looting iraq's 'heritage',

  1. 5,748 Posts.
    Apr. 29, 2003
    Looting Iraq's 'heritage',
    By Mark Steyn

    Douglas Anthony Cooper of Montreal chides me for a throwaway line in last week's column about the antiwar crowd's sudden interest in property crime: "Steal the photocopier from Baghdad's Ministry of Genital Clamping and they're pining for the smack of firm government."

    "Some matters reside beyond the domain of comedy," writes Cooper. "The rape of the National Museum of Iraq and the torching of the National Library will be lamented by historians for centuries." He concludes, "A man of Steyn's sensibilities beneath the sneer I detect a partisan of Western civilization ought to find this an occasion of immense sorrow."

    Cooper deserves a response. I am "a partisan of Western civilization," yet I do not feel "immense sorrow" at the fate of the National Museum. Clearly, many people do. My colleague Boris Johnson, editor of Britain's Spectator, was a-huffin' and a-puffin' about it last week and hinted strongly that it was all part of some Yank conspiracy to deliver the Iraqi people's birthright to "the guest washrooms of Floridian real estate kings."

    I don't know what Boris has against Florida realtors possibly he was on the wrong end of some timeshare deal in Tampa but I wouldn't have thought a squatting Akkadian king of circa 2,300 BCE was quite their bag.

    In any case, it appears the Western jurisdiction in which the first Iraqi artifacts have turned up is not Florida but Paris. Quelle surprise! The National Museum fell victim not to general looting but to a heist, if not an inside job, for which the general lawlessness provided cover. Am I sorry it happened? Yes, because it has given the naysayers, who were wrong about the millions of dead, humanitarian catastrophe, environmental devastation, regional conflagration, etc, one solitary surviving itsybitsy teeny-weeny twig from their petrified forest with which to whack Rumsfeld and Co.

    It isn't enough for America to kill hardly any civilians or even terribly many enemy combatants or bomb any buildings or unduly disrupt the water or electric supply, it also has to protect Iraq's heritage from Iraqis. That assumption speaks volumes. But it also begs the question: What was this stuff doing in Baghdad in the first place?

    Can you even get insurance for it? Purely by coincidence, at the exact time the treasure house was being emptied, I was rummaging around in Iraqi history for a speech I was giving in New York. The founder of the Baghdad Museum and the country's first Director of Antiquities was Gertrude Bell, who in her capacity as adviser to colonial secretary Winston Churchill can more or less claim to have invented modern Iraq. Gertrude Bell was one of those British colonial figures more native than the natives: she is believed to have traveled more miles by camel than any non-Arab before or since.

    Before Miss Bell, it was taken for granted that anything unearthed by Western archeologists in the Middle East would be taken to the British Museum or the other great repositories of the past's glories. For all the casual slurs about "cultural imperialism" British imperialists were more interested in other cultures than anybody before or since, and, if they hadn't dug it up and taken care of it, we'd know hardly anything about the ancient world.

    If you find archeology rather dry and dreary, you can get an easily digestible glimpse of the way it used to be if you buy a copy of Agatha Christie's thriller Murder In Mesopotamia, whose Dr Leidner is a thinly disguised variation of the archeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, drawn from Dame Agatha's experiences at the famous dig at Ur in 1928.

    NOW WE know better, and so Iraq's past was entrusted not to the British Museum but to Saddam Hussein. I use the term "Iraq's past" loosely. Mankind's first experiments in agriculture and village life took place on the soil of what is now Iraq. Inhabitants of this land invented writing, and the first legal code, and possibly the wheel. But in the millennia between Gilgamesh, King of Nippur, and Saddam Hussein, President of Saddamland, any connection, ethnic, linguistic, religious or cultural, between the subjects of the former and those of the latter has withered to nothing. An Iraqi is no more likely than a Texan to be a descendant of Sumer, and the Lone Star State can stake a more plausible claim to Sumer's civilizational inheritance.

    Present-day Iraq was home to the ancient cultures of Babylonia and Sumeria in much the same way that my property in New Hampshire was once home to NBC celebrity doctor Bob "Doctor Bob" Arnot. It would be foolish to come to me asking for advice on the side-effects of Rogaine: Doctor Bob's legacy is not to be found at my pad. Likewise, whatever the innovations in writing, law, agriculture and village life once pioneered by previous owners of the lot, modern Iraq has squandered: Writing? Banned. Agriculture? We drained the marshes. Village life? Do what we say or we'll kill you. Law? You gotta be kidding.

    Mesopotamia may be "the cradle of civilization," but civilization learned to walk and talk and graduated to long pants in Greece and Rome and London and North America and Australia and India and Japan and St Lucia and Papua New Guinea, and what was once the cradle became, in the last four decades, the toilet of civilization a place incapable of inventing the industrial shredder but anxious to import them for the purpose of feeding human beings into.

    Boris Johnson called the Iraqi museum's contents "the equivalent of the Crown Jewels, things that were meant eternally to incarnate the culture of your land."

    But the Crown Jewels matter because they symbolize reality the peaceful constitutional order that the Queen's subjects have enjoyed for centuries. By contrast, the contents of the Baghdad museum symbolize everything that the monstrous reality of Saddam's Iraq rejected law, government, progress, innovation, vitality.

    So a lawless regime preserved the records of the first legal code in a glass case, which for most of the last few years you couldn't even get in to see. The past was just another Saddamite plaything, appropriated for some useful regime-propping imagery but otherwise disposable. Before they got diverted into jumping on the Bush-bashing bandwagon, the students of antiquity were more concerned with Saddam's dam project at Makhul, which was threatening to submerge Assur, the old capital of the Assyrian empire. There's a fine image: civilization's cradle being thrown out by the Ba'ath water. As usual, it fell to British, American and European archaeological teams to plan to rescue as much of "Iraq's past" as they could.

    Civilization's artifacts belong not to the real estate on which they were found but to the civilization they underpin. One day Iraq will be part of that civilized world: It will have not only a museum worthy of its past, but a present reality worthy of it, too. The desecration of Mesopotamia's legacy took place not in the last 10 days but in the last four decades. Baghdad's citizens merely helped themselves to the few things that were left, whether office furniture or potshards. What's important about a nation's past is not what it keeps walled up in the museum but what it keeps outside, living and breathing as every citizen's inheritance.

    The writer is senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc.

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