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Buried Between the Rivers


To overturn the appointed times, to obliterate the divine plans, the storms gather to strike like a flood. [The gods] An, Enlil, Enki, Ninhursag have decided its fate—to overturn the divine powers of Sumer…to destroy the city…to take kingship away from the Land [of Sumer]….

The people, in their fear, breathed only with difficulty. The storm immobilized them…. There was no return for them, the time of captivity did not pass…. The extensive countryside was destroyed, no one moved about there. The dark time was roasted by hailstones and flames. The bright time was wiped out by a shadow. On that bloody day mouths were crushed, heads were crashed. On that day heaven rumbled, the earth trembled, the storm worked without respite…. The foreigners in the city even chased away its dead…. There were corpses floating in the Euphrates, brigands roamed the roads…. In Ur people were smashed as if they were clay pots. The statues that were in the treasury were cut down….”

The Lamentation Over Sumer and Ur, from which these passages come, was composed four thousand years ago in the aftermath of an invasion by the Elamites of Iran that brought the Sumerian kingdom of Ur to an ignominious end. This was a fittingly dramatic turning point for what our calendar marks as the transition from the third to the second millennium BC. After some twenty years of incursions, in 2004 BC the Iranian army finally breached the walls of Ur and carried off its last king, Ibbi-Suen, into the mountains: “like a bird that has flown its nest,” as the poet puts it, “he shall never return to his city.”1 The rich cities of Sumer, in present-day southern Iraq, were overrun and from the ensuing desolation emerged a vivid literature of lamentation that bewailed the destruction of temples, cities, agriculture, and all civilized life.

It is a cruel mirroring of history that the third millennium of our own era should likewise have begun with an invasion of Sumer, one in which the culture of Iraq is again under dire threat. And within weeks of the fall of Baghdad the most ambitious exhibition ever mounted on the art of the very cities sacked by the Elamites opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition served to highlight both the extraordinary richness of Mesopotamia’s cultural heritage and the corresponding magnitude of the loss suffered when many unique and supremely important works of art were stolen from the Iraq National Museum between April 10 and 12 of this year.

After much initial confusion, the scale and significance of the looting are gradually becoming clearer. Initial estimates of 170,000 missing objects were hasty extrapolations from reports that “everything” was gone. It soon turned out that many of the showcases were empty because the museum’s staff had removed the important objects to more secure locations, and that most of the collection was still intact (more or less) in the storerooms. This created something of a backlash. Having initially denounced the scandal of troops being stationed at the oil ministry while one of the world’s great museums was looted—“protecting Iraq’s oil but not its cultural motherlode”2—much of the press has since played down the disaster as overblown. This is not the case. The quantities of works stolen were substantial and, more to the point, their cultural significance immense.

A recent official estimate3 is that around forty major works were taken from the main public galleries, including the Warka Vase (later returned) and the Warka Head—two of the greatest masterpieces of Sumerian art, found at the site of ancient Uruk (modern Warka) in Southern Iraq. They also included Assyrian ivories, a large copper sculpture of a hero, and a number of other irreplaceable works. Much more was taken from the storerooms, including nearly all of the museum’s collection of cylinder seals—some 4,800 small stone cylinders carved in intaglio with miniature figured and decorative scenes that were rolled over damp clay tablets. The finest of these are exquisite and powerful works of art. Also gone are much jewelry, sculpture, metalwork, and ceramics.

At the urging of mosque leaders and museum authorities, some objects were brought back in the days immediately after the looting, and many more have since been seized both in Iraq and in customs and police operations in Jordan, Italy, Britain, and New York. As of July 11, a total of 13,515 objects had been confirmed as stolen, of which 10,580 were still missing, including all but a handful of the most important works.

As terrible as these losses are, even greater damage has been done in the months since the fall of Baghdad by the extensive, organized, and in some cases mechanized plundering of archaeological sites in the Sumerian heartland of southern Iraq. After the first Gulf War there were reports of illicit excavations and of unusual quantities of “fresh” artifacts reaching Western markets. During the past four months clandestine digging on a much greater scale by AK-47-toting bands has again been rampant at several important Sumerian sites. Some are already almost entirely gone; others are riddled with trenches and tunnels. “The looters stop at nothing,” says Pietro Cordone, head of cultural affairs in the Coalition Provisional Authority, “they use trucks, excavators, and armed guards to steal objects of great value without being disturbed. We’ve tried everything to end this systematic pillaging, military patrols at the site and helicopter overflights, but so far we haven’t been successful.”4 Officials on the ground still report a lack of funding for the basic necessities of site protection—guards, vehicles, and guns. This is where the Bremer administration, UNESCO, and other supranational organizations should concentrate their resources, shutting down the looting at its source.5 What has happened in recent months is already among the worst mass desecrations of cultural sites in our lifetime, perhaps the worst. If more time is lost before the sites are protected effectively we shall be in need of a lamentation over Sumer and Baghdad worthy of the Sumerian poets.


