'Academic' Boots on the Ground in Baghdad

For me, a major incentive to go to Iraq is the chance to gauge the condition of the cultural heritage of the Ancient Near East. While I am hardly a specialist, I did do a graduate coursework concentration in the ANE and my institution is particularly strong in this field. I am also interested in the way that the relics of the ancient past can have profound relevance for contemporary society that transcends their original context. So I am eager to see for myself the status of the extraordinary cultural patrimony of Iraq, which has suffered over the past decades and become such a hot-button issue in the retrospective debate over the conduct of the invasion.

The unfortunate looting of the Baghdad Museum in April, 2003 is frequently invoked by opponants of the war as the moment when the mission started heading south. Don’t get me wrong — I was teaching this material as it happened, and I mourned, that’s really only the only word for it, the treasures that were imperiled and believed to be lost. But even so, I think such hindsight historical revision is awfully convenient for its proponants in that it doesn’t have to face the reality that our troops did during those uncertain early days of the invasion. Baghdad in 2003 was a war zone, not the site of a UNESCO junket. And as someone once remarked, stuff has a way of happening in wars. It happened in Athens. It happened in Dresden. And it happened in Baghdad. I don’t want to make light of what happened to Iraq’s antiquities, or what has happened since for that matter, but the fact is that it did happen, and I’m interested in what happens now.

As Matthew Bogdanos has pointed out, antiquities in Iraq after the fall of Saddam have functioned like narcotics in Afghanistan as a source of ready cash for terrorists. Does it come as any surprise that the enemy is aping Saddam’s approach to his country’s cultural heritage? Saddam mined likely locations for treasures just as the 18th century Bourbon monarchs of Naples harvested antiquities from Herculaneum and then Pompeii, with disastrous consequences for the sites. Today, up to 10,000 under-protected sites in Iraq are being plundered for objects, which are being sold on the black market to fuel the insurgancy at the expense of Iraq’s cultural heritage. Some objects are cropping up in Europe and the US, but the vast majority of them are going into the princely collections of the Gulf states. In either case, their provenance, if ever known, is quickly forgotten. They will be admired as individual aesthetic objects — as trophies if you will — but their larger archaelological significance will be lost while the terrorists laugh all the way to the bank.

So what is to be done? If Iraq continues to stablize in 2007, it might be time to consider deploying ISF to secure the archaelogical sites and interrupt the terrorists’ cash flow. As the legal system takes shape, we should encourage strong and binding antiquities protection legislation that will discourage the terrible hemorrhaging of objects from Iraq and be an effective tool for international courts to use in settling disputed material that has already been taken out of the country. Consider this recent court case in Great Britian that went against the Iranians because the judge came "with some regret, to the conclusion that Iran has not discharged the burden of establishing its ownership of the antiquities under the laws of Iran." Perhaps Iraq can succeed where Iran has failed and fulfill its responsibility to its own cultural heritage.

Amid the many challenges that face the new Iraq, there’s a compelling incentive to value and protect these ancient pieces of stone, ivory and painted pottery. The objects and sites from the Early Dynastic Period, from Akkad, from Assyria, from Babylon are not Shi’ite or Sunni. They’re not even Christian, Muslim or Jew. They speak to a common cultural heritage on which we all have drawn, and so reflect fundamental human achievements such as writing, the rule of law, even the concept of the calender. As such they are literally the stuff of national unity, and the restoration and revitalization of the Baghdad Museum could be an excellent — not to mention symbolic — focal point for the reconciliation process. Saddam partially re-opened the termite-infested museum on his birthday in 2000 in an attempt to assume the legacy of this powerful material into his own persona — and as a footnote I find it interesting that Saddam was already using the mouthpiece of CNN to blame the U.S. for the museum’s delapidated state three years before we invaded. But Saddam is gone now while the vast majority of the museum’s half-million artifacts remain. I wonder if the new, free Iraq can do better and properly care for this institution and its contents.

Of course, it’s hard to tell from so many thousand miles away. And so I’m particularly eager to get my (academic) boots on the ground in Baghdad to see what the situation is now, and where we can reasonably hope to go in the near future.