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The Headless King: The Journey of a 4,400-Year-Old Looted Statue From Baghdad to Queens during the Iraq War

By Adiel Kaplan The following episode takes place two-thirds of the way through the book. It begins on April 9, 2003, three weeks after the...

By Adiel Kaplan

The following episode takes place two-thirds of the way through the book. It begins on April 9, 2003, three weeks after the American-led military coalition invaded Iraq. Troops are now working their way to the center of Baghdad. International archaeologists did all they could to get the coalition to protect the cultural heritage of Iraq during the invasion. They now watch with the rest of the world to see what will happen.[1]

In Baghdad the day before, the last five staff members of the National Museum of Iraq fled the building as armed fighters began to take over the museum compound ahead of a battle with the approaching American troops. The fighting had calmed down by evening, and the Americans slept in their tanks at a nearby intersection. Inside the museum, the 4,400-year-old headless statue of King Entemena of Lagash sits in a gallery with other priceless antiquities, protected only by foam in case of bombing.

The international press who entered the city before the invasion are at the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad awaiting the arrival of the U.S. military.[2]

 

[1] Rothfield, Lawrence. The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum, p34-80. 1 edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

[2] “BBC NEWS | In Depth | Reporters’ Log: War in Iraq.” Reporter dispatches from across Iraq. Accessed April 1, 2018. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/2932633.stm.

 

 

Chapter 10: Fallen Kings

The night of April 8 passed quietly for the journalists holed up in the Palestine Hotel. In the morning, they awoke to find their Iraqi government minders had not shown up for work. They were alone.

American troops had only reached the city outskirts four days earlier, but there was a sense of victory in the air. The invading forces were getting close to the journalists, the Iraqi army was crumbling and reports of celebrations across the city were flooding in, all against a backdrop of intermittent gunfire.

Eyewitnesses and messages from the military told them that the east city was mostly secure, with pockets of resistance holding out on the west side of the river. Without their government minders, a few of the more enterprising journalists began to venture out onto the streets.

On air, reporters at the hotel began declaring liberation had come to the east city. Shi’ites were free to practice after decades of Sunni government. The approach of the American troops seemed imminent. Baghdad was all but conquered. The curtain was falling on the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

BBC correspondent Paul Wood ended a midday dispatch on the jubilation with a foreshadowing of what was to come, “I think the question here for the Americans is, they can take Baghdad – but can they keep order?”[1]

 

In Chicago, archaeologist McGuire Gibson watched impatiently. He was waiting for news that the National Museum of Iraq was secure. He knew from a report the previous day that troops had reached the Ministry of Information, just 500 meters from the museum. Gibson assumed it wouldn’t be long before an officer directing troops to secure the museum appeared on his TV. It was a perfect photo op – after all, the Americans had done just that when they reached the archaeological site of ancient Babylon the week before. But the image never appeared.[2]

Worried, Gibson began to send a flurry of emails to his contacts in the U.S. Army, demanding to know if the museum was secure.

He got no response.[3]

Gibson was a professor at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, a renowned center for the study of the ancient Near East and home of one of the greatest collections of ancient Mesopotamian artifacts in the West. He watched the news with increasing unease.[4]

 

In New York, art historian Zainab Bahrani was angry. An activist against the war, she had wanted no part in it. After some convincing by Gibson and other colleagues, all eminent scholars of ancient Mesopotamia, she helped them create two lists: one of thousands of important cultural heritage sites not to be bombed, and a shorter one of sites to be secured as quickly as possible. The museum topped that list.[5]

Bahrani was one of the world’s leading experts on Mesopotamian art. She taught at Columbia University and had worked as a curator at New York’s Metropolitan Museum – home to another of the world’s great Mesopotamian collections.

Now the news showed a constant stream of American troops rolling through Baghdad, her childhood home. She continued to protest the war, but it never occurred to her that the museum, which had inspired her as a child to become an art historian, would go unguarded. She had done her part to make sure that it was safe.[6]

 

In Baghdad, archaeologist Donny George listened. After fleeing the approaching battle the day before with the last of the museum staff, George was stuck at an aunt’s house on the other side of the river. It was hard to know what was happening. The power was out, but he had a radio and could hear sporadic gunfire from pockets of fighting across the city. He didn’t know when it would be safe to cross the bridge over the Tigris River to check on the museum – he had tried once the day before, but the bridge had been shut down.

George, an Iraqi Christian, was research director of the National Museum of Iraq. Protecting the museum was not only his responsibility, but his life’s work. He had built a career on the study of the treasures inside it.

All he could do now was wait, listening to the BBC on his aunt’s radio.[7]

 

Within the next 48 hours, the worst fears of Gibson, Bahrani, and George were realized. Looters entered the museum.

Baghdad was quickly becoming lawless. The Americans had conquered the city but did not have enough troops to occupy it. Journalists began reporting about increasing looting and chaos.[8]

The city was falling in record time with minimal casualties, as the Americans entered through a series of “thunder runs.” The runs were quick dashes into central Baghdad down a few main routes. Troops penetrated far into the city, then slowly worked their way out toward the edges. The runs were incredibly effective.

They also left gaps. It was difficult to secure areas that the military cleared after the thunder run moved on. In most of the city, the only troops that stayed behind to secure locations belonged to units tasked with keeping the thunder run route open in strategically important areas.

