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Comment on Lauren Sandler, "The thieves of Baghdad"
Posted by Tiglath (Guest) - Saturday, October 2 2004, 10:28:58 (CEST)
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Comment on Lauren Sandler, "The thieves of Baghdad"

The Lauren Sandler piece in the current Atlantic Monthly "The Thieves of Baghdad", judging by the details in the story, is based on one visit to Iraq, apparently in June of 2003. There does not seem to be any reflection of information later than that date. Because she gives the figure of 3,000 items stolen from the museum, which was the official Museum/US Customs inventory count as of late June, and does not give the figure of 14,000 that was in the Bogdanos Report (Department of Defense) and in Andrew Lawler's Science magazine article of August, 2003, she doesn't seem to have kept up with the developments in the Museum story. The signs on the museum gates, denouncing Dr. Jabber Khalil. President of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, and Dr. Nawala Mutawelli, Director of Museums, were typical of signs on many institutions at the time. They disappeared after a few weeks as decisions were made by the occupying authority. There were many things that both Dr. Jabber and Dr. Nawala could have been faulted for, including their administrative capabilities and style, but the charges of criminal action are not believable. The tone of the article is reflected in the fact that Dr. Jabber and Dr. Nawala are singled out for negative Orientalist stereotyping, though Sandler's informants are not.

At the time when Sandler was in the Museum, there was a special investigative unit (the Bogdanos task force) made up of US prosecutors, US customs agents, FBI agents, and police officers, dedicated to finding the facts of the looting of the Museum. Very little was left uninvestigated at the Museum and the State Board. The Bogdanos report mentions negligence (carelessness with keys and leaving one storeroom door unlocked), and it is concluded that there had to be some inside knowledge that allowed the professional thieves to go to the precise part of one storeroom to take cylinder seals and other objects. But there were no findings that top-level Museum and State Board officials had anything to do with the thefts. The inside information could have been from anyone who had worked at the museum in the past fifteen years, or from a cleaning person, etc. Just prior to the 2003 war, the Museum staff did, in fact, hide the great majority of objects that had been on display in the Museum's public galleries. Dr. Moayyad Sa'id Damirji was assigned by the Minister of Culture to head that effort because he had done the same thing in 1991, and he and four other people were the only ones who knew where the secret store was. It was some weeks after Bogdanos arrived in the Museum that there was enough mutual trust to allow the Museum director to disclose the location of the secret store, which Bogdanos then inspected. Of course, Dr. Moayyad was being uncommunicative when talking to any reporters prior to the disclosure of the hidden storeroom. It is to be expected that officials of an occupied country are going to be suspicious of occupiers. For all they knew, the objects might have been swept up and carried off to America.

In the Sandler article, it is made to appear that the Museum was conspiratorially kept closed throughout the 1990s, implicitly so that pieces could be taken out by Arshad Yassin with the collusion of Dr. Nawala and Dr. Jabber. You get the idea in the article that the Museum displays were all there, but that no one was allowed to see them, except through bribes. (Oddly enough, throughout the embargo, foreign scholars did visit the Museum and did ask for specific objects to study and the artifacts were brought to them. And, although Sandler's informant was never in the Museum public galleries during the 1990s, I know from personal experience that many others of the staff did go there and I was, myself, led through on more than one occasion to check a detail on a specific large piece still on display. Although there were large pieces, such as Assyrian reliefs, still in the halls, the public galleries were virtually empty during those years, with glass cases empty and dusty. The Museum public galleries had been emptied of all portable objects just before the First Gulf War and packed away in storerooms. At that time, days before the first bombs fell on Baghdad in January 1991, the gold from the Ur Tombs and the gold from the Nimrud Queens' tombs, along with other iconic objects, were packed in crates and deposited in the vaults of the Central Bank. The Halls remained closed because throughout the 1990s simply because there was a continuing threat of renewed hostilities. There were occasions when Baghdad itself was hit with Cruise missiles. For a brief period, one small hall was opened to show objects that had been seized from dealers and smugglers. A large part of that display consisted of cuneiform tablets that had been recovered from a smuggler in a pickup truck on the Iraqi-Saudi border. Finally, as the embargo began to come apart in the late '90s and it appeared that things might be returning to normal, the decision was made to reopen the Museum, and the objects were brought out of storage. It was fully open when I was there in 2001. I noted that several important objects, such as the Naram Sin copper head and the Ur treasure, were not in their cases, but were represented by photographs. And the Nimrud gold was not on display at all. I knew already that these pieces were still in the Central Bank..
There had been rumors in the 1990s, spread by Iraqi opposition people abroad, that the Nimrud treasure had been taken by Saddam and that his wives, mistresses, and daughters were wearing the jewelry. I was pretty sure that this was not true, but I asked about it in private and was told by the man who had put the objects in the bank that he had checked the vault recently and that the crates were still there, unopened.

