The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 11, 2003
'Art and Soul

When cultural property is a casualty of war
B. N. Goswamy

Folio from an Arabic manuscript dealing with the magical attributes of letters and symbols. Iraq or Anatolia, 16th century
Folio from an Arabic manuscript dealing with the magical attributes of letters and symbols. Iraq or Anatolia, 16th century

BY 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.


North-eastern lights
April 20, 2003

The horrors of war
April 6, 2003

Masks, make-up & entertainment
March 23, 2003

The axis of Eros
March 9, 2003
Subversive and restless
March 2, 2003
Should cultural property be returned?
February 9, 2003
Art in the times of war
January 12, 2003
The world of art sales
December 29, 2002
Caught in a time warp
December 15, 2002
Crafts and craftspersons
December 1, 2002
Of ‘golden pens’ and others
November 17, 2002
Portraying the Parsis’ past
November 3, 2002
Of girdles, sashes & patkas
October 20, 2002
Celebrating with the Lion Dance
October 6, 2002

An elegy to a bygone era
August 25, 2002
Those seductive jades
August 11, 2002
Gifts from an ambassador
July 28, 2002
Enigma of the Iron Pillar
July 14, 2002
Having a keen eye
June 30, 2002

The damage to cultural property in Iraq is still being assessed. The objects looted and destroyed are being estimated, and all kinds of figures float about, ranging from close to a lakh and seventy thousand to some seven thousand; newspaper reporters are desperately seeking to interview people who own even a section of some half-burnt Koran rescued from the fires of the National Library; art historians and curators are trying to re-build from memory, and scraps of notes, lists of the most significant works taken from the National Museum, or destroyed. It is all likely to amount to very little, however. Experts, and others who think that the past of man matters, are lamenting the loss of "ten thousand years of history", and recalling with unspeakable sadness the greatest of the treasures lost: the head of Sargon, the Code of Hammurabi of Babylon – the most ancient of laws of civilised society to have survived in written form – the Warka vase, the exquisite and oft-published figures of men and mythical animals that the soil of the land, that was once Mesopotamia, yielded. But it is difficult to keep count of lost cuneiform tablets – "those first words of man, written in clay, in an accountant’s hand" – or those manuscripts penned with loving hands by great Arab calligraphers for whom the beauty of the script had to mirror the beauty of the contents. A whole repository of culture is gone, forever. The Warka vase, sculpted in ancient Sumer some five thousand years ago, might be just another pot for many people, but for those who know, and care, it is – or was – one of the great treasures of world art. As Irene Winter, art historian from Harvard, put it: "It sings its period of history as a Gothic cathedral sings the history of France in the Middle Ages."

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.

Collateral damage

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.


This feature was published on May 4, 2003