Twenty years ago I had a conversation with a Chinese friend in London. I had mentioned the fine collections of Chinese art and ceramics that can be seen in that city, at places like the Percival David Foundation and the British Museum. Pooh! said my friend, that stuff was all looted from China by foreigners during the Imperialist period. “Well,” I replied, “we should be thankful that it was. If it had stayed in China, it would have been smashed up by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution!”**
This conversation came to mind when I read last week’s newspaper articles about the looting of the Iraqi National Museum. The April 13 New York Times reported that 170,000 items had been carried away from the museum by looters in the previous three days. The stolen treasures represent the entire history of Mesopotamia. This, remember, is where civilization got started, in the ancient states of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, and Assyria. Philippe de Montebello, director of New York’s own Metropolitan Museum of Art, chided the American armed forces in Baghdad for “allowing Iraq’s ancient heritage to be pillaged.”
Though I love history and am a big fan of museums, I didn’t shed any tears over this story. In a moment I shall offer an optimistic take on it. Before proceeding, though, let’s just parse that last quote. “Iraq’s ancient heritage”? In what sense do these ancient artifacts belong to Iraq’s heritage? The nation of Iraq has only existed since 1932. Prior to that, the “land of the two rivers” was a British colony. Before that, it belonged to the Ottoman Empire. Heading backwards through time beyond that, it belonged to the White Sheep Turks, the Black Sheep Turks, the Timurids (another variety of Turk), the Mongols, the Abassids (Arabs), the Seljuks (more Turks), the Buwayhids (Persians), the Abbasids again, the Umayyads (more Arabs), the Sassanids (Persian), the Arsacids (Parthian), the Seleucids (Macedonian-Greek), the Persians again, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Aramaeans, the Elamites, the Kassites, the Amorites, the Akkadians, and the Sumerians.
That’s a considerable amount of churning. The ethnic and linguistic connections between, on the one hand, modern Iraqis, and on the other, the people of Babylon, Nimrod, Nineveh, and Ur, are tenuous, to say the least of it. In the case of the Sumerians, they are probably nonexistent. We know the ancient Sumerian language well — can even sing songs in it. It has no relationship whatever with any other known tongue. The origin and ethnicity of the Sumerians are deeply mysterious. You might have as much Sumerian blood as the average Iraqi, for all anybody knows to the contrary.
To describe the contents of the Iraqi National Museum as being “Iraq’s ancient heritage” is, therefore, to stretch a point. In fact, since everything we know of as civilization began in Mesopotamia back in that dim past four or five thousand years ago, it would be just as correct to refer to these treasures as comprising humanity’s ancient heritage. They belong to us all. Recall the hillbilly’s objection to foreign languages: “The Gospels are written in English, ain’t they? If English was good enough for Our Lord, it’s good enough for me!” We laugh, but in a way the hillbilly has a point. The Gospels don’t belong to any one people, certainly not to the Hellenized Jews who wrote them down in Greek 1,900 years ago. They belong to all of us, and are equally at home anywhere.
Besides, there is the point I started out with. Whether you think these treasures belong to Iraqis or to all mankind, they are treasures nonetheless. They should therefore be stored and displayed in the safest place we can think of. Where would that be? Well, that depends on what course you think world events are likely to take over the next few decades. I don’t believe Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad would be near the top of anybody’s list, though. Saddam’s regime was lawless, and its fall — however it fell — was bound to be accompanied by civil chaos. It seems, in fact, that the old despot had helped himself to some of the museum treasures, and used them to adorn his own numerous palaces.
At any point in history, some parts of the world are civilized, and some are sunk in barbarism. The civilized part of the world at present is what we call the West — a term not to be taken with strict geographical seriousness, as it includes places like Japan and Australia. The Arab countries, including Iraq, belong to the sphere of barbarism, subject to unpredictable spasms of war, revolution, and chaos. In the present age, priceless artifacts from mankind’s history should be kept in the West as far as possible. This gives them their best chance of surviving for another century or two. (Note: “the best chance.” Nothing is certain, and the World Trade Center looked pretty safe until 19 months ago. All I am asking is that we do the best we can.)
As a matter of fact, we may reasonably hope that the West is precisely where the artifacts looted from the Iraqi National Museum will end up sooner or later. The Times quotes Mohsen Hassan, a deputy curator of the museum, as saying that many of the looters were middle-class people who knew exactly what they were looking for. My guess is that there were some museum employees among them. No doubt Baghdad has a few people who would like to have a Sumerian vase on their mantelshelf just to look at. What the city undoubtedly has many more of, though, are well-educated people who are utterly penniless. These people know that even “priceless” objects do, in point of fact, have prices — that private collectors in other countries will pay large sums of money for them. Then, 20 or 40 years in the future, when those collectors pass on and their irresponsible heirs sell off their estates, those objects will find their way to institutions here in the West.
I am therefore sanguine about the looting of the Baghdad museum. Look at it from the point of view of the average Sumerian golden harp. Some artisan created you around 2,900 B.C. for Queen Shub-Ad of Ur. You adorned the palace for a few years. Then, with the queen’s demise, you were shut up in her tomb, along of course with her harpist. (Not much point sending the queen to the next world with a harp if there was no one to play it for her!) There you languished in silence and darkness for 48 centuries or so, while empires rose and fell on the land that concealed you.
Eventually along came Sir Edward Woolley to dig you up. You were dusted off, admired, sketched, photographed, and finally placed in a glass case at the National Museum of newly independent Iraq. There you sat for 70 years — the blink of an eye by your standards — until, during the American occupation of 2003, a low-level employee of the Museum, seeing his chance in the chaos of occupation, smashed the case, stuffed you into a sack and took you home.
You were hidden on a high shelf in this man’s wardrobe for some months, till things settled down and contacts with the outside world resumed. Then your custodian’s old boss from the museum came calling, and in a rather roundabout conversation over coffee and hummus hinted that he was in touch with several collectors in foreign countries eager to locate vanished exhibits from the museum, and that if your custodian knew of any such, it would be worth his while to pass on the information, in strict confidentiality of course. Some transactions ensued, as a consequence of which you found yourself on display behind glass again, this time in the Zürich town house of a Swiss investment banker.
The banker’s family enjoyed three generations of wealth and security. Then, in the great European disorders of the later 21st century, they had to run for their lives to the U.S.A., taking whatever they could carry. Arriving penniless, they sold the harp at auction, and it was acquired by a museum in Houston, Texas…
I once knew a man in London who collected beautiful things — paintings, antiques, fine old furniture. His attitude to those things was, so far as I am concerned, definitive. “I don’t really own these things,” he would say. “I’m just taking care of them. After a while I will pass on. Then someone else will acquire them, and they will take care of them…” So it will be with the Iraqi collection. Saddam Hussein owned this treasure trove for a while. He was hardly a fit person, though, and the pieces have now been scattered to new owners. I suppose that by the vagaries of fate, some will be lost or destroyed, but I am sure most will surface again in the slow churning of time. Time, after all, is what 5,000-year-old objects have plenty of.
** One of the slogans of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was “Smash the Four Olds!” One of the Four Olds was old culture. Mao Tse-tung’s Red Guards — gangs of teenage thugs fired up with political enthusiasm — took this to heart, and destroyed untold quantities of historical treasures. (It is not, by the way, true that collections like the Percival David were furnished by imperialist looting. Practically all the items were bought in fair exchange from their Chinese owners. The same applies, though slightly less so, to the British Museum collection.)