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A Plea for Treasures of Civilization

Archeologists list thousands of sites in Iraq that they hope can be protected from war.

March 24, 2003|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

While U.S. military planners were compiling a list of missile sites, communications centers, bunkers and weapons factories to target during the air campaign against Iraq, American archeologists were putting together their own list of more than 4,000 "do not bomb" sites.

The detailed list of museums, monuments, archeological digs and other key sites embedded in cities and nestled among the shifting dunes of the Iraqi desert is a virtual Baedeker guide to the cultural history not only of Iraq but of Western civilization. It is a heritage that archeologists hope to preserve amid the destruction of battle.

The artifacts housed in Iraqi museums and buried at unexplored sites "are products of human imagination and skill," said Gus Van Beek, curator of Old World archeology at the Smithsonian Institution. "They have a life of their own. They certainly have a right to survive."

Ancient Mesopotamia, nestled in the extremely rich soil between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, is the birthplace of Western writing, mathematics, astronomy, agriculture and Hammurabi's historic code of law.

Long before the empires of Egypt, Greece and Rome, the early Mesopotamians and the Sumerians who followed them developed the wedge-shaped alphabet known as cuneiform, produced mathematics on a base-60 system that is used today to measure time and angles, invented the plow and the wheel and developed a method to calculate and predict lunar eclipses. The constellations of the zodiac originated there, as did the idea of a horoscope.

Over the centuries, the country thrived under a succession of rulers that included not only Hammurabi, but also Nebuchadnezzar, Gilgamesh, Cyrus and Alexander the Great, who conquered the region and died there eight years later. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has frequently cited this glorious history as proof of Iraq's place in modern society.

The history of this evolution is enshrined in tens of thousands of archeological sites scattered over a country a little larger than California.

Destruction of large numbers of these sites would be "cultural genocide," says archeologist McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago. "Measured against human suffering, material items seem less significant," he said, but these archeological treasures represent "an important part of the world's cultural heritage" and every possible effort should be made to preserve them.

Pentagon officials met with archeologists in January and agreed they would make every effort to avoid damaging the sites.

But even if the sites survive the war relatively unscathed, many experts fear greater damage could occur afterward.

The 1991 Gulf War produced relatively modest damage to the country's patrimony, but the Iraqi government's loss of control in large regions of the country following its defeat led to massive looting of museums and archeological sites.

Archeology groups have been meeting with State and Defense department officials in an effort to forestall such problems after the current war. A coalition of such groups last week requested that any occupying authorities, as a first order of business, return the number of guards and staff at museums and other sites to levels that existed before the 1991 war.

"It would be a tragedy for the entire world if thousands of sites are lost as a result of political upheaval or decisions made for short-term economic gain," Gibson said.

The region that is now known as modern Iraq has an amazingly rich and varied history. The first modern farmers began cultivating the "fertile crescent" more than 6,500 years ago. Following the early Mesopotamians, the region was ruled successively by the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Seleucid Greeks, Parthians, Sassanians and, ultimately, Arabs.

Humans were first attracted to the region by the richness of the soil, left behind by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers during frequent floods, which made possible for the first time the production of excess amounts of food.

Much of the origins of mathematics and literacy grew out of the need to predict and control the rivers' activities.

In the 1991 war, U.S. forces had a short list of archeological sites to avoid and, by and large, they were successful in doing so, Gibson said.

The worst damage was to the immense ramped ziggurat, or terraced, pyramid-like tower, in Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. The massive mud-brick platform was built 2,500 years ago to support a temple to Nabu, the god of science and learning. Iraqi forces attempted to hide equipment near the ziggurat and the structure was damaged by more than 400 shrapnel holes on its southern side when the materiel was attacked.

The Iraq National Museum in Baghdad, which was used as a military headquarters, also suffered some damage when allied forces bombed a telecommunications tower across the street.

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