The Iraqi Lion...

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Posted by Jeff from ( on Thursday, April 17, 2003 at 12:05PM :

Caption for picture:
Although looters ransacked Babylon's Nebuchadnezzar Museum, the revered 5-ton Lion of Nebuchadnezzar in the courtyard of the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad was untouched. The lion, whose body crouches over the lifeless form of a man, symbolizes the power of Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom, now known as Iraq.

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Iraqi museum picks up pieces after looting
Stolen-art market offers slim hope
By Gwen Florio, Denver Post Staff Writer
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Four burly U.S. tanks, led by one with "Compliments of the U.S.A." painted on its gun barrel, roared onto the grounds of the Iraqi Museum on Tuesday and posted a sign on the gates:
Post / Hyoung Chang
Although looters ransacked Babylon's Nebuchadnezzar Museum, the revered 5-ton Lion of Nebuchadnezzar in the courtyard of the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad was untouched. The lion, whose body crouches over the lifeless form of a man, symbolizes the power of Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom, now known as Iraq.

"Museum under protection."

"Too late. Too late," said Donny George, general director of research studies for the Board of Antiquities.

Last week, George pleaded with the soldiers to guard the museum. They didn't, and now many of its wonders are gone.

"We have lost the treasures of mankind, masterpieces of art that no one can imagine," he said.

"They should have secured this before they secured the Oil Ministry," he said, referring to one of the few government buildings in Baghdad guarded by Americans and hence untouched by looters.

The museum's collection was the pride of Iraq; it housed artifacts dating back 5,000 years, through the Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians. Now, many lie shattered on its floors; others are missing entirely.

Some of the damage is due to common looters, said George, noting that they smashed vases and took the bits of gold embedded in them, apparently unaware that the vases, intact, would have been worth far more than the gilding.

But others came equipped with glass cutters - George waved a fistful that he'd found - and broke into display cases, bypassing copies in favor of original artifacts.

"(Those people) knew what they wanted. These were not random looters," George said.

Among the most valuable items stolen were a sacred vase from the Sumerian city of Warka, dating to 3200 B.C., and "Basiqi," an Acadian bronze dating to 2400 B.C.

"You cannot put a monetary value to these things. They are priceless," George said, adding that the Iraqi Museum was the only one in the world with an unbroken collection of original artifacts dating back so far. "The Louvre, the British Museum, they have bits from everywhere, but we have the only continuous collection from one country, one place."

As he spoke, Hana Abdul Khalik, the museum's general director of excavations, stood behind him, blinking back tears. Her only hope, she said, was that some of the pieces circulate on the international stolen-art market.

"I will ask the help of the whole world in getting back these things," she said. Then she held up her hand. "Leave me now, please, for I am going to cry."

In the United States, archaelogists, including Clemens Reichel of the University of Chicago, said the idea that some thefts were carried out by knowledgeable thieves lessened the likelihood that priceless artifacts would be melted down for the value of their metal.

Army Maj. Michael Donovan of Charleston, S.C., tried to explain to the museum directors that his platoon's first priority was protecting people, not property. The Iraqi Republican Guard barracks is across the street from the museum, and was the source of sniping and attempted terrorist attacks, he said.

The U.S. military has been so ineffectual at stopping the looting that some residents, under orders from the imam in Najaf, a city holy to Shiites, took matters into their own hands. So Tuesday, at a Baghdad intersection, youths armed with Kalashnikovs and sticks stopped traffic and pulled looted goods from cars.

Enforcing their demands with an occasional shot in the air or a thwack with a board, they amassed a pile of furniture, paintings, and sacks of sugar and rice that will be taken to a local mosque for redistribution to the poor.

At the museum, Donovan said the troops would spend the next three days working with a skeleton museum staff to assess the damage before possibly reopening the institution. On Tuesday, the troops and staff were able to determine that the museum's basement vaults, in which some of its artifacts had been hidden before the war, apparently were intact and unopened.

There are no vaults at the Nebuchadnezzar Museum in Babylon, about an hour away from Baghdad. Instead, said museum worker Hussain Sahib, 44, he and other workers spirited away as many things as they could and hid them in their homes. Then they bricked up the museum's entrances.

To no avail: Looters simply smashed holes through the bricks and rampaged through the museum, stealing everything they could and breaking what remained. On Tuesday, they could still be heard at work, banging around deep within the museum, although there was little left to take.

The nearby southern castle of Nebuchadnezzar II, on the banks of the Euphrates River, remained untouched. Parts of the castle walls are original, dating to 605 B.C., with cuneiform letters traced into their mud bricks. The 20-foot-wide road over which Nebuchadnezzar marched 40,000 Jewish slaves on their way to building his empire also was unmarred.

Nor did the looters approach the massive, 5-ton stone Lion of Nebuchadnezzar, roaring silently in its courtyard. Artifacts were one thing, but no one would dare harm the palace, said Sahib, recoiling in horror at the thought.

"This is the history of Iraq, the history of all civilization," he said.

High above the lion and Nebuchadnezzar's castle sits a newer palace, now as empty as the ancient site on the plain below.

Sahib jerked his head toward it and spat a name: "Saddam Hussein." Sahib used to live in the village, Qerish, that Hussein razed to make way for his palace.

"He made all the people go away, but now he is gone," said Sahib. "Maybe now they'll use that place for a hotel, for the tourists." He laughed briefly, bitterly.

Then his face softened as he looked affectionately at the lion, whose body crouches over the lifeless form of a man. The lion, said Sahib, symbolizes the power of Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom, now known as Iraq; the dead man, the weakness of Iraq's enemies.

"No one can do anything to this lion," he said. "It has the power of all Babylon."

Knight Ridder Newspapers contributed to this report.

-- Jeff
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