One of those units was Army Captain Jason Conroy’s tank company. The 79 men in 20 tanks and armored vehicles that made up Task Force 1-64’s Tank Company C were holding a major intersection 500 meters from the museum. Over the previous two days, his company had fought its way toward the city center, sealing off key intersections while taking heavy fire from Iraqi fighters who occupied many of the surrounding government buildings.[9]

The heaviest fire came from the direction of the museum and the heart of the city. From their position a block away, the soldiers could see that the 11-acre museum complex had been fortified with trenches and firing positions, including a rocket-propelled grenade launcher on top of one building.[10]

On the 9th, the men awoke to an RPG striking near their intersection. The company spent the day clearing government buildings around its intersection with an infantry regiment, searching as they went for documents about weapons of mass destruction. Each time they left a building, civilians would enter and begin carrying off whatever wasn’t nailed down.

By afternoon, they had moved through the train station, the Parliament building, a bus station, the Ministry of Housing and a planning building at the construction site of Saddam’s Grand Mosque. The mosque was to be the largest in the world, but now would never see completion.[11]

 

Across the river, around 3:45 p.m., American armored vehicles entered the parking lot of the Palestine Hotel.

“We always wondered whether the American tanks would roll up in front of our live cameras in time for the American morning TV shows, and they just about have – 08:45 on the East Coast, 05:45 on the West Coast,” reported the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan as they arrived. “It is more or less picture-perfect timing for the Americans.”

In front of the hotel, Firdos Square filled with TV camera crews, armored vehicles and a small but boisterous crowd of Iraqis. A few Iraqi men approached the statue of Saddam Hussein that took central prominence in the grand square. They began chipping away at the base with a sledgehammer that “fell off” one of the Marine vehicles (with the permission of a commanding officer). The base was huge and solid stone; the sledgehammer made little progress. After a few minutes, an armored vehicle equipped with a crane began to move toward the statue.[12], [13]

The approach of the armored vehicle was the signal. The American Marines were going to help pull down the statue. This was it. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s reign, symbolized with the toppling of his statue.

Never mind that there were hundreds of other statues. Never mind that the city was not yet secured and that Saddam was still at large. Never mind that this was just the beginning of what would become a long and bloody war. For now, there was a giant statue. There were jubilant Iraqis with a sledgehammer. There was an armored vehicle with a crane. And there were representatives from every major media outlet with cameras rolling.

This was the moment.

The scene of the Firdos Square statue falling would become one of the most iconic of the war, replayed countless times and dissected from every angle. Skeptics would argue the entire thing was staged, the cheering Iraqis brought in as actors. While no evidence of staging would be found, the moment of the toppling would be portrayed inaccurately by the media as far larger, more important and more representative of what was going on in Baghdad that day than it actually was.

On April 9, 2003, the city was in chaos, the fighting far from over and the looting only increasing.[14]

 

The platoon leader closest to the museum radioed Captain Conroy from his tank, named Compliments of the USA. He reported looting in the vicinity and that Iraqi fighters appeared to be using the museum complex to move between positions. Conroy passed the information on to his commander, Lieutenant Colonel Eric Schwartz, who ordered the four-tank platoon to the edge of the museum grounds for a better look.

As soon as the tanks began to move, they came under a heavy barrage of fire from the museum. The Americans fired two shots, one large shell from a tank’s main gun and a smaller round from a mounted machine gun, in return before Schwartz ordered them to return to their previous position.[15]

The first shot, aimed at an RPG shooter on top of the Children’s Museum, left a large hole in the building’s façade. The other narrowly missed a sniper firing at them from a second-floor storage room in the main building, who abandoned his post, leaving his ammunition behind and the doors open.[16]

Presumably. There are no first-hand accounts of what happened inside the museum, but what we know of the next few days has been pieced together by investigators and academics. The first museum looters did not force their way in. Either they had a set of keys, or they climbed through a gap at the top of the back door and opened it from the inside, or someone – most likely the sniper – left the door open.

But then how did the sniper get in? Most likely with keys. But whose set? And who was the sniper? The answer would remain a mystery.[17]

The report of possible museum looting moved up the chain of command. Schwartz radioed his superior, Colonel David Perkins, that he did not have the manpower to stop all the looting in the area. Perkins ordered the soldiers not to take action.[18]

On the other side of the complex, people began to enter the museum. American military investigators who arrived a week and a half later interviewed local residents to piece together a timeline of the action. There were multiple reports of two Iraqi Army vehicles loading boxes from the back of the museum and driving away on the 9th, and eyewitness accounts of many other people entering the museum starting on the 10th.

That official investigation, led by reserve Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, a Manhattan prosecutor and antiquities enthusiast, found there were three types of looters who went through the museum over the next several days.

Opportunists stole indiscriminately from the above-ground storage rooms, often unknowingly taking fakes over real artifacts. Professional thieves went for the public galleries, carefully selecting the large, famous objects they stole. But it was insiders who made straight for the hard-to-access, hidden, basement storeroom that housed thousands of small, valuable, easily-transportable ancient objects—and they had the keys to get in.[19]

 

The National Museum is on a sprawling compound which includes a main gallery building, a library, a children’s museum and administrative offices for the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Inside the museum there are 28 public galleries, displaying treasures from one of the greatest collections of ancient history in the world.

Before the invasion, staff moved most of the valuable objects from display cases into storage. They left things that were too heavy or difficult to move, protecting them as best they could with foam padding in case of bombing.[20]

The padding didn’t stop the professional looters, who knew exactly what they wanted and who stole 40 priceless objects from the galleries. They pulled art off walls and statues from their bases, taking what was most valuable – including a three-foot-tall[21], 330-pound, headless statue from 2,430 BCE of a king named Entemena.[22]

 

In Firdos Square, the Americans looped a cable from the armored vehicle around the Saddