Friday, April 16, 2010

National Museum of Iraq

This week I attended a talk at the Museum of Islamic Art on the looting of the National Museum of Iraq during the Iraq invasion. Many of you may remember from the early days of the invasion how during the chaos hoards of people were looting the National Museum of its Assyrian and other Mesopotamian treasures (along with all the media outrage about how could this happen, why didn't the coalition think about this and immediately secure the Museum, all those archaeological wonders would be lost etc.). I recall it.

So it was interesting to hear from a scholar who was the Deputy Director General (or some very senior title) of the Museum from 1988 to 1990. He had a fascinating story to tell.

Back in 1990, at the approach of the what we now refer to as the first Gulf War, the Director General for the Museum closed the Museum and secretly gathered a number of employees, instructing them to pack all of the most valuable pieces in the Museum in crates for placement in the vaults of the Central Bank of Iraq. It took them about a week but thousands of the best pieces in the collection were safely transported to the Central Bank for safekeeping.

The vault had two locks, an "A" key and a "B" key, and once locked the keyholders left the city -- one of them went north, the other one south, with instructions to not return unless certain individuals asked them to come back so that the vault could be opened. Everyone else was sworn to secrecy.

After the first Gulf War it was decided to keep the treasures in the vault. The Museum still had tens of thousands of other pieces which they put on display but the most important ones remained safely locked away. The two keyholders had not been instructed to return.

Fast forward to 2003 and the looting of the Museum. While tens of thousands of pieces were looted from the Museum (the scholar estimated about 50,000) no one realized that the best pieces were somewhere else. Everyone just assumed the looters had them (and the looters probably assumed someone else eluded them before they got to them). Even the media didn't know.

Years later the story did come out. Somehow, and it's not entirely sure who the leak was, a reporter found out that the pieces were in the Central Bank vault and mentioned it on a radio show. Shortly thereafter there were attacks on the Central Bank, likely by criminal gangs trying to get the valuables. The boldest attack was four men using RPGs to try to break into the bank. Thankfully something went wrong and they were killed by the explosion.

It was decided that the pieces had to be removed from the bank. The keyholders were instructed to return, the vault was opened, and with the help of the American military the pieces were taken somewhere else for safekeeping.

We were then shown a slideshow of the items being removed from crates in the Central Bank vault. (And when I mean crates I'm talking about those huge 6' x 4' x 3' crates.)

Pretty much every picture showed items of pure gold. Bracelets, necklaces, masks, crowns, all made of gold with precious stones. Some of the pieces weighed more than a kilogram. Okay not everything was gold, there were a few vases and other statuary, but it appeared they were the minority. I couldn't even estimate what the collection was worth.

Over the ensuing years about 15,000 of the 50,000 pieces looted from the Museum have been recovered, and the greatest pieces of Mesopotamian art are still safe. Sadly, no one knows when or if they will ever be on display again.

The scholar knows where the collection is now being kept. Not surprisingly, he refused to tell us.


Anonymous said...

I was there too, great talk.

The Dicklomat said...

I don't feel so bad now after having seen "No End In Sight"

Anonymous said...