A testimony of postwar

Lost Treasures-Burnt

Books in Baghdad

by Fernando Baez (*)


(Translated by Maria E. Gonzalez,

University of Texas at Austin)



...every burned book enlightens the world...

R.W. EMERSON, 1841



"Destiny is written, but a divine hand obliterated crucial pages." This phrase, read in some hidden highland corner of Peru, has haunted me forever but only now, just now, demands from me fuller and more precise comprehension. Let's say--since I must start somewhere--that a week ago my office routine disappeared and an executive decision relocated me to Baghdad as part of an international commission authorized to investigate the destruction of libraries and archives in Iraq. I have spent the last ten years compiling information about cultural destruction, finished what could be the most complete book on the topic, but yet, only this trip has brought me back to the essence of my search.

I arrived in Baghdad, magic city of the Thousand and One Nights, the capital of Al-Jumhuriyah al-‘Iraqiyah, Arabic name of the Republic of Iraq, on Monday, May 5, at 4:37 in the afternoon. Given that I was the only Latin American in the group, other than an Argentine Canadian named Manuel Olivieri, I felt much more preoccupied than usual. Unplanned events exact most from one's briefest hours and my stay was preceded by a sea of doubts about what was to come, beside the habitual superstitions, the silent unexamined grudges, and exhausting prejudices. Was I safe to go to Iraq or had I made a fatal decision? Was it certain that more than 200,000 artifacts had disappeared from the Archeological Museum? Had a million volumes burned in the National Library? Did the press exaggerate? If twelve journalists died, how many thousand others were victimized by this conflict?

I pondered on this almost asleep from exhaustion when I recognized in the distance the mythic river, snaking like a wound through the city, the auspicious Tigris, its color indeterminable, and a cluster of dissimilar buildings modeled on the architecture of delays and doubt, austerity, the labyrinthine and penumbral. I was, definitively, in Baghdad, within that distance conquered by its name, and I decided to open my eyes. From the rear window of the rustic vehicle in which we rode through the streets, I observed that the ravage of the war had not impeded the continuance in the markets of trade in tea and yogurt, crafts, cloths, honey sweets, leather goods, carpets and copper objects. Residents of Baghdad go about the streets with that air of authority born of disorientation, or hate. During the trip, as we passed through Abu-Nuwas, someone commented to me that in that zone the rate of unemployment was a time bomb. Iraq has over 24 million inhabitants, 80% of whom are Arabic, 20% Kurdish, divided by religion into 60% Shiite, 37% Sunnites and 3% Christian; all of which has to be explained with the premise that there are more than 5 million unemployed who day after day walking over the soil that covers the second largest petroleum reserves in the world.

Back in my hotel room, asphyxiated by heat and the fear of a possible terrorist attack, without washing due to the rationing of water, I dedicated myself to finding a computer so that I could send some messages to family and friends. My cell phone did not function and the availability of public phones was limited. Having no luck, I initiated conversation with several foreign press correspondents. All had the same information, as none dared move about the streets without military escort. The topic under discussion was rather alien to me and all that I recall is that I remember it. They spoke of the Asian pneumonic epidemic and its consequences.

On May 10, I was summoned to my first work conference. Seventy years ago to the day Nazis in Germany had burned thousands of books, turning the year 1933 to a date fatal to culture. I don't know if it is a personal superstition, but the number 3 appears in the worst moments of books. Around the year 213 B.C., Emperor Shih-Huang Ti, initiator of the Great Wall, unifier of China, defender of legalistic school writings, ordered the destruction of everything that could serve to reconstruct memories of the past, and the stimulation of an eternal present. Around the years 643-644, it is believed that Arabs destroyed the Museum of Alexandria, location of the celebrated library. In 1453, Turks took over Constantinople and destroyed its renowned manuscripts. In 1813, American soldiers invaded York, burning the British North American (Canadian) Parliament and the legislative library, all of which was compensated by the destruction by fire of the Library of Congress of the United States. During the night of March 9, 1943, an aerial attack over the Bavarian State Library destroyed 500,000 books. In 1993 dozens of libraries, among them that of Stolac, were destroyed in part by Croatian nationalist militias. And now, 2003.