When war threatened again in 2003, the Museum public galleries were emptied again, leaving only the large-scale items, and unfortunately some pieces that were big but not impossible to move, which allowed for the theft of (the Uruk Vase, the Bassetki statue, and some statues. The Uruk lion Stele, also left on display, was not taken, nor were any of the massive Assyrian reliefs and the Islamic architectural elements). Also left in the halls, and therefore partly lost, were some smaller pieces that were affixed to the walls (e.g.., the Ubaid temple fragments). These items should have been removed, but with only 5 people working on the dismantling, there was not the necessary force to do so. The loss of the famous Uruk alabaster face and the destruction of the Ur harp are particularly unfortunate, since they were off display but had not made it into the secret storeroom, being left in a less secure area. Many of these details can be gotten from the Bogdanos report.

The chief thrust of the Sandler article is that Saddam's bodyguard and brother-in-law, Arshad Yassin, was able to get Dr. Nawala and Dr.Jabber to help him steal objects from the Museum in the 1990s. There is no doubt that Arshad Yassin was involved in smuggling antiquities out of the country, and for this he was removed from his positions by Saddam and banished from the inner circle. Whether or not he continued to deal in antiquities, I do not know, but it would have been dangerous for him to do so. Having been cashiered for dealing in antiquities, Arshad also would have been a very dangerous man for an Antiquities service person to know. No one would have taken up with Arshad at the expense of making an enemy of Saddam. That is especially true of Dr.Jabber and Dr. Nawala, who were in a position of trust.

That Arshad might have wanted to get items out of the Museum is possible, and he may very well have been behind the professional looting in the Museum in April 2003. During the 1990s, he may have suborned some low-level Museum staff member to take an object or two. This is possible but not likely. Since the looting of archaeological sites had begun in the south (Umma, Umm al-Aqarib, Adab) already in the mid 1990s because the government had no effective control in the countryside, Arshad would have had plenty of opportunity to gain excellent objects cheaply without having to go near the Museum. It has to be remembered that when the Antiquities service was able to show graphic images of the illegal digging at Umma, it was given a special budget to carry out the first controlled archeological digging at that site and at neighboring Umm al-Aqarib, Tell Shmid, and Zabalam, with spectacular results. The excavators had to remain on site working throughout the summers in order to keep the looters at bay. Such dedication is pretty odd for people who are supposed to have been cooperating with Arshad. . Dr. Nawala directed the work at Umma, and I suspect that it was for the major findings of that expedition that she was paid the $2,500 that is mentioned in the Sandler article. During that period, the State Board of Antiquities began to pay a bonus to its excavators for certain major objects, presumably as an incentive for good work and as a means of assuring that the artifacts would, in fact, be turned over to the Museum instead of being sold to a dealer. To construe such payments as, by implication, somehow connected to the purported thefts from the Museum or merely as a reward for "cooperating with the regime" is absurd. On that last point, any official in a government office in any country is, in effect, cooperating with the regime. That is what bureaucrats are supposed to do. Some of the lower ranked staff members, who complained loudest about Dr. Nawala, were also receiving bonuses of the same type.
The looting of the Iraq Museum started on April 10,2003, and Arshad Yassin may have played a role in the work of the professional group that operated mainly in one set of storerooms. But that Dr. Nawala and Dr. Jabber had a hand in it is, in my opinion, absurd. Tare professionals and take their obligations to the field seriously. Whether they were good administrators or had made the right decisions in the face of an invasion, can be debated. The fact that the great majority of the objects on display were saved is to their credit. That the entire collection of almost 40,000 manuscripts under the Museum's responsibility was safely stored in an air raid bunker, along with the most important books from the Museum's working library, must also be seen as wise decisions.

