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Profile: National Museum of Iraq
a.k.a. Baghdad Museum
National Museum of Iraq was a participant or observer in the following events:
The Baghdad Museum is evacuated and locked by its curators, who anticipate Baghdad being overrun by American troops within the next few hours. The last three on the grounds are the director, Dr. Jaber Khalil; the director of the State Board of Antiquities, Donny George; and the curator in charge of the museum’s collections, Dr. Nawala al-Mutawalli. They are forced to flee the grounds because Iraqi militiamen have sought cover around the museum, and they fear a firefight. The entire area is under US control by April 9; by April 10, the Army has left the area without posting guards. George pleads for the Army to return to prevent looting, but is ignored. Much of the looting that ravages the museum’s collection takes place on April 12 (see April 13, 2003). The international outcry against the looting is so fierce that the Army will begin posting guards on April 16. [United Press International, 6/23/2003]
Deputy curator Mohsen Hassan sits amidst the wreckage in the National Museum. [Source: Getty Images / Salon]The New York Times reports that in the four days of looting in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities (see April 9, 2003 and After April 9, 2003), the National Museum of Iraq has been almost completely pillaged. Over 170,000 artifacts have been stolen or destroyed from the museum, which once boasted an irreplaceable collection of artifacts from Mesopotamia dating back as far as 7,000 years. The Times reports that archaeologists and specialists once regarded the museum as “perhaps the richest of all such institutions in the Middle East.” Only today have museum curators and government officials been able to start cataloguing the losses, as the waves of looting have begun to ebb, and fires set in dozens of government buildings begun to burn themselves out. While some treasures may have been stored in safes and vaults, the 28 galleries of the museum, and the museum’s main storage vaults, have been “completely ransacked,” the Times reports. What could not be taken was vandalized; 26 huge statues were methodically decapitated. Museum officials are enraged that US troops refused to protect the building (with one exception, a single intervention on April 10 that lasted about half an hour). The museum’s corridors are littered with smashed ceramics and burned-out torches of rags soaked in gasoline. “All gone, all gone,” one curator says. “All gone in two days.” Iraqi archaeologist Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammed describes a crowd of thousands of looters armed with rifles, pickaxes, knives, clubs, and hunks of metal torn from automobiles. He watched as they stormed in and out of the complex, carrying precious antiquities away in wheelbarrows and handcarts. Deputy curator Mohsen Hassan watched helplessly as men with sledgehammers smashed glass display cases to get at the valuables inside. Some of the looters were from the impoverished districts of Baghdad, Hassan recalls, but many were middle class citizens who seemed to know just what they were looking for. “Did some of them know the value of what they took?” Hassan says. “Absolutely, they did. They knew what the most valued pieces in our collection were.” Muhammed blames the Americans for not securing the museum, as do many other Iraqis. “A country’s identity, its value and civilization resides in its history,” he says. “If a country’s civilization is looted, as ours has been here, its history ends. Please tell this to President Bush. Please remind him that he promised to liberate the Iraqi people, but that this is not a liberation, this is a humiliation.” [New York Times, 4/13/2003; St. Petersburg Times, 2/6/2005] Later investigations prove that many of the antiquities thought looted were actually hidden away by museum curators (see June 13, 2003).
Lieutenant General William Wallace tells the Financial Times that, contrary to reports, there was very little looting of antiquities from Baghdad’s National Museum. “[A]s few as 17 items were unaccounted for,” Wallace says. Curators and archaeologists have reported massive looting and vandalism, with over 170,000 artifacts and priceless objects either missing or destroyed (see April 13, 2003). [United Press International, 6/23/2003]
Neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, whom author and media critic Frank Rich calls “a reliable unofficial spokesman for the [Bush] administration’s foreign adventures,” confidently declares that only 33 artifacts were looted from Baghdad’s National Museum, not the 170,000 originally reported stolen or destroyed (see April 13, 2003) or even the 2,000 or 3,000 now considered lost (see June 13, 2003). Krauthammer never explains how he arrives at the conclusion that 33 artifacts were taken, and does not mention the figure in subsequent columns. He does take the opportunity to lambast war critics such as Rich, who decried the looting, as indulging in “narcissism” and “sheer snobbery” typical of “Upper West Side liberalism.” Krauthammer writes that since the looting has been revealed to be less endemic than originally reported, leftist war critics have “simply moved on to another change of subject: the ‘hyping’ of the weapons of mass destruction.” [Washington Post, 6/13/2003; Rich, 2006, pp. 86]
A panel from the ancient and priceless ‘Treasure of Nimrod,’ originally believed to be stolen but later restored to the National Museum. [Source: Zeenaraqi (.com)]UPI columnist John Bloom delves into the mystery of the looted antiquties from Baghdad’s National Museum. Curators and archaologists report over 170,000 antiquties and artifacts either stolen or destroyed, and massive damage done to the building itself (see April 8-12, 2003 and April 13, 2003). On the other hand, General William Wallace has claimed that “as few as 17 items were unaccounted for” (see May 7, 2003). After some research, Bloom claims that virtually everyone involved in the affair is lying to some degree, and, he writes, “the reporters on the scene have been played for patsies.”