My assignment consisted of visiting and taking notes about the conditions at the Archaeological Museum and the ancient National Library of Baghdad. It was two different set of events, one in the afternoon and the other in the morning. I had been briefed, but what I learned and what I saw left me sleepless for two nights. Perhaps it would have been better to forget, but I have discovered that we forget only to have everything take us by surprise anew.

It seems that horror, when we encounter it, moves about without its custodians. Thus I felt at the National Library of Baghdad, al-Maktaba al-Wataniya, located as is the Ministry of Defense in Rasaf. The library had a sinister aspect because its central façade had suffered visibly due to the fire that also had weakened the structure and burst its windows, giving a melancholy air to the entire site. Before the destruction, there had been a statue of Hussein with his left hand in a gesture of greeting and the right holding a book against his breast (although not widely believed, Hussein authored various books and was a voracious reader). Outside, there were now soldiers, some of them Latinos. Close to ten in the morning, with my work group I entered the library where, as would be the norm throughout, destruction was evident everywhere.

As we passed the entry, protected from the sun by an awning emblazoned at the border with Arabic letters, hundreds of laborers and experts worked at what was possible to reconstruct of the place. As I walked through the halls, I found that the lecture halls and the bookshelves had been leveled without reverence. Almost immediately I concluded that it would be impossible to determine whether the manuscripts were hidden, stolen or destroyed. The stairs were burned. It is undeniable that not a few texts passed into the Hussein Collection during the 1980's, but others did not. It is presently thought that 800,000 volumes along with thousands of periodicals have disappeared, including the first journals printed in Persian anywhere in the world.

I was told that the looting of the National Library began on April 14, when rumor spread that the dictator had fled, and a group with the use of tools and doing what they could, proceeded to select items at will, almost as though they were shopping. The first group of looters knew the location of the most important manuscripts, which they hurriedly took, and without discussion and encouraged by the passivity of the military, sprayed gasoline throughout the stacks and set fire to everything. Some said that white matches, originally issued to the military, were used to set the fires. According to another version, after the calculated theft a multitude of anonymous looters, made hungry and resentful by the deposed regime, arrived in search of valuable objects, and provoked the disaster described above. The multitude ran every which way claiming the most valuable books.

Several hours later, a column of smoke could be seen more than four kilometers away and in this voracious fire, of more than the Fahrenheit 451 postulated by Ray Bradbury in his novel, disappeared thousands of works. Among other damage, old microfilm equipment, several newspapers were torched, and the heat, from what I could deduce had been so intense as to have damaged the marble floor, caused severe deterioration of the concrete stairs and of the roof. Similarly the same act of vandalism destroyed the National Archives of Iraq, housed in the same structure as the library, which at the time employed a staff of 85 individuals. Millions of documents disappeared, including some dating to the Ottoman period.

The following day, there was literally nothing for the staff to do. The Director lamented nostalgically, "I do not remember a similar barbarity recorded since the time of the Mongols", alluding to the 1258 invasion of Baghdad by the troops of Hulegu, descendants of Genghis Khan, who destroyed most of its libraries by tossing books into the Tigris River. Another staff member pronounced, "Caesar again destroys with the books"; having learned of this, I was reminded of the passage in the Caesar and Cleopatra of George Bernard Shaw, where Theodotus, the modest messenger arrives to tell the powerful general about the fire (which was to be the first) engulfing the library in Alexandria, "What is burning there is the memory of mankind.” Unmoved, Julius Caesar responds, "A shameful memory. Let it burn...."

Later I went to the Archaeological Museum that is endowed, according to the most exaggerated figure, with 170,000 artifacts or 25,000 according to the most modest. Near the train station, the Archaeological Museum is a majestic building, its front elongated at each end by two sand-colored towers, now guarded by a tank upon whose cannon is written, "Greetings from the American people." All is paradox. Notice of the Museum’s looting moved the entire world when it became known on April 12. The scandal was of such magnitude that now it is obligatory to present identification upon entry and to endure searches upon exiting.

Presently at work in the Museum is Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a responsible and zealous official charged with the investigation of events and the recuperation of looted objects, supported by efforts of the FBI, the CIA, various Islamic Studies organizations, archeological experts, and a group of soldiers. Bogdanos is an attorney, grounded in Classical studies and with a career that includes a role in the unsuccessful prosecution in Manhattan of rap musician Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. His team oversees several tables where a mounting number of recovered objects are placed and cataloged. The number of recovered objects increases because an amnesty was declared absolving any one wanting to return looted objects in their possession.

It is not rare to see a youth approach the doors to the museum, place a sculpture on the floor and leave undisturbed. The exhibit halls were not set ablaze the day the museum was looted, but they were devastated. There are hundred of objects in pieces in Hall 3, Corridor 4, where in the past there was examples of precious objects unearthed by Iraqi and foreign expeditions in such sites as Eridu, Kish, Uruk, Ur, Nippur, Shurupak, Eshnunna, Khafaji and also from other Sumerian cities. Probably Hussein's soldiers used the building as a strategic defense given irrefutable evidence of such use has been discovered on the second floor. A crossword puzzle to last six or seven decades. Without doubt what must have been much improved is the overall appearance of the museum due to the thorough cleaning that has accompanied the repair of doors and windows.

It is important to note that the destroyed books were not only those that had been in the National Library. Sumerian clay tablets, the first books of humankind, some 5300 years old, were left in ruins and the majority stolen from the Museum. This center housed texts from Sumer, Acadia, Babylonia, Assyria, Chaldea, Persia and various Arabian dynasties. If the reader is not aware, it is necessary to point out that in this Museum were guarded the tablets of the Code of Hammurabi, the first registered set of laws in the world. Similarly, hundreds of clay tablets not yet deciphered disappeared, some containing data about the origin of writing. Tablets inscribed with the Epic of Gilgamesh were stolen. Tablets from the library of Sippar have yet to be found.

In sum, this is what I encountered during my first visit. As of today, there is no method to inventory the magnitude of the disaster to the Iraqi cultural patrimony. The collection of 5000 Islamic manuscripts from the Al-Awqaf Library no longer exists. The inter-university library of the Madrasa Mustansiriya was destroyed and partially looted. The facilities of the University of Baghdad, founded in 1956, have been the sites of looting and fires. Saddam Hussein's manuscript collection, known as Dar Saddam li-l-makhtoutat, was saved because its director, Usama N. al-Naqshabandi, hid it. According to estimates in a confidential report in my possession, losses at the Archeological Museum due to looting are 25% and 33% due to damage, while at the National Library the estimate of loss due to damage has reached a figure of 50%.

Iman Mohammad al-Jawad al-Tamimi publicly stated that he, with other Iraqis, wanted to safeguard part of the library and had transported by truck several thousand of manuscripts and books to the mosque at Al Hak. Soon there will be determination by the United States government about the possibility that losses were less severe than previously thought since dozens of volunteers a few days before the war had hidden books and artifacts all over Baghdad. But this could be an opportune rumor; now it is hinted that the books and objects will not be returned until the departure of what many in the Arab world judge as invaders.

A young student at the University of Baghdad and resident of the Al-Mansur neighborhood told me, "Some day someone will set fire to the Library of Congress of the United States, you know, and not as much will be lost as has been destroyed here." When considering the cultural importance of Iraq, keep in mind that this country has hundreds of sites declared by UNESCO as cultural heritage of all mankind. In this region is found Nineveh, from where governed Ashurbanipal, Uruk, where have been found the first samples of writing, Hatra, Ashur, capital of the Assyrian Empire, finally Babylonia.