Much of Sandler's information seems to be coming from one man, and that man told his stories to the Bogdanos task force. A member of the task force told me that this man's story was not thought to be credible. The story about the fakes being unearthed on a dig was given in a somewhat different version in Baghdad, but I will not go into this since I did not hear it first hand.

The most interesting part of the Sandler article is at the end, where she traces the movements of the man who took the Uruk vase out of the Museum. Again, her version is quite different from the way he has told it to other journalists who speak Arabic. According to them, he approached the Museum people very soon after the Museum was secured from looters, saying that he had important pieces to return. It was agreed that he would not bring it back until the Museum was guarded. About a month after the marines arrived, he brought the pieces back. Now, it may be that the version in Sandler's article is more accurate, that he was intending to sell the vase but came to find out that it was too hot to handle, but given the inaccuracies in the rest of the article, it is difficult to judge.

By the way, why didn't Arshad or the professional looters get the Uruk vase and the Uruk alabaster face? Instead, those objects and the Bassetki statue were taken by the casual, unorganized looters who were just neighborhood people out to get something to sell. The professional group of thieves, who may or may not have been connected to Arshad, apparently ignored the public galleries but went directly to the basement store, where there were cylinder seals to steal. They got 5,000 of them, and since they are very small, often look similar to others, etc., and are much coveted by collectors, they are much easier to sell than well-known sculptures.

There is a real story to tell about the traffic in antiquities in Iraq, but this is not it. Sandler was greatly out of her depth in Iraq, relying on interpreters and not being able to sift through the maelstrom of rumors and interpersonal relationships in the aftermath of a disruption of a major institution. She make no mention of the destruction and dislocations of every office and laboratory in the Museum/Antiquities complex, which will have much longer-lasting effects on the recovery of the Antiquities service than the looting of the objects. Think about any museum and picture all of its offices stripped of most of the furniture, electrical wiring, and other equipment, and with many of its papers, ledgers, file cards, negative files, and photographic archives strewn throughout the building. That was the situation in the Iraq Museum as I saw it a month after the looting. People sitting in offices with nothing to do, as described in Sandler's article, were perhaps unable to do anything that day because the head of that department was unable to come to the Museum because there were no buses or taxis in service from her district. But someone cleaned up all that paper and started organizing it on shelves, beginning the even before I was in the Museum. Sandler just does not have an appreciation for what the Museum and the Antiquities offices or galleries were like before the looting, and she certainly had no understanding of the situation in which she found herself. Her article reflects an uncritical use of sources and an inability to understand where the truth might lie.

The Sandler article makes no mention of the current situation in Iraq. The Museum's losses, now known to be about 15,000 objects, pale when compared to the devastation that has befallen many of the ancient cities of Sumer. For eighteen months, teams of up to 300 men-per-site have been burrowing in these great cities with virtual impunity. Every day, more objects are probably being stolen from those sites than were lost in the three days of looting in the Museum. But besides the loss of artifacts, there is the loss of the sites themselves. The destruction is on a scale that has never been equaled in Iraq, and because Iraq has so many important sites, it may be unequalled anywhere.

Joanne Farchakh, a Lebanese archaeologist-journalist, will probably tell the definitive story of the looting of sites. She has been tracing the story of the looting of the sites since the 1990s and has thoroughly documented the devastation of the past year and a half. Micah Garen, who has followed the same story for the past year and may have been kidnapped for it, is said to be preparing a major piece for the New York Times.

McGuire Gibson
Professor of Mesopotamian Archaeology
Oriental Institute, University of Chicago


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