Azerbaijan International

Spring 2003 (11.1)
Pages 10-11

Discoveries - The Consequences of War - Broken Links
by Betty Blair

We're on deadline now. The clock is ticking: the press is already running some sections of the magazine. There's only one page to finish - the Editorial. And here I am with a bad case of writer's block. Never mind that I've done this 40 times before.

It's so hard to concentrate. My mind constantly darts to the barrage of news about the US-led attack on Iraq. And now more tragic consequences are heaped upon this country: the National Museum of Archeology in Baghdad has just been ransacked and looted (April 10-11). The museum used to be one of the most famous in the world, housing 10,000 items, some dating back 7,000 years ago to early civilization that began there in the Tigris-Euphrates basin.

The museum once boasted one of the world's earliest legal documents the tablets of Hammurabi's Code, as well as early cuneiform texts, describing the epic of Gilgamesh, treasures from the royal tombs of Ur, recent excavations of Nimrod, a golden Sumerian harp, stone carvings, gold jewelry, ivory figurines, ceramic jars and urns, friezes depicting soldiers, winged horses and on and on. Now they lie on the museum floor, smashed and broken. Many have hauled off and may already be making their way to the black market.

How could such plunder take place? Some blame the poverty that has strangled the Iraqi people this past decade brought on by the UN sanctions following the First Gulf War in 1991. Some blame deep fissures between the Sunni and Shiite factions.

Photo: This map, drawn by a 15th century traveler, is located in the library of Imam Husein Mausoleum in Karbala, Iraq, where the great Azerbaijani poet Fuzuli is buried. Azeri place names such as Shamakhi and Shirvan (locations north of Baku) are shown in Arabic script. Compliments of ANS TV.

But others point the finger at Washington, enraged that the US has violated the 1954 Hague Convention, regarding the protection of art treasures during wartime by neglecting to protect the museum. One tank, some have argued, parked at the entrance of this institution of world heritage, undoubtedly, would have stopped the wild rampage.

Would assigning a handful of US soldiers to guard the door have been so difficult, given the half million troops stationed there? It seems the US managed to guard the Oil Ministry buildings, but had a bad case of amnesia when it came to historical cultural monuments. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the tragic looting throughout both the private and public sectors in Baghdad, by shrugging: "Stuff happens!"

Only three months earlier, US archaelogists had met with Pentagon officials to identify the National Archaeological Museum as off limits as for US bombs and missiles. They also warned of the extreme likelihood that looting would occur if Saddam's government was toppled.

Regardless of who is to blame, we pose the question: What difference does it make if artifacts have been ruined or disappeared that had managed to survive every siege throughout the history of Baghdad and every invasion of Iraq? So what? What does it have to do with us? What's the relevance to our magazine? Maybe nothing. But then again, maybe everything.

And then I leaf through the mockup of the pages of this issue. We had chosen the theme "Discoveries" several months prior to turn of historical events. By "Discoveries", we had hoped to reveal new ideas that inspire and nudge society forward. But upon closer examination, I see that most of the articles really examine the past, exploring knowledge previously known.

That's been the inclination in Azerbaijan since it gained independence (December 1991). So much intellectual energy has been spent sorting through the debris of centuries and millennia of foreign invasions and occupations. Here we are in the 21st century still trying to fathom how life was lived before all these "regime changes" shaped the terrain, perhaps as far back as 5,000 to 10,000 years ago.

For example, take Farid Alakbarov's quest to unlock the secrets of early medieval medical manuscripts or Gasanfar Pashayev's introduction to the Turkmen of Iraq, who speak Azeri and who emigrated to Iraq around the 7th century. Bjornar Storfjell reveals that Carbon -14 samples from excavations of the Kish Church near Shaki suggest construction in the 12th century and not earlier, as some had surmised. Abbas Islamov and Ronnie Gallagher point out the abundant evidence of Early Man in Azerbaijan carved out in rock. The meaning of cart ruts and cupmarks, perhaps 5,000 years old or earlier, still elude us.

War inevitably leads to broken bones, broken lives, and hence broken economies. But for the generations that follow, much of the legacy of war is evidenced in broken links to the past and lack of access to the enormous wealth of knowledge that had already weathered the test of time.

As one Iraqi archaeologist, Raid Abdul Ridhar Muhammad, recently told the New York Times: "If a country's civilization is looted, as ours has been here, its history ends."

Are we not related to this land that used to pride itself as the cradle of civilization? Is not the imprint of its DNA coursing through our own veins? Are we not all in dire need to understand mankind's deepest secrets of how to survive and live on this planet together? And are we not somehow hastening our own demise if we flippantly shrug off such tragic losses, insisting that they don't concern us. As the British poet so eloquently wrote:

No man is an Island, entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the Continent,
A part of the main
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in Mankind.
Therefore, never send to know
For whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
- John Donne, 17th century

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