When cultural property is a casualty of war
the time this column appears in print, the dust raised by the issue of
the destruction of priceless antiquities in the National Museum and the
National Library in Baghdad might have settled down a bit. Or it might
still be swirling around. But the sadness, and the anger, will never go
away. All those images of galleries littered with smithereens of
sculptures and archaeological remains, of gleeful men running in the
streets of the bombed city loaded with looted artefacts, plumes of smoke
rising from fires consuming shelves full of rare manuscripts, shall
remain printed upon the mind forever. Destruction is not new—either to
man, or to art—and one knows of what happens in times of war. But it
is one thing to read about carnage and vandalism and desecration –
Nalanda, Alexandria, Kabul, come readily to the mind – and quite
another to see it happening in front of your eyes, on TV screens, in
living colour. A pall descends upon one’s soul, and settles there. The
edges of questions that war and violence and greed raise acquire a new
keenness. To the unheard cries of maimed children and dying soldiers get
added the mute pleadings of helpless statues being carried away or
broken up into saleable parts.
Ask anyone about the value – not the price – of what has been lost, and you will get the answer in one simple word: "Incalculable". This, because there, on the soil of what the world knows as Iraq, rose and fell great civilisations: Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian. And each of these civilisations left traces in the form of artefacts which have now been plundered. There, in the form of clay tablets, was the oldest library "ever found on its original shelves". There was composed, in the form of clay tablets again, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which many regard as the first major literary work of mankind. There, as every archaeologist maintains, were preserved the tracks of some of the proudest achievements of man. But all of that has vanished now, including books that survived even the Mongol conquest of the region in 1298, when the invaders threw the libraries’ contents into the Tigris river "to build a bridge of paper that turned the waters black with ink."
Now that so much has been destroyed, news comes in daily of how many scholars, archaeologists and art historians foremost among them, had impressed upon the powers that be in America the need to ensure the safety of irreplaceable cultural property. And this well before the war had begun. And there is speculation that behind the plunder of the museum and the library in Baghdad, there were professional hands at work, the looters having been commissioned by dealers and smugglers to bring out specific objects. The papers, at least in America, are filled with letters written to the editors in deep anguish. At least three of the cultural advisers to the President of the USA – among them Richard Lanier, whom I have known personally – have resigned in protest against the failure of the government and the army to accord protection to cultural property. With melancholy and anger in their voices, scholars are asking pointed questions. How is it, for example, that painstaking efforts were directed towards protecting oil wells in the midst of war, but none towards saving human heritage of such significance?
There are no easy answers.
In the last few days I have had occasion – here in California from where I write this piece – to speak on the subject to many friends and colleagues at the museum where I am. And I find their responses to the situation filled with passion, a sense of deep engagement. There is anger and resentment: it is as if they had suffered a personal loss. But in India, back home? I have no idea of how many letters to the editor have appeared, or how many scholars have issued statements about the cultural tragedy that has befallen Iraq. But I can make a sad guess.