A reason for concern?
In response to the two letters under the heading “A rush to panic?” (e-letter sidebar) in the June/03 issue: No formal poll was ever taken of the faculty and staff of the Oriental Institute on the Iraq war, but my impression, formed during scores of conversations in the halls and e-mail exchanges on the eve of the war, is that my colleagues were overwhelmingly opposed to it. A few colleagues here thought the war was necessary, or were ambivalent about it, but they were, I am confident, decidedly a minority.
The letter by Richard Ptak, which tries to suggest that no serious looting really took place, has bought into a concerted campaign (begun by Donald Rumsfeld) to minimize the damage to Iraq’s cultural heritage caused by the war. It is true that the first reports circulated by the news media, which claimed that all artifacts of the Iraq Museum had been looted, were exaggerated—at that early date, no one, here or there, knew that the Museum staff had had the foresight to hide many artifacts in bunkers or other secure locations before the war began. We should all be most grateful that they did! But now that preliminary assessments have been made, it is clear that not all artifacts were secured, and tens of thousands of cylinder seals and other objects from the Iraq Museum were, in fact, looted and remain missing, and others destroyed or damaged.
Also stolen or destroyed were large numbers of manuscripts,
documents, and books from the National Archives, Manuscripts
Library, and other libraries in Baghdad, which remained
unprotected by the American forces for many days after
the occupation of Baghdad. And, as of July 9, the looting
of archaeological sites, particularly in the south,
was still going on, apparently because the American
occupation forces did not have the troops to secure
all sites, or the money and organization to pay Iraqi
guards. Among the sites affected is Nippur, where the
Oriental Institute has conducted excavations for many
In sum, while many of Iraq’s precious artifacts remain, the war has caused serious losses to Iraq’s cultural heritage and has significantly compromised our ability to reconstruct the history of this cradle of human civilization. This fact should not be exaggerated, but it should not be whitewashed, either.
Fred M. Donner
Donner is a professor in the University’s Department of Near Eastern History.—Ed.