Buried in Iraq's clay and dirt is the history of Western civilization. Great empires once thrived here, cultures that produced the world's first wheel, first cities, first agriculture, first code of law, first base-sixty number system, and very possibly the first writing. A brutal plundering of this rich cultural heritage has been taking place in broad daylight ever since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. These days Ancient Mesopotamia looks more like a scene from the movie Holes.
"I still find it hard to believe this is happening," Clemens Reichel told the Huffington Post. "Since the 2003 Iraq War, my work as a field archaeologist has changed forever. Sometimes it feels more like an undertaker's work." Reichel, a Mesopotamian archaeologist at the University of Toronto, is former editor of the Iraq Museum Database Project at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute.
The scope of the catastrophe taking place cannot be overstated, said Reichel.
Thousands of cuneiform-inscribed tablets, cylinder seals, and stone statues have illegally made their way to the lucrative antiquities markets of London, Geneva, and New York. Irreplaceable artifacts have been purchased for less than $100 on Ebay.
Beyond the loss of these precious objects, reckless digging has destroyed the ability of researchers to assemble a mosaic of meaning from the shards of ancient art and mud bricks buried in the ground. "Artifacts without context are decoration, nothing more. Pretty, but useless," said Reichel.
Looters Aren't The Only Culprits
The United States military turned the site of ancient Babylon into Camp Alpha in 2003 and 2004, inflicting serious damage according to an exhaustive damage assessment recently released by UNESCO. Bulldozers leveled many of Babylon's artifact-laden hills. Helicopters caused structural damage to an ancient theater.
But don't be quick to pin the blame on the U.S. military. In the past, protecting antiquities was an important part of U.S. military planning -- that is, when the leadership at the Defense Department deemed it important. During World War II, American officers persuaded allied commanders to avoid combat inside Florence, birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. Members of the Third Army rescued ten works by Rembrandt from the salt mines of Germany, then shipped them to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. for painstaking restoration before returning the works to Europe.
Why, then, are military helicopters still landing on the remains of ancient Babylon? Why are looters still bringing shovels to the cradle of civilization and stripping it bare?
The Buck Stops With Donald Rumsfeld
Remember Rummy? The former defense secretary's jaw-dropping insensitivity was immortalized by the Washington Post's Thomas E. Ricks, after Army Specialist Thomas Wilson complained to Rumsfeld that he and his comrades were forced to root through Iraqi junkyards to improvise armor for their military vehicles:
TW: "A lot of us are getting ready to move north soon. Our vehicles are not armored."
DR: "You go to war with the Army you have."
Rumsfeld was equally indifferent about the looting of more than 15,000 objects from the National Museum in Baghdad on his watch. "Stuff happens," he said.
According to U.S. military intelligence officer Major James B. Cogbill, the principal reason the U.S. failed to protect the National Museum in Baghdad and key archaeological sites was the relatively small size of the force sent into Iraq. "There weren't enough troops on the ground to guard known ammunition dumps, let alone cultural and archaeological sites," Cogbill told the Huffington Post.
Remember it was Rumsfeld who pushed hard to send as small a force as possible into Iraq. This failed strategy, now called the Rumsfeld Doctrine, resulted in unnecessary loss of life, and loss of history.
In 2003, museum officials in Baghdad had more on the ball than Rumsfeld. They wisely hid many premier objects inside an air-raid shelter and the Central Bank before the Coalition invasion. Even so, thousands of precious objects covering 5000 years of recorded history were stolen or smashed to bits. Today nearly 10,000 artifacts remain missing.
Even more devastating is the continued destruction of Iraq's reknowned archaeological sites. Here are three examples. There are thousands more.
First built nearly 5,000 years ago, the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon was once the largest city in the ancient world. Hammurabi, whose principles of justice are still recognized today, lived here. So did Nebuchadnezzar, who reputedly established the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Alexander the Great once ruled this resilient city.
The use of Babylon as a military base was a grave encroachment on the ancient site. Several areas were leveled to serve as parking lots. Heavy vehicles destroyed relics buried near the surface. Troops filled sandbags with soil full of archaeological fragments. (Something as simple as a broken plate can hold the key to how ancient cultures traded.) The remains of Ishtar Gate, the most beautiful of the eight gates that ringed Babylon's perimeter, was among the structures most abused.
"The damage to Babylon is so great," said Maryam Mussa, an official from the Iraqi state board of heritage and antiquities, "it will be difficult to repair it, and nothing can make up for it."
The Great Mosque of Samarra, built in the 9th century, was once the largest mosque in the world. It's minaret, the Malwiya Tower, is a dramatic spiraling cone that rises more than 170 feet above the desert. Not only is the tower one of the most recognized buildings in the Middle East, it was featured on Iraq's currency. Despite protests issued by scholars, U.S. snipers occupied the Malwiya Tower as a lookout. In 2005, the top floor of the minaret was blasted by an insurgent bomb.
Archaeologists uncovered a palace and a large temple complex more than 4,500 years old at the ancient site of Umm al-Aqarib, findings that were expected to help rewrite the history of Sumerian architecture. Today this buried treasure has been completely picked over by looters. Many of the illicit digs were massive efforts carried out by organized teams with backhoes and bulldozers, some financed by foreign operations. Stolen artifacts included fragile clay tablets etched in cuneiform script that revealed recorded decrees, business transactions, and other details of Mesopotamian life. Archaeological bjects like this are difficult to trace because they have never been recorded.
Who is going to step in and protect these sites?
The United Nations is trying to name Babylon a World Heritage Site, a designation that would bring additional support and protection. The hitch? The World Heritage Organization might deny the request if it decides Iraq doesn't have the personnel to maintain the site. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department has kicked in $700,000 to help with restoration, a figure most archaeologists consider too small to make a difference. "Of course it is not enough, but it is better than nothing," said Mussa.
Speaking of better than nothing, last fall the U.S. became the 123rd country to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. (That date, 1954, is not a typo. It took 55 years for the U.S. to get on board.) The Hague Convention is the first multilateral treaty devoted exclusively to the protection of cultural heritage in the event of armed conflict.
Major Cogbill is pushing to institutionalize wartime cultural planning "so it is not marginalized as an afterthought in the junk drawer of the Pentagon."
The U.S. Government should create a permanent, dedicated structure within the Department of Defense that, at a minimum, ensures that appropriate cultural planning occurs and is disseminated to all levels of command. This organization should be fully integrated into the operations and policy directorates -- not marginalized as an afterthought in the "junk drawer" of the Pentagon. It would also be responsible for coordinating directly with whatever civilian agency has overall responsibility for protecting cultural arts and antiquities. Perhaps most importantly, cultural planning should not be relegated to the periphery as part of "phase IV" operations. Unless such planning is a formal aspect of all phases of the operation, it will not be executed properly.
The Department of Defense is "seriously considering this recommendation" said Cogbill.
Army cultural services manager Laurie Rush told the Huffington Post the Department of Defense has already started to do more than just talk about antiquities issues. In 2007, Rush developed a set of playing cards for U.S. soldiers that illustrate Iraq's wealth of ancient historical sites. "This summer, the Central Command Historical Cultural Advisory Group completed its first ever on-site archaeology training for military personnel in the Middle East. Next month, the group will return to Cairo to provide additional sessions with an international faculty," said Rush.
In the meantime, the U.S. military is in the process of slowly withdrawing its troops from Iraq. It begs the question: who is going to step in and stop the slow death of human history?