Michael Rubin: Archaeology, Heritage, and Identity

Roundup: Talking About History

[Michael Rubin, of the American Enterprise Institute, reviews a number of books on Iraq. The article originally appeared as review essay in the Spring 2007 edition of Middle Eastern Quarterly.]

Nothing dampened optimism about post-Saddam Iraq faster than looting. Satellites beamed images of Iraqis looting and burning buildings. Rumsfeld dismissed the initial reports of looting and on April 11, 2003, chided journalists."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 twenty times, and you think ‘My goodness, were there that many vases?'" he asked."Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?"[17]

News that looters had sacked the Iraq Museum in Baghdad helped coalesce U.S. domestic opposition to the project in Iraq. On April 16, 2003, the American Schools of Oriental Research, a professional organization for U.S. archaeologists working in the Middle East, issued a statement declaring the museum looting to be"the most severe blow to cultural heritage in modern history, comparable to the sack of Constantinople, the burning of the library at Alexandria, the Vandal and Mogul [sic] invasions, and the ravages of the conquistadors."18 While reports of the museum looting were exaggerated and much of the theft was an inside job,19 the Iraq Museum incident looms large in two postwar books.

The investigation into the museum looting is the subject of Matthew Bogdanos's Thieves of Baghdad. Bogdanos, an assistant district attorney in Manhattan and a Marine reservist charged with leading the team investigating the incident, begins his narrative with the museum director, her AK-47- toting guards, and a host of other investigators as they move through the museum to catalogue missing artifacts. Ten days into their work, they entered the museum vault. While its steel doors had remained closed, looters had entered through a secret entrance, long since walled up. The thieves had left unmolested empty boxes and instead made a beeline for those crates that contained valuables. They had located a set of keys hidden behind a stack of otherwise untouched files. Their maneuvers were all in the dark; electricity was out at the time of the thefts. While journalists described the museum thefts as the result of looting and lawlessness, investigators determined it to be an inside job. And while the New York Times parroted the estimate of Adonia"Donny" George Youkhanna, the museum's director of research and spokesman, that looters had stolen 170,000 artifacts,[20] the real figure was closer to 17,000.

As the investigation continued, Bogdanos reflects on the nature of society and the impact it has had on the investigation. Iraqis seldom differentiate between hearsay and direct knowledge; rarely does anyone volunteer information. Imams at neighborhood mosques become allies. The museum staff itself is compartmentalized in ways far more complex than any official wire diagram could depict, and titles did not necessarily correlate to power. A handful of employees privy to contingency plans kept the status of certain artifacts secret from others who theoretically outranked them. While Youkhanna was interlocutor for journalists and Western scholars, he was out of the loop. Hana Abdul Khaliq, a staffer at the museum, projected terror throughout the complex not because of her management position, but rather because of her relationship to Muhammad Zimam Abd al-Razzaq al- Sadun, a senior Baath Party activist who was the four of spades (number 41) on the deck of cards of wanted regime officials.

While Bogdanos's work helped lead to the retrieval of many of the artifacts believed lost, navigating among Iraqis was not his only obstacle. He describes--tactfully omitting names-- interference by CPA civilians and State Department ambassadors who wanted personalized tours in ways that would have disrupted the crime scene. He also had to counter UN officials who, despite having accurate information available, made false statements about the artifacts looted. Complementing Bogdanos's gripping prose are several pages of photographs, maps, and diagrams. Some of the photos also debunk the myth--popularized in academic circles--that the Pentagon discounted warnings about the museum's location and carelessly fired on it, in one case sending a tank round through a replica arch at the Children's Museum. While the ordinance damage is real, so too are the firing positions dug by the Iraqi army. Most U.S. academics have yet to correct the record.

Magnus Bernhardsson, a professor of history at Williams College, begins Reclaiming a Plundered Past, his study of archaeology and nation building in Iraq, with reference to the looting of the museum. But this provides only the backdrop to a much deeper investigation of the development of archaeology in Iraq and its role in Iraqi nationalism. While there are records of European travelers in Mesopotamia dating back almost a thousand years, Western archaeologists only began systematic work in what is now Iraq in the early nineteenth century. While the formation of Iraq ended the free export of artifacts, the famous British diplomat and Orientalist Gertrude Bell served as director of antiquities under the British mandate. Upon Iraqi independence in 1932, newspapers launched a campaign for Baghdad to reassert authority over Iraq's archaeological heritage. It did. Quickly, though, archaeology and politics became intertwined. Bernhardsson points out that between 1932 and 1941, and again between 1963 and 1968, Iraqi officials used archaeology to emphasize Iraq's pan-Arab and Islamic heritage. Between 1958 and 1963, and then under Saddam's rule, the government emphasized Iraq's pre-Islamic heritage, the most famous example of which was Saddam's 1982 decision to rebuild Babylon. While the postwar literature is full of instant experts, Bernhardsson is an authentic scholar. He bases his study not only on published Western sources, but, as a scholar comfortable with Arabic, also on an extensive array of Iraqi newspapers, pamphlets, and reports dating back to Iraq's independence. While Bernhardsson's prose is scholarly and dry, he does not bury his story in unnecessary jargon.

Nationalism and identity are not frozen in time. Readers wishing to understand the complexity and development of Iraqi nationalism should read Bernhardsson together with the study by Rutgers University professor Eric Davis, Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq. Davis also taps a rich array of archival sources to track the rise and fall of the Iraqi sense of state. He not only elaborates on what books and authors the state promoted, but also on those who had their works banned. Unlike many instant experts who have written on Iraq, he does not conflate U.S. political commentary with Iraqi history. Instead he studies Iraq's political and popular cultures in their own right to trace the rise of popular Iraqi nationalism. Davis argues that the Iraqi sense of state peaked in the 1970s but declined as Saddam supplanted Baath Party control with family control.

While Arab-Kurdish strife is well-covered elsewhere, Davis's examination of sectarian divisions within the country is particularly useful given the problems now plaguing Iraq. Davis identifies the warning signs of sectarian struggle: Shiite demonstrations in Najaf and Karbala in 1977, tit- for-tat attacks in 1980, and the rise of the Islamist Dawa Party while also showing why Iraqi Shiites remained unimpressed with the Iranian model of theocracy. What has changed between 1980 and now would be a worthy topic for a sequel.

Davis's chapter on Iraqi political and intellectual cultures in the wake of the Kuwait war is also important. He addresses both new institutions of control as well as Saddam's efforts to alter Iraqi culture. While the Baath Party once declared its intention to eradicate tribalism, Saddam reemphasized tribalism in the 1990s in order to reassert control over the Shiite south. Saddam began to ask officers their tribal surnames during visits to military bases. Davis also surveys Saddam's own articles and writings during this period. While hindsight is always 20/20, Davis exposes the roots of the trends about which other authors--Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi, for example[21]--appear ignorant."

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