The 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has spawned some seemingly improbable headlines, like “U.S. establishes base on Babylon” and “U.S. hands back Ur”. Upon reading such titles, I envisioned the army traveling back in time to attack the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar at his Hanging Gardens or helping God himself topple the Tower of Babel.
Though Babylon and Ur have been abandoned for millenia, and long ago fell into ruin, Western culture still reveres the biblical-era myths and stories set in these cities.
Of course, Babylon and Ur aren’t just notable for their antiquity or their place in Western mythology. These sites are located in the alluvial plains of Iraq, in the path of modern human migration out of Africa – this area has seen untold centuries of human movement and occupation. As every schoolchild knows (or should know), they are the likely birthplace of many human “firsts,” including agriculture, writing, and the wheel. Sites and artifacts in this region don’t just represent one culture, they represent major achievements of our species.
It seemed almost sacrilegious for the military to invade Babylon and Ur. Moreover, it seemed too dangerous for them to occupy and risk damaging these fragile places, which are still being excavated.
When U.S. military contractor KBR built a base on Babylon in 2003, they did indeed damage the site. Workers bulldozed tells, dug ditches, built embankments, and carved out roads; in doing so they hopelessly confused the archaeological context and damaged structural remnants and artifacts, which at Babylon are buried relatively close to the surface. Vibrations from helicopters caused the collapse of a temple, and heavy machinery cracked a 2,600 year-old brick road. Ur fared little better.
To Westerners, Babylon and Ur are perhaps the best-known of Iraq’s ancient cities, and the U.S. military’s heedless destruction there communicated an awful message: even here, nothing here is sacred. One imagines it communicated the same to Iraqis.
The military also failed to protect museums, and many of the country’s 12,000 known archaeological sites, from organized gangs of looters looking to profit from the billion dollar global illicit antiquities trade. Immediately following the 2003 invasion, Babylon itself was looted. In what was perhaps the most publicized incident, 15,000 priceless pieces were stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad, including the 5,000 year-old “Mask of Warka”, the first known naturalistic depiction of the human face (one of 7,000 pieces that have since been recovered).
The U.S. government certainly had warning that looters might strike. In the chaotic days after the first Gulf War, nine regional museums were sacked, and pieces made their way to the global market (whetting international buyers’ appetites for Iraqi artifacts). When the State Department convened a “Future of Iraq” project in October 2001, to plan regime change, it included a “Preserving Cultural Heritage” working group. And in the months before the invasion, cultural experts visited the Defense and State Departments, and received what they believed were assurances that specific sites would be protected.
In the past, the government has made concerted efforts to protect cultural heritage during wartime. During the invasion of Normandy, FDR established a commission to help protect European art and monuments; as part of the initiative, 400 “Monuments Men” worked on the battlefields of Europe, diverting fire from culturally significant pieces and places and repairing damaged ones. Thought the U.S. military certainly has a history of looting, including notable incidents during WWII, this was at least some precedent of protection.
Moreover, the U.S is party to a host of post-WWII international treaties protecting cultural heritage during wartime.
Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, some U.S military individuals and departments did protect sites and antiquities and prevent looting, though efforts were piecemeal and ad hoc. There seemed to be little, if any, directive on cultural protection from the top brass. At an April 2003 DOD briefing with Joint Chiefs Chair General Myers, then-Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld famously remarked, “Stuff happens…The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over, and it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times, and you think, “My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?”
It seems to be human nature to covet and wage war. And looting and decimating an opponent’s culture has been a military strategy since time immemorial. It’s almost antithetical to expect an army to protect cultural sites, yet it’s impossible to accept the destruction of pieces that represent milestones in humanity’s florescence.
As the U.S. military begins to pull troops from the region, it will be interesting to see how Iraq’s cultural heritage is managed, given the unstable political climate, the country’s brain drain, and the installation of antiquities officials with dubious credentials and political debts.
In January 2009, the World Monument Fund announced a “Future of Babylon” project with the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Funded by a $700,000 U.S. State Department grant, the two groups are slated to create a comprehensive blueprint for Babylon’s future. However, Babylon’s regional government opened the site for tourism in May, against the advice of archaeologists who feared that the delicate site wasn’t yet ready for visitors – and certainly ahead of any “Future of Babylon” project schedule.
Elsewhere in the country, the National Museum finally opened in March, although many of the galleries remain shuttered. And Iraq’s National Police force has pledged commandos to protect key sites.
Calls to the Department of Defense remain unreturned. Other calls will be made.