As of today, meaning May 13, after visiting several cultural centers my reaction is the same, stupefaction mixed with acute indignation. Yesterday, a group of fifteen Museum employees accused their previous Director, Jabir Khalil, of being a thief, which produced additional concerns for the (UNESCO) investigators. Two or three hypotheses have germinated about the causes of the past events and about culpable parties. During two meetings, I was surprised to observe that the true preoccupation of the Americans was not the actual destruction, but the cleansing of the image of the military with the end to prevent giving cause for the accusation of soldiers' complicity in crimes related to the theft of cultural property, or for the entire nation to be listed in the registers of biblioclasts.

With a priori reasoning the thesis has been put forth that all was conducted by organized crime, by gangs dedicated to the illicit commerce of books and art, of which I do not doubt nor corroborate. The official in charge--whose name I will not disclose so as to maintain the transparency of the investigation--suspicious of my questions, insisted on what has become a point of honor for the govenrment of the United States. He said, "No soldier robbed or destroyed cultural material. The damage was done by the Iraqis themselves". Something that has provoked cynical smiles is the assertion that only 28 artifacts were taken, the most notable of which is the marble head of the Lady of Warka from about 3200 B.C. If this were true, the present recuperation efforts would be inexplicable--as noted by those involved--as would be the hundreds of recovered objects now visible on tables at the Museum.

In any case the damage is irreversible and there is concrete evidence that even if no American soldiers participated, their superiors had been advised as to what would happen well in advance of the conflict. Professor McGuire Gibson, for example, had told President George Bush that museums, libraries and archeological sites of the entire nation were to be protected and provided a list of the most significant.

By April 9 the Museum of Basra had been completely destroyed including its gardens, due in large part to the negligence of British troops. During the 1990 Gulf War, 4,000 pieces had been stolen from the Museum of Baghdad, a harmful precedent that should have been considered. But, I insist, no one paid attention. A sergeant in the Third Infantry Division told me, while requesting the use of the computer assigned to me to send a message to his girlfriend, that his battalion had not intervened in the looting because they had orders not to fire against civilians, and that besides those were matters for the police. His comments did not prevent me from smiling; the logic of these men is naïve, or simplistically hierarchical.

Unfortunately, and I say this after having been in Baghdad more than a week, I have come to two conjectures that I will later prove or reject. First, those truly responsible for this cultural destruction will resurface unscathed despite their violation of the Hague Convention of 1954; second, the looting will proceed to the provinces, where the destruction continues. In Mosul, the Museum and University libraries vanished. The 100,000 archeological sites are not properly protected; I suspect that in only two or three years this cultural catastrophe will be fully evident. Each district is threatened, and by this I refer to Al Anbar, Al Basra, Al Muthanna, Al Qadisiya, An Najaf, Arbil, As Sulaymaniya, At Ta'mim, Babil, Dahuk, Dhi Qar, Diyala, Karbala', Maysan, Ninawa, Salah and Din Wasit. In Nassariya groups of looters, numbering more than three hundred, remove artifacts each night. They are armed with AK-47s.

Baghdad, for this and for many other reasons best left unsaid, is now an Arabic city occupied by the most repudiated foreign force in the Middle East, a city without governance, besieged by religious conflicts and terrorists attempts, in economic crisis, suffering food rationing, without medicines in hospitals, and if that were not enough its memory has been erased, despoiled, and subjugated. Can a worse destiny be imagined for the place where our civilization began?





(*) Fernando Báez is a latinoamerican writer. He has special interest in the vulnerability of libraries. Author of La ortodoxia de los herejes, El Tractatus Coislinianus, Alejado, Todo el sol de las sombras, Los fragmentos de Aristóteles, and hundreds of articles in journals published in the United States, Europe, Latin America and Asia. He was awarded the “Vintila Horia” Prize for Essays for his study of the history of the library of Alexandria. In this moment, his “History of destruction of books. From Sumer to Cyberbook” is publishing in Spain.