Buried Between the Rivers

1.

“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…


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