Mystery Man - Apparently, Bloom finds, the controversy centers on Donny George, who is officially the director general of research and study for the State Board of Antiquities. George is not the director of the museum; that position is filled by Dr. Jaber Khalil, who “is never quoted in Western news accounts,” Bloom reports. Instead, George became the museum spokesman early in the occupation. He is also a liar, according to Bloom. Reporters say that George gave them the 170,000 figure on or around April 13. George says he never made such a claim. There were 170,000 pieces in the entire collection, he says, but he has no idea how many were stolen or vandalized. The story has become politicized, Bloom writes, somewhat in the US and far more so in Britain, where war critics have seized on the story as evidence of the lack of respect the Pentagon has for the culture of a nation it has seized. The Pentagon calls the museum a military outpost for Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, and its pillaging an understandable reaction from the Iraqi people who hated Hussein and his Ba’athist thugs. After the April looting, archaeological expert Dan Cruikshank, who works for the BBC, attempted to piece together a picture of what exactly was and was not taken. He divided the museum into three main areas:
The galleries themselves. Most of the looting and vandalism took place here. But the galleries had been cleared of much of their valuables. Curators had been planning for this months in advance, having gone through looting after the 1991 Gulf War. They feared both citizen thieves and vengeful Kuwaitis traveling with the US troops. They hid the smaller items, leaving behind only antiquities that could not be stolen without mechanical equipment. Somewhere between 17 and 50 major items were either stolen or vandalized; another 15 items sustained major damage.
The museum offices and conservation rooms, where the safes, keys, and equipment are kept. These areas were heavily looted, but mostly of modern equipment such as computers, fax machines, and copiers.
Five secret storerooms known only to the curators. These are reinforced, locked vaults located in various places throughout the museum. Here is where most of the museum’s treasures were hidden away. Experts who visited the museum after the April looting found that three had not been opened, including one room stuffed with tens of thousands of Greek and Roman gold coins. One had been opened with a key, indicating an inside job. The fifth had been broken into and some items stolen.
Squirreled Away - George was one of the first and loudest of lamenters on April 13, blaming US soldiers for their indifference and lamenting the museum that had been, in Bloom’s description, “overrun by a ravenous horde.” However, George kept a few facts to himself. One, he put the most prized possessions of the museum into a secret vault; only George himself knows where that vault is. Two, many museum staff members took items home to protect them. Three, most of the gold items, including 600 historically priceless pieces of jewelry from the Treasure of Nimrod, are safe in a vault underneath the Iraqi Central Bank. They have been there since the days of the Iran-Iraq war. Four, at least one of the secret storerooms was found to have housed not only antiquities, but parts of a machine gun, an unexploded hand grenade, and a rocket-propelled grenade. The room itself has slit windows giving an excellent field of fire for the street below. This discovery gives some truth to the Army’s contention that its soldiers had taken fire from the museum.
Playing Both Sides - Bloom moves into the realm of admitted speculation in trying to divine George’s underlying motivation. He believes George, who held high rank in the Ba’athist regime, wanted to play his cards close to his chest until he could be sure how everything was going to settle out, not offending either the US occupiers or the Ba’athists, who might, as happened in 1991, end up remaining in power. He also believes George wanted to protect valuable artifacts that had disappeared from the museum long before the war. He wonders if George was collaborating with Saddam Hussein, defending the museum against the depredations of the notoriously rapacious Hussein family (who had no compunctions about selling treasures on the international market), or perhaps both.
Planned Burglary - Bloom and Cruikshank both believe that during the April 12 looting, the same people who plundered the museum in years past came back to steal one more time. Five of the most valuable items were snatched, smuggled out of the country apparently through Damascus, Syria, and sold on the black market in Tehran and Paris. Bloom writes: “That’s what stolen-to-order means. They had lined up buyers in Europe long before the war broke out.” Bloom and Cruikshank also cannot figure out how two of the most valuable artifacts—a 4,500-year-old alabaster relief vase and a 4,250-year-old bronze statue—were stolen. “It would have taken, at the least, a block and tackle, a hoist, and a pickup to get them out of the museum.” Did no one see any of this? Bloom asks.
Real Losses - It seems clear that several thousand antiquities and valuables were indeed looted. The latest figure, from UNESCO and the US Customs Service, hovers around 2,000 to 3,000, notwithstanding the claims of General Wallace. Bloom notes, “Even if the losses are limited to 50 priceless items and 3,000 lesser items, that’s still the most significant robbery of antiquities in living memory.” John Russell of the Massachusetts College of Art said in late May: “It’s only by comparison with the most dire initial reports that said everything was gone that it seems not so bad. Yes, not everything is gone, but major things are.” Other sites suffered worse depredations—the archaelogical digs at Larsa, Nineveh, Hatra, Mosul, Babylon, and the Sumerian city of Umma, among others. Bloom writes: “Lost in all the claims and counter-claims about who was responsible, who was lying, and what was done or not done, was the fact that the whole affair was based on a libel against the Iraqi people—that they would destroy their own citadel of history. It would be the equivalent of thousands of Americans rampaging through the Smithsonian Institution like cannibals.” Cruikshank says flatly, “It is simply not true that the people of Baghdad looted their own museum.” [New York Times, 6/1/2003; United Press International, 6/23/2003]
The National Museum of Iraq, which was extensively looted and vandalized in the weeks after the US invasion (see April 13, 2003 and June 13, 2003), reopens, though the public cannot yet visit. Many of the stolen items have been returned, the vandalism has been repaired, and the museum refurbished and updated. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other dignitaries receive a private tour before the museum is opened to the public. The opening generated some controversy, with the Ministry of Tourism pushing for a gala reopening celebration and the Ministry of Culture arguing that security remains too tenuous for such a high-profile event. The state minister for tourism and antiquities, Qahtan Juboori, says that of about 15,000 pieces stolen from the museum, 6,000 have been returned. They include 2,466 items brought back from Jordan, 1,046 from the United States, and 701 from Syria. It is unclear when the public will be allowed back into the premises. [Los Angeles Times, 2/23/2009]
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