War and cultural heritage: Lessons from Lebanon, Kuwait and Iraq

oktober 2003 -

My talk today will deal with the cultural heritage of a country that is at war or in a state of civil war. What happens to this heritage, what happens to museums abandoned by their guards or to archaeological sites left unprotected? What happens to these national institutions when they come under attack from mobs or looters in troubled times? I will talk about three such happenings that took place in the Middle East in the recent past, and, because I am an archaeologist, I will begin with the earliest and end with the latest.

The Beirut Museum

The Beirut Museum was set up in the 1920s and housed the major part of the collection of the Antiquities Department, as well as finds from excavation sites in Lebanon. The building is situated on the corner of a very important junction of three major arteries that lead into the city – directly behind it lie the Race Tracks and, to the east, the spectacular grounds of the French Embassy.


Photos of the National Museum in Baghdad, 2003 Photos Selma Al-Radi

In the early days of the civil war, which officially began in 1975, the recently retired Director of the Beirut Museum, Emir Maurice Chehab, a venerable man in his early 70s, shipped the small precious objects, the gold, and other major pieces, to the French Archaeological Institute in Damascus for safe-keeping. Other objects were placed in the underground chambers of the Crusader Castle in Byblos, north of Beirut. The remaining objects stayed in the museum; most of the delicate objects were stored in cardboard boxes in the staff offices on the second floor and the more resilient objects were placed on shelves in the basement storage rooms.

At the beginning of the civil war, it was possible to go to the museum area and check on the situation – the staff did so whenever they could. Gradually the museum junction, as it is known in Beirut, became the dividing line between east and west Beirut and became so unsafe that it constituted a virtual death trap for anyone who braved it.

At some point during the war – the chronology is vague because no one kept an exact timetable or order of events in that area; each area differed with regard to safety and movement; and it so happened that no one lived near the museum – the museum became one of the headquarters of the Syrian Army. Rumour had it that they even used the Roman sarcophagi in the gardens and inside the museum as their bunkers – to sleep in, as well as to shoot out from at their opponents!

Early in the war, Emir Maurice realised that the large and immoveable objects in the museum would need some sort of protection. The museum area was too dangerous to enter when fighting was going on, but in between bouts, during lulls and/or when there were truces between the warring factions, they could brave the roads and the check-points. Then this strange cortège, consisting of Emir Maurice and his wife, his secretary, Suzy Hakimian (then 21 years old and now the curator of the museum), and a few workmen carrying bags of cement, plywood and rolls of thick sheets of plastic, would be seen going into the museum to work. They packed and stored the smaller objects of the collection in cardboard boxes and placed them in a secure room on the second floor. The larger objects – the sarcophagi, the floor and wall mosaics and statues – cumbersome to say the least, could not be moved, and so had to be protected in situ. They tackled each problem individually and created the best solution possible to fit that particular situation.

The sarcophagi were first on the list. Each one was encased in a box made of plywood planks; they were virtually ‘boxed’ in. Then, leaving a space of about 4 inches, they built another plywood box and the space between the two ‘boxes’ was filled with cement. Once this cement had dried the whole ‘box’ was covered over with another, thicker layer of cement. The sarcophagi literally looked like large rectangular cement blocks. The large marble statues were protected in a similar manner.

However, the floor mosaics needed another solution, so they adapted their technique to fit a flat surface. Each floor mosaic was covered with a sheet of thick plastic. Over this were placed plywood planks and then cement was poured over the whole until nothing showed; the mosaic was completely hidden under cement. However, they could not invent a system to cover and protect the mosaics that were displayed vertically on the walls – luckily, they survived the war. Only one was damaged – a rocket went straight through it, leaving a very neat round hole with a diameter of about 25 inches – one could get a good view of the street traffic through it! I argued very seriously with the staff after the war to keep the ‘hole’ as a memento of the war, just blocking the opening with bullet-proof glass. It would have made a spectacular reminder of the war, but they did not like the idea and it was repaired. Today, a visitor going through the museum will not be able to see even the faintest trace of war damage – it has been totally restored.

When the civil war ended a small band of archaeologists (myself included), restorers and students helped the skeleton staff in the task of putting the museum back into shape. The structural state of the building was disastrous and required much repair. It had been used as a shooting gallery and a shelter for any passing guerilla or soldier – it had been occupied by different warring factions, every inch of it fought over, again and again – each leaving their mark at least in graffiti, if not in physical destruction. It took many years to bring back some semblance of order to the museum. The records and catalogues, as well as the objects placed on the second floor had been partly burnt by rocket or missile fire and blackened by the smoke. Some of the museum numbers had disappeared because of the high levels of humidity in such an enclosed space – the surfaces of the objects were saturated with humidity. Beirut’s physical situation on the sea with mountains blocking a free­ flow of air makes it one of the most humid of cities – objects locked in a room for 18 years will suffer greatly.

