BOSTON AND BAGHDAD — He could see the mob coming, and feared not for his life, but for the treasures of Iraq's ancient past - some of them 7,000 years old - that had been left in his care.
"I took my white underpants off and put them on a stick and ran up the street to the US Marines," says archaeologist Mohsin Kadun. "I asked them - no, begged them - to help me preserve our treasures, but they would not drive down the street."
This past weekend, the frenzy of looting that has engulfed Baghdad since US troops took control of the city last Wednesday spread to the one place archaeologists worldwide hoped might be spared: the Iraqi National Museum. As hundreds of looters ran down the halls, stealing or smashing almost 70 percent of the repository's valuable statues, carvings, and artifacts, Mr. Kadun, a 30-year museum employee, stood helpless at the gates, screaming.
Iraq has been called one giant historic site, and for 80 years its national Museum has been the repository of irreplaceable records and collections of ancient art and artifacts from the country's Babylonian, Assyrian, and Mesopotamian past. The ransacking has caused incalculable loss to Iraq's, and the world's, cultural heritage, experts say. "If Iraq has anything besides oil, any meaning for humanity, it is in this history," says Paul Zimansky, professor of Near Eastern archaeology at Boston University.
Before the war began, Kadun was in charge of moving artifacts into two giant vaults to prevent them from crashing off their pedestals as US bombs shook Baghdad. Other archaeologists also took protective measures. A group of scholars, conservators, and collectors, including MacGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago, the leading US researcher in Mesopotamian archaeology, drew up a list for the Pentagon of more than 4,000 crucial Iraqi museums, monuments, and archaeological digs, urging commanders to spare them. "The museum was at the top of that list," Dr. Gibson says.
When the bombs stopped falling, the museum stood intact, its marvelous stores untouched. But US forces apparently made no plans for defending it against plunder.
Kadun, and one lone guard watched as the thieves pried open the vaults, grabbing gold necklaces and precious stones. When those were gone, they fell upon the magnificent, inscribed carvings. With carts, cars, and blankets, they hauled off the treasures of seven millennia, taking with them the cultural memory of this already traumatized nation. Among the losses: two Babylonian lions, made of baked clay, a 4,000-year-old collection of tablets laying out exercises for schoolchildren, a 5,000-year-old statue of a bearded man holding a vase.
Dr. Gibson learned of the looting on Friday, when the mob had only sacked the museum's first floor, and not yet its vaults. "That's as if somebody had gotten into the Metropolitan [Museum in New York] and taken everything out of half of it," he said, his voice shaking.
Sunday, with the threat of more vandalism, US forces still had not arrived to secure the museum. "It reflects badly on us as Americans," says Dr. Zimansky. "We've behaved like absolute barbarians. OK, you can blame a mob, but they looted because law and order was broken down, and we broke it down. Then we stood by and watched."
The losses are particularly galling, experts say, because unlike in Afghanistan, where looting and destruction of artifacts had been under way for decades before US forces arrived, Iraq had a long history of exquisite record-keeping and official protection, although in the past 13 years the country saw the defiling of provincial museums and historic sites, first in the chaos after the 1991 Gulf War and then during the economic devastation of the embargo.
James Armstrong, assistant curator of Harvard University's Semitic Museum, says he hopes that once order is restored in Iraq at least some of the stolen treasures can be recovered. In postwar Afghanistan, authorities set up checkpoints and caught some of the smugglers trying to take Buddhist artifacts into Pakistan. Iraqi artifacts will be more valuable to international collectors, but scholars say some stolen items are so well-known that they'll be impossible to sell and could in time be returned.