of Babylon,” 2005: 2).

The looting of the Baghdad Museum after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 made headlines around the world. Images of priceless objects from the very roots of our civilization being carted away in the chaos that followed the collapse of the regime caused unprecedented outrage in the West and the Rest. But what is not known is that the treasures of Iraq have been plundered over many years, and on a massive, organized scale. Archaeologists, historians, and UN officials are appalled but seemingly helpless to stop the flow of artifacts out of Iraq and into the hands of museums and collectors in the antiquity-hungry West. Was the emptying of the Baghdad Museum simply random looting in the confusion following the war? Probably not. There is now strong evidence that some of it was a pre-planned professional operation aimed at feeding the huge Western appetite for Iraq’s incredible heritage. What costs less than a dollar to dig up in the deserts of Iraq can sell for $400,000 at one of the prestigious auction houses of New York, Paris, or London. We can now only dimly imagine how sand bags, used to protect the green zone, are filled with deposits containing shards, bones of memory. Gravel is brought from elsewhere to make car parks and helicopter landing pads, contaminating the archaeological record. Fuel has leaked into the ground. Nine of the molded dragons on the foundations of the Ishtar Gate have been damaged. The brick pavement of the Processional Way has been broken by the wheels of heavy equipment, and further damage to objects still under the ground is likely to accrue. “The movement of heavy vehicles on the surface is,” John Curtis, “generally regarded as very bad practice on an archaeological site” (”The Worst Devastation Since the Mongols,” 2003: 12) … (Read the whole on

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