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Irak

Babylon News

Written by Boston Globe on 07 Jun 2003 16:35:04:


[ Send this story to a friend | Easy-print version | Search archives ]

A cultural divide tests guardians of Babylon


By Patrick Healy, Globe Staff, 6/7/2003

ABYLON, Iraq - In the shadowy lion's den where Daniel's godliness earned him salvation and biblical immortality, a fetid smell rises from the trash, blankets, and filth that now mix with remains of a more ancient variety, circa 1800 BC.


''Squatters were sleeping here recently - you can tell from the food,'' US Marine Captain Neil F. Murphy Jr. said as he poked through the ruins. '' Watch out for the bats. They're the only things left behind.''

Of all the roles many US soldiers are playing in Iraq, acting as custodians of Mesopotamia's cultural heritage has been the most gratifying and controversial - for themselves and for many Iraqis. Americans haven't been aggressive guardians, Iraqis said, and are squandering an opportunity to earn their trust by inadequately protecting ancient sites like Babylon.

Murphy, a muralist back home, revels in sharing tales from ancient Babylon that he gleaned from Mr. Sutton's history class at Braintree High School, and more recently from ''The Complete Idiot's Guide to Iraq,'' a gift from his wife. Other soldiers, however, resent their duties at some of Iraq's 10,000 archeological and museum sites, saying they were trained to fight a war, not hunt for artifacts or stand under the hot sun monitoring treasures that hold little meaning for them.

''I know how to kill people - that's my job,'' said one Marine stationed at a historical site in southern Iraq, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ''Now we're being asked to be these people's best friends. And guard their antiquities, even as Iraqis themselves steal them.''

Marine Captain Scott Bowman, who was stationed in Babylon until recently, said he stood by as looters carried rugs, jewels, even toilets from a palace Saddam Hussein built to link himself to the city's glorious past. Bowman felt like the thieves were blowing off steam, and should be let alone, but now realizes the area's historic importance.

''We've heard complaints about our work, which I respect, but we didn't understand until we were told what significance this place has,'' Bowman said. ''There are so many things about Iraq, about the culture, that we didn't understand before we came here. Hopefully, we can do something about it now.''

Iraqis said it may be too late. The hunt for stolen antiquities has slowed markedly over the past week, as soldiers faced new battles around Baghdad and the leader of the recovery effort at the National Museum in the capital left for a new assignment. Seven weeks after major fighting in Iraq ended, precious tablets at archeological dig sites continue to be ravaged.

''Americans don't know the value of our rocks and paper - that it's not worth billions, but even more,'' said Hassan Khadum Khalifa, 76, who stands guard every day over National Museum scrolls now stored at a Baghdad bomb shelter. ''I'm guarding the scrolls with my walking stick, but at least I am guarding them.''

Iraq's history as the cradle of civilization, including the landmark Babylonian legal code of Hammurabi around 1780 BC and architectural wonders like the hanging gardens here, is familiar to many Americans. But the country's precise contributions to poetry and philosophy, medicine and mathematics, are understood by only a handful of US soldiers such as those at Babylon, who spend free time playing cards and listening to heavy metal on portable radios. At night, they watch American movies that are screened on the first floor of Hussein's empty palace.

''I know more [about Babylon] from church than I do from the tour I got here,'' said Lance Corporal John Bria, a guard at the ancient city's front gates.

The United States has deployed thousands of soldiers to protect scores of dig sites and museums nationwide, with the hunt for stolen antiquities centering in the looted National Museum. Two weeks ago, Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, then the lead investigator at the museum, gave a farewell news conference announcing that the plundering of antiquities at his site was not as bad as first believed. Several thousands items were believed stolen, he said, not the 170,000 that some Iraqi officials first claimed.

Bogdanos's comments, including his suggestion that museum insiders had a role in the thefts, did not sit well with some Iraqi antiquity specialists, who felt that the US military was playing down losses to Iraq's heritage.

Waleed Al-Fatlawi, a leading antiques dealer in Baghdad, said US forces have failed to stem the growing trade in looted items moving on Baghdad's black market. In the back room of one shop, Fatlawi said, a well-known trader recently displayed two looted items: A gold ring with a ruby stone said to belong to a Babylonian king, selling for $5,000 (and bought for $400), and a piece of deer leather with a history of another king carved in Hebrew. The trader refused to speak to the Globe last week.

''Iraqis, Kurds, Europeans, they all buy from him,'' Fatlawi said. ''They can show receipts and take the pieces out of the country.

''I told American soldiers, `These are the properties of 26 million citizens, not one man,''' he added. ''But the man has not been stopped.''

John Russell, an art historian at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, reviewed the antiquities crisis as part of a UNESCO team. He said that ''people with integrity'' at the National Museum and other sites were being portrayed as possible thieves. At the same time, Iraqi looters were digging fresh holes at major archeological sites such as Isin, Umma, and Nippur, in southern Iraq with little or no US intervention.

''I'd like to see more American attention to those sites,'' Russell said. ''But the military has been more focused on defending itself for being late to protecting these sites.''

Some US officers involved in the recovery said the criticisms are unfair, and that Iraqis themselves now seem to be dragging their heels. ''They're all witnesses to the crimes, but no one will say anything,'' one US officer involved in the recovery effort at the American civilian administration in Baghdad said on condition of anonymity. ''Maybe they're waiting for us to leave. They've been increasingly noncooperative.''

The looting has created a new landscape of ruins across Iraq. At the Saddam Fine Arts center in Baghdad, once a national gallery for paintings and sculptures, all the major works have disappeared and even the marble on the stairways have been chiseled off.

Inside the Natural History Museum at Baghdad University, members of the student government are carrying small pistols and shovels to protect what remains of stuffed fish, birds, camels, and hyenas, egg shells, even slightly cracked showcases of flowers and leaves.

At Babylon, Marines such as Murphy are trying to pick up the pace of recovery. They've met with residents and clerics in nearby Iraqi cities to urge people to return antiquities, no questions asked. As Murphy strides the grounds of Babylon, pointing out some of the ancient bricks that have been chiseled away by looters, he said with pride that some of the cuneiform writings on the walls have been saved and secured. A huge piece of the Ishtar Gate has been largely preserved, as has a wishing well to the gods, though it is now littered with two water bottles and an empty cigarette pack.

Yet at twilight, Murphy said, standing on a platform above the ruins, Babylon shines with a certain majesty that transcends Iraq's own stake in history - and that he feels committed to protect.

''This place is an awesome place,'' he said. ''It's a shame the rest of the world can't appreciate what Iraq is.''

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com.
8 czerwiec 2003

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