The cities of Mesopotamia (Greek for “between the rivers,” corresponding to modern-day Iraq plus easternmost Syria) lie mostly under rounded mounds of weathered mudbrick, the inconspicuous tombstones of deserted settlements that can easily be taken for features of the natural landscape. Apart from a few better-preserved ziggurats (staged temple-towers), there is little in Iraq to compare with the dramatic standing monuments of the Mediterranean, and it was therefore visited and studied much less by the early pilgrims and antiquarians who, from medieval times, reopened Western eyes to the Holy Land and Egypt.

All this changed in the 1840s when northern Iraq became the scene of the most substantial excavations ever undertaken in the Near East. The French were first in the field in 1842 at Nineveh and, from 1843, at Khorsabad, the eighth-century-BC capital of the Assyrian king Sargon II. But they were soon outshone and outmaneuvered by a young British traveler and adventurer, Austen Henry Layard. En route to Ceylon, the twenty-eight-year-old Layard became intrigued with stories of buried remains in the mounds near present-day Mosul which turned out to be ancient Nineveh and Nimrud, the two most fabled capitals of the Assyrians.

Within days of starting the digging at Nimrud, Layard hit upon the first of eight palaces of the Assyrian kings dating from the ninth to seventh centuries BC, which he and his assistant eventually uncovered there and at Nineveh. In amazement they found room after room lined with carved stone bas-reliefs of demons and deities, scenes of battle, royal hunts and ceremonies; doorways flanked by enormous winged bulls and lions; and, inside some of the chambers, tens of thousands of clay tablets inscribed with the curious, and then undeciphered, cuneiform (“wedge-shaped”) script—the remains, as we now know, of scholarly libraries assembled by the Assyrian kings Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal. By later standards it was treasure-hunting rather than archaeology, but after a few years of excavation in difficult political and financial circumstances, Layard had succeeded in resurrecting for the first time one of the great early cultures of Mesopotamia. He never made it to Ceylon.

The most spectacular finds were shipped back to the British Museum, where the Victorian fascination with the Bible assured these illustrations of Old Testament history a rapturous reception. By the early 1850s, progress in reading the Assyrian-Babylonian script had allowed names and events to be attached to the images, among them Jehu, the ninth-century-BC king of Israel (shown paying obeisance to King Shalmanesser III), and the siege of Lachish in Judah by Sennacherib. Layard’s account of his discoveries, Nineveh and Its Remains (1849), soon had a huge success: “the greatest achievement of our time,” according to Lord Ellesmere, president of the Royal Asiatic Society. “No man living has done so much or told it so well.” An abridged edition (1852) prepared for the series “Murray’s Reading for the Rail” became an instant best seller: the first year’s sales of eight thousand (as Layard remarked in a letter) “will place it side by side with Mrs. Rundell’s Cookery.”

Work on the decipherment of the language of the Assyrian inscriptions was making good progress while Layard was in the field, partly owing to his discoveries. But the key to cracking the cuneiform script lay elsewhere—in a trilingual inscription of the Persian king Darius carved on the face of a cliff at Behistun in western Iran around 520 BC. (In all, the cuneiform script was used for over 3,500 years.) One of the three versions of the text used a much simpler cuneiform script with only around forty characters, which scholars soon realized must be alphabetic. Even before Layard’s excavations, by making some inspired guesses about likely titles and names, they had deciphered this script and shown the language to be Old Persian, thus of the Indo-Iranian language family (a close relative of Indo-European). Having determined the general meaning of the three texts, scholars now confirmed that the second version, written in the much more complex cuneiform script (some three hundred characters) of the tablets from Assyria, was, as many had suspected, a Semitic language (i.e., cognate with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic)—what we now know as Babylonian.6 Many texts could be read reasonably well by the time Layard’s finds started arriving in England, but the decipherment was not officially declared to have been achieved until 1857, when four of the leading experts (including W.H. Fox-Talbot, one of the inventors of photography) submitted independent translations of a new inscription and all were shown to be in broad agreement. After two and a half millennia, the Assyrians had again found their voice.

What the tablets said continued to cause a stir, especially when it threw light on the Bible. The most celebrated episode took place in 1872 when a young curator at the British Museum, George Smith, found among the tablets from Nineveh one that bore the story of how a Babylonian hero had survived a devastating flood:

  1. 1

    The Lamentation Over Sumer and Ur, excerpts from throughout the text (cf. one of the preserved tablets in the Met- ropolitan Museum exhibition: cat. no. 333). On the lamentations and Sumerian literature generally, see the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL): www-etcsl.orient.ox.ac .uk (lamentations at /catalogue/catalogue2.htm#LAMENT).

  2. 2

    Frank Rich, The New York Times, April 27, 2003.

  3. 3

    Briefing by Colonel Matthew Bogdanos in London, July 11.

  4. 4

    The Jordan Times, August 1, 2003.

  5. 5

    The Italian carabinieri, who have taken over responsibility for the area of Nassyriah from the United States Marines, have recently begun some patrols at night, recovering two groups of looted artifacts.

  6. 6

    Assyrian, the other main language of the tablets from Nineveh, was so close to Babylonian that there was no need to decipher it separately. The third version of the Behistun inscription turned out to be Elamite, the principal administrative language of the Iranians. Since it is a linguistic isolate, its decipherment took considerably longer and it remains today relatively poorly known.

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