The objects left in the underground storage rooms fared as badly if not worse. When the doors were first opened the stench was so appalling that we reeled back gagging – this is not an exaggeration! We developed a system to cope with the fumes. Wearing masks we would rush down the stairs, slog through the slurry and water on the floor and literally grab an object or a tray of objects and run back up the stairs holding our breath and trying not to inhale. We had to be careful when we removed an object from the metal shelves as these had buckled and rotted from standing in fetid water for so many years. The objects too were saturated with humidity and very fragile. We left the doors wide open, trying to dry the floors – rain had seeped into the building from the racecourse behind the museum – suppurating in that closed environment for 18 years!

It took many years to complete the restoration of the objects in the museum - a team of restorers from the Institute of Archaeology was sent from London, and Unesco also provided experts to help and to train local staff. The catalogue and numbering system was discussed at great length. By and large, the museum numbers had not survived on the objects. Could one, therefore, start from scratch? Some objects could be identified from excavation reports, but what happens with those that could not be identified by provenance or record? They were simply given new numbers.

At the end of the civil war, sometime in 1993, the staff of the museum decided to open up the museum galleries as they were, in their bombed state – burnt walls with gaping holes from rockets and grenades, bullet holes everywhere, and graffiti defacing every available surface. They opened the museum with an exhibition of photographs of their collection – no entry fee – just come and look at how it survived! Behind the scenes, the small staff began to work; cataloguing, restoring the burnt objects, and cleaning up the mess, which was of truly horrific proportions. It took five years.

One has to admire the courage and the bravery of the Chehabs who literally saved the archaeological heritage of Lebanon; Dr. Camille Asmar, the new director, who took over the museum when war ended; Suzy Hakimian; and all those who volunteered to help out and who, in the face of overwhelming odds, managed to save almost the entire collection of the Beirut Museum. Today, visitors going to the museum will find not the slightest of trace of war on the facades or objects – everything has been cleaned up.

Dar al Athar-The Kuwait Museum

The Kuwait Museum houses a large part of the private collection of Sheikh Nasser and Sheikha Hussa, members of the ruling Al-Sabah family, who collected objects from the Islamic period. Money was not a problem and they slowly acquired a fabulous collection. Most of these objects were acquired on the open market, through the major auction houses; some, however, were bought directly from the original owners. The Sabahs had a number of experts in the field looking out for objects that came on the market; they usually had the first choice. Rather than house the entire collection in their private residence, they decided to show a large portion of it to the public in a new building designated as a National Museum. The collection is eclectic but beautifully if not even exquisitely chosen, ranging through almost every period and country from early Samarra stucco panels to priceless Mogul emeralds.

Mainland Kuwait has no cultural remains – there was no water on the mainland and therefore, no human habitation. When the Sabah clan arrived in the late 19th century from the Arabian Peninsula, water was brought in from Basra. Specially constructed dhows (boats) went back and forth keeping the small community going. This continued until the advent of desalination plants. Only the island of Failaka, situated in the Bay of Kuwait, has underground water and, therefore, a long history. It was the first and last stop on the Indian Ocean trade route between what is now Iraq and India. The archaeological remains on the island date from the third millennium BC to the Portuguese period in the 16th century.

At the start of the Gulf War in 1991, immediately after the invasion and occu­ pation of Kuwait by the Iraqi army, the Director of Antiquities in Iraq (he is also the Director of the Iraq Museum), Dr. Moayyad Damirji, went to Kuwait specifically to bring the Sabah collection to Baghdad. Looters had begun to pillage the shops in Kuwait and the museum had lost a few items already. Iraq had occupied Kuwait and declared it part of Iraq, naming it the 19th Province. Taking an assistant from the Iraq Museum, they drove to Kuwait in his private car. He also took his video camera along to record what he was doing. Once in Kuwait, he forced the guard to let him in and proceeded first to film every object in its place – he wanted to record what was left. Then they wrapped each and every object in newspapers and packed them in cardboard boxes. He rented a truck, loaded the cartons on it, and drove behind the truck all the way to Baghdad. There, they were placed for safe-keeping in the storerooms of the Iraq Museum. They were never put on display. In any case, the Iraq Museum was shut throughout the Gulf War for fear of bomb damage. The Kuwaiti collection stayed in the basement storerooms of the museum until the end of the war.

