Iraq's looted heritage makes a steady - if slow - comeback

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's taken months of removing soot, tackling water damage, and reorganizing, but readers and researchers are back at Iraq's National Library.

Nearly a year and a half after one of Iraq's chief repositories of historical record was looted and burned, surviving archives and manuscripts are being cleaned and catalogued - while the director ventures out occasionally to scour book markets for lost treasures.

At the same time, the Iraq Museum remains closed. Its location near a hotbed of resistance puts it in the crossfire of frequent attacks on US forces. But its directors express high hopes of reopening amuseum - perhaps within a year - that far outshines that of the Hussein era.

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Today both institutions, early symbols of postwar troubles, are looking toward a fresh start.

"We want to be not just a part of Iraq's new democratic and liberal culture, but a leader in it," says Saad Eskander, a Kurdish historian who was appointed library director last December. "There's still a lot of work to do and we could use much more help, but the library has come a long way since those dark days after the war."

After suffering disheartening losses, Iraq's cultural heritage is coming back. Although some valuable museum pieces and whole periods of archives are lost forever, thousands of artifacts have been recovered, while books and manuscripts are being restored. International assistance is playing a key role, with even the US - criticized for failing to prevent the losses in the first place - winning praise from some Iraqis for keeping culture on its reconstruction agenda.

The scenes of immediate postwar mayhem, during which US troops stood by, remain a vivid memory for many. Just last week, former US administrator Paul Bremer recalled the "horrid looting" of that time. The looters had many targets, but Iraq's cultural heritage was a chief victim. Valued objects were stolen and recent archives were destroyed for apparently political reasons.

As Iraq's occupiers, the Americans took the brunt of the blame for the losses, and later were criticized for not doing enough to reestablish order and repair the damage. Together with the sensitive issue of US military installations at historical archaeological sites like Babylon, the lingering resentment has prompted some officials to dismiss American interest in restoring Iraq's cultural life.

"The Americans' interest is not in antiquities and the arts," says Jawad Bashara, spokesman for the Ministry of Culture. "Their priorities are security, oil, and arms. They care nothing for our cultural heritage, and that's too bad."

US officials reject such charges, pointing to expenditures of millions of dollars on cultural affairs. In particular, they say, US military officials have been responsive to Iraqi concerns on cultural matters. As proof, they cite a US commitment to remove its military base from the Babylon site by the end of the year, even though it will cost millions.

"These issues are taken very seriously, on Babylon in particular. The generals responsible flew down as soon as the problem of the installations came to light" last May, says one US official here. "There's a broad acknowledgment of the sensitivities."

At the National Library, director Eskander says the blame for cultural losses must be laid at the feet of Iraqis and Americans alike. Receiving guests in an office that before the war was the kitchen of the library's theater, Eskander says, "There is no question the Americans neglected their duty as military occupiers. But what happened to this library was still primarily the fault of the former director general."

About 60 percent of the records and documents of modern Iraq were lost, along with virtually all historical maps and photos, and perhaps 95 percent of rare books, Eskander says. Almost all equipment was destroyed or carried away as well.

The wrong relocation

The former director - once the preferred poet of Saddam Hussein - was dismissed after accusations that he removed rare books from the collection. But Eskander faults the former director for a different decision: moving the library's rare books and national archives to the basement of the nearby ministry of tourism in the prewar frenzy.

"The best thing would have been to move those collections to nearby mosques," he says, "but there was a reason for choosing that ministry: It was a fortress of support of the Baathist regime and housed officials" from Mr. Hussein's intelligence forces.

Eskander says the move meant the books and archives in that basement survived the burning and looting. But about two months after Baghdad's fall, he says, "someone entered the basement, took what they wanted, and opened the water taps."

The objective, some speculate, was to obliterate the Republican Guards' archives, which were among the documents. But about 40 percent of Iraq's archives from the Ottoman Empire, along with rare books and manuscripts, were also destroyed.

The threatened total loss of documents prompted swift action from the US military, Eskander says. When it was determined that the best response would be to freeze the soaked documents for later restoration, officials quickly came up with $70,000 to purchase special freezers.

Still, Eskander barely hides his disappointment in other US institutions as he tours the library's gutted shell. Reaching a collection of vacuum cleaners, he says, "This is what the Library of Congress came up with to help us out - and then they wanted pictures of them in use, like they thought we were going to steal them for personal benefit."

Eskander says the US has committed to placing several library employees in archival restoration programs in the US - but as yet has refused to issue them visas.

The US official says "fears of terrorism" are holding up the visa process in general and not just for Iraqis. But, he adds, "we will get the library those visas" - if they wait long enough. Meanwhile, Eskander says he is pursuing restoration programs in European countries.

The picture is less mixed at the national museum, in part because the museum safeguarded most of its best pieces - and because the museum's funding picture is brighter than the library's.

"In general there is less support for libraries than the big museums, though we're trying to change that," says a senior cultural consultant for the Iraq Reconstruction Management Organization. "But people like a Rembrandt better than an old manuscript."

The library is slated for a new building in a planned cultural complex across from its present gutted building, but the museum plans to redo its exhibits while keeping its old shell.

"The museum is about 40 years old, and the whole approach to museums has changed in that time," says Abdul Aziz Hameed, chairman of the Board of Antiquities and Heritage that oversees the museum. "When we open again, we want it to be as something Iraqis are proud of and the world is drawn to."

Mr. Hameed's cheeriness derives in part from the fact that losses here were much less than they might have been. "We anticipated things would not go well in the war, so we moved almost everything out," he says. As a result, only 39 pieces of "great value" were stolen - and half of those have been recovered.

International cooperation

In all, about 15,000 objects (from small jewelry pieces to ancient seals) were stolen, but about 4,000 of those were recovered, Hameed says, while another 4,000 are "on their way back" - from places like Amman and Paris and New York's Kennedy Airport, where officials have confiscated more than 600 pieces.

Museum director Donny George, says that while criticism of the Americans' initial indifference to the cultural institutions may be warranted, he'd rather focus on the international cooperation he now sees at work. For example, Japan has committed to providing state-of-the art display cases.

"One of our prized pieces, the base of a bronze statue unearthed in a Kurdish village, was stolen during the looting, but thanks to a group of Iraqi police and US military police working together, we got it back," he says. "We want to be a world-class museum, and that's an example of the kind of cooperation we will need to make that dream happen."

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