Spring 2003 (11.1)
- 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
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
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
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
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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AI 11.1 (Spring 2003)
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