In March 1991, I went to Baghdad to visit my family and also the museum – I had worked in the museum in the early 1960s and knew it and the staff well. Dr. Damirji asked me to compile a list of the objects that had been stolen and looted from the regional museums of Iraq during the Gulf War and to take this list out with me so that Interpol could put out the information worldwide. For the two months I was there, I spent every morning at the museum collecting the information and trying to record it on computer – a very difficult task as electricity was scarce and frequently cut in mid stride. I worked with two assistants from the museum. We went through the catalogues of the regional museums that had been vandalised – Amarah, Basra, Kufa, Diwaniya, Suleimaniya, Dohuk, Kirkuk, Mosul, Erbil and Basra – and checked which objects had been stolen. We listed every item with its Iraq Museum number, description and dimensions, i.e. the basic information necessary to identify an object. We included photographs whenever they were available. The total number of missing objects came to 4,000. We published this information in 1992 in a publication by the American Association for Research in Baghdad under the title of ‘Lost Heritage: Antiquities Stolen from Iraq’s Regional Museums’. The number of objects recovered till now from this list is 45!

Before I left Baghdad, Dr. Damirji called me into his office and asked me to take an official letter he had written to the Director of the Cultural Heritage Department at Unesco. In the letter Damirji formally asked Unesco to send an official delegation to Baghdad. This delegation should have the legal authority to formally take the objects from the Kuwait collection from Baghdad and return them to the Kuwait Museum. I sent the letter to Dr. Said Zulficar, the then head of the Cultural Heritage Section. It took almost a year before a team was put together to go to Baghdad. The project officer leading the team was a Mr. Patric Bulenoy. He signed for the objects, hired a truck, loaded it, and officially delivered them to the Kuwaiti authorities.

The objects that were officially returned to the Kuwait Museum in early 1992 were more numerous than those listed in the Kuwaiti demand – apparently many had not yet been inventoried! The other big collection in Kuwait, belonging to Jassim al Humaydhi, was completely looted from his house and many of the objects turned up later on the black market in Beirut. The same would have happened with the Sabah collection had Damirji not packed and taken it to Baghdad for safe-keeping. I asked Damirji why he had undertaken such a task and he said he did not want Iraq to be blamed for pillaging a museum: ‘It is my job to protect museum collections and not to stand by and watch them being looted’. This may not have been the whole truth. He was probably ordered by the higher authorities to bring the collection to Baghdad – after all, it was now part of Iraq! Damirji has, over the years, been much vilified for this deed by the Kuwaitis and the press but, however ambiguous and dubious this act was legally, it saved the Sabah collection.

Here, I would like to quote from the description of the handover procedure and the muddle over the numerous museum numbers that were present on each object. I quote: ‘There was another complication in the business of identifying objects (i.e. before the handover). When the collection first arrived in Baghdad, the Iraqis made their own inventory. Many of the objects in the Dar al Athar collection had previously belonged to other collections and it is the policy of Dar al Athar to keep the old numbers or identifying marks of these collections alongside their own. Not knowing the numbering systems of the Kuwaiti collections, the Iraqis had recorded numbers at random; sometimes those of the Kuwait Museum,

sometimes old ones. Also, the staff compiling the inventory had little experience with Islamic objects and these were frequently misidentified. The Iraq Museum staff who were involved in the handover were required to use this inventory, which they apparently had not seen before. A translation from Arabic into English made by the UN team had, through no fault of the UN, made things even more obscure. The confusion was spectacular at times and required much patience and good humor on both sides to untangle, as the Iraqis had to match every item on their almost incomprehensible inventory to one of our objects (the vagaries of cataloguing, inventories and ultimately of identification).’

Between 5 and 10% of the Sabah collection in the Kuwait Museum (some estimates run as high as 20-30%), went missing during the Gulf War. These losses, strangely enough, were probably due to the fact that the ‘Iraqi team’ who packed the objects were archaeologists by training and simply not interested in the large ethnographic collection that was in the museum – it was left behind and was looted. Also missing was the famous Mogul emerald, always cited as ‘never having been returned’. It was never taken to Baghdad and was probably stolen in the very early days of the war.

Iraq Museum

Three weeks before the latest war began in Iraq, sometime in early March, the staff of the Iraq Museum shut the museum galleries to the public and began the task of protecting the museum and its contents. All of the moveable objects on show in the galleries were taken down and hidden in the storerooms or in bomb shelters around Baghdad. The larger objects and statues were left in place and foam rubber pads were placed in the area around them in case they fell off their pedestals from the impact of a direct hit. Foam rubber pads were also strategically laid or wrapped around objects and in front of the Assyrian reliefs, as well as on the floors of the storerooms. This would nominally protect the objects in case of a direct hit toppling the metal shelves.

The manuscripts and ancient scrolls were removed and placed in a bomb shelter in western Baghdad. Archival material was packed into boxes and distributed in Shiite neighbourhoods where they could be guarded by clerics.

The gold jewelry from the Royal Tombs of Ur and those from the Royal Tombs of the Assyrian Queens in Nimrud (totaling some 7,360 pieces) had been deposited in the vaults of the Central Bank of Iraq before the Gulf War of 1991. They were never removed from there and were found safe and well recently when the US authorities with an Iraqi delegation opened the vaults. These vaults were flooded (purposefully or naturally is not known) but all the objects survived.

Discussions were also held between the director of the museum and the curator as to whether they should further protect the steel doors leading into the storerooms with another cement or brick wall – this was done for the museum library and it was saved. The curator won the day – her argument being that if the museum got a direct hit from an incendiary bomb and the storerooms caught fire, the firemen would be unable to reach them in time to put out the fire. It was a calculated choice, but it turned out to be the wrong one for this occasion. In the end, the Iraq Museum was looted not by one but probably two separate groups of thieves – the first one probably professional, the second, unruly mobs. Was the earlier group, the ‘professionals’ who came in with glass-cutters and keys (the latter they may have picked up from the curator’s room too, where she forgot them on her desk!), commissioned to do so? Were they foreign or were they foreigners with local help? We don’t really know the answer to that but it is strange that almost all the objects taken belonged to the early periods – the Uruk and Akkadian periods – both of which are highly desired by collectors. Those who live in the immediate neighbourhood of the museum say they saw people going in on 9 April. Whoever they were, they decided that the opportunity was too good to miss.

The US army entered Baghdad on 9 April.

The Time Frame

I have tried to work out a timetable of events and here it is:

8 April, Tuesday : The museum staff leave; Fedayeen or militias take over the grounds of the museum; incidents of shooting at US troops; there is also a ‘sniper’ shooting from a second floor room in the museum.

9 April, Wednesday : The statue of Saddam is pulled off its pedestal; everyone outside Iraq watched the event on television. The back door of the museum was open – someone forgot to lock it. The curator (Dr. Nawal al Muttawakil) told the museum photographer (Donny George) that she had locked all the doors, but, in fact, the back door was open till 10 April at least. She had forgotten her museum keys on her desk. The keys were copied, and Donny George found the duplicates on the grounds of the museum (four sets, to be precise). Near the stairs leading up to the second floor, ‘someone’ broke through the external wall of the museum – did they haul out the objects through it? There are too many unanswered questions.

10 April, Thursday : Local mobs begin to loot the museum; Muhsin, the guard, tries to chase them away. He asks the crew of the US tank parked outside the museum to come and help, but they refused saying ‘they had no orders to do so’. Muhsin is frightened and leaves the museum.

11 April, Friday : Local mobs continue to loot the museum, taking tables and chairs, computers, and other office equipment – anything they could carry. The curator’s safe was professionally drilled and opened; the salaries of the staff for the next two months were taken, as was her personal money – she had left it in the safe for safe-keeping. The keys of the museum were also taken from her safe. A sharpshooter had set up in a room on the second floor, firing at US

troops below through a small window; a rocket propelled grenade was found there, and many spent shells. It is a strange place for a sharp shooter, safe and secure but the view through the narrow slit is very limited. I climbed up on the crate underneath it and all I could see was the museum wall across. Col. Bogdanos, the first US officer in charge of the museum, said that he could have shot over the museum to the street on the other side, i.e., just to create general mayhem. It is certainly a very secure and safe position.

12 April, Saturday : Mobs hit the museum again, taking the remaining chairs and tables; every office door is smashed with an axe. The showcases in the galleries are also smashed. All the cameras of the museum photographer (his personal collection) are taken from his steel safe – a complete collection of Hasselblads, Nikons and other cameras. He used them for museum purposes and thought they would be safer there than in his house. All the filing cabinets were smashed and papers were strewn everywhere. Two of the storerooms were ransacked by the mob; a third was entered but left undamaged. Many objects were taken and many more broken and trampled.

13 April, Sunday : The director of the museum (Dr. Jabber) returns with Donny George. The mob is milling around but they manage to drive them out of the grounds.

16 April, Wednesday : American tanks take up position in the museum grounds.