BAGHDAD, Iraq April 12 —
The famed Iraq National Museum, home of extraordinary Babylonian,
Sumerian and Assyrian collections and rare Islamic texts, sat empty
Saturday except for shattered glass display cases and cracked
pottery bowls that littered the floor.
In an unchecked frenzy of cultural theft, looters who pillaged
government buildings and businesses after the collapse of Saddam
Hussein's regime also targeted the museum. Gone were irreplaceable
archaeological treasures from the Cradle of Civilization.
Everything that could be carried out has disappeared from the
museum gold bowls and drinking cups, ritual masks worn in funerals,
elaborately wrought headdresses, lyres studded with jewels priceless
craftsmanship from ancient Mesopotamia.
"This is the property of this nation and the treasure of 7,000
years of civilization. What does this country think it is doing?"
asked Ali Mahmoud, a museum employee, futility and frustration in
Much of the looting occurred Thursday, according to a security
guard who stood by helplessly as hoards broke into the museum with
wheelbarrows and carts and stole priceless jewelry, clay tablets and
Left behind were row upon row of empty glass cases some smashed
up, others left intact heaps of crumbled pottery and hunks of broken
statues scattered across the exhibit floors.
Sensing its treasures could be in peril, museum curators secretly
removed antiquities from their display cases before the war and
placed them into storage vaults but to no avail. The doors of the
vaults were opened or smashed, and everything was taken, museum
workers said. That lead one museum employee to suspect that others
familiar with the museum may have participated in the theft.
"The fact that the vaults were opened suggests that employees of
the museum may have been involved," said the employee, who declined
to be identified. "To ordinarily people, these are just stones. Only
the educated know the value of these pieces."
Gordon Newby, a historian and professor of Middle Eastern studies
at Emory University in Atlanta, said the museum's most famous
holding may have been tablets with Hammurabi's Code one of mankind's
earliest codes of law. It could not be determined whether the
tablets were at the museum when the war broke out.
Other treasures believed to be housed at the museum such as the
Ram in the Thicket from Ur, a statue representing a deity from 2600
BC are no doubt gone, perhaps forever, he said.
"This is just one of the most tragic things that could happen for
our being able to understand the past," Newby said. The looting, he
said, "is destroying the history of the very people that are
John Russell, a professor of art history and archaeology at the
Massachusetts College of Art, feared for the safety of the staff of
Iraq's national antiquities department, also housed at the museum;
for irreplaceable records of every archaeological expedition in Iraq
since the 1930s; for perhaps hundreds of thousands of artifacts from
10,000 years of civilization, both on display and in storage.
Among them, he said, was the copper head of an Akkadian king, at
least 4,300 years old. Its eyes were gouged out, nose flattened,
ears and beard cut off, apparently by subjects who took their
revenge on his image much the same way as Iraqis mutilated statues
"These are the foundational cornerstones of Western
civilization," Russell said, and are literally priceless which he
said will not prevent them from finding a price on the black
Some of the gold artifacts may be melted down, but most pieces
will find their way into the hands of private collectors, he
The chances of recovery are slim; regional museums were looted
after the 1991 Gulf War, and 4,000 pieces were lost.
"I understand three or four have been recovered," he said.
Samuel Paley, a professor of classics at the State University of
New York, Buffalo, predicted whatever treasures aren't sold will be
The looters are "people trying to feed themselves," said Paley,
who has spent years tracking Assyrian reliefs previously looted from
Nimrud in Northern Iraq. "When they find there's no market, they'll
throw them away. If there is a market, they'll go into the
Koichiro Matsuura, head of the U.N.'s cultural agency, UNESCO, on
Saturday urged American officials to send troops to protect what was
left of the museum's collection, and said the military should step
in to stop looting and destruction at other key archaeological sites
The governments of Russia, Jordan and Greece also voiced deep
concern about the looting. Jordan urged the United Nations to take
steps to protect Iraq's historic sites, a "national treasure for the
Iraqi people and an invaluable heritage for the Arab and Islamic
Some blamed the U.S. military, though coalition forces say they
have taken great pains to avoid damage to cultural and historical
A museum employee, reduced to tears after coming to the museum
Saturday and finding her office and all administrative offices
trashed by looters, said: "It is all the fault of the Americans.
This is Iraq's civilization. And it's all gone now." She refused to
give her name.
McGuire Gibson, a University of Chicago professor and president
of the American Association for Research in Baghdad, was infuriated.
He said he had been in frequent and frantic touch with U.S. military
officials since Wednesday, imploring them to send troops "in there
and protect that building."
The Americans could have prevented the looting, agreed Patty
Gerstenblith, a professor at DePaul School of Law in Chicago who
helped circulate a petition before the war, urging that care be
taken to protect Iraqi antiquities.
"It was completely inexcusable and avoidable," she said.
The museum itself was battered. Its marble staircase was chipped,
likely by looters using pushcarts or heavy slabs of wood to carry
booty down from the second floor. The museum is in the Al-Salhiya
neighborhood of Baghdad, with its back to a poor neighborhood.
Early Saturday, five armed men showed up at the gate: One was
armed with a Kalashnikov, three carried pistols, one wielded an iron
bar. The man with the assault rifle walked into the museum, accused
journalists there of stealing artifacts and ordered them to
He claimed to be there to protect the museum from plundering. One
of the men said he was a member of the feared Fedayeen Saddam
"You think Saddam is now gone, so you can do what you like," he
|Civilians inspect Torah scrolls
stored in the vault of the National Museum in Baghdad, Iraq
Saturday April 12, 2003. Looters opened the museum vault, went
on a rampage breaking ancient artifacts stored there by museum
authorities before the war started. (AP Photo/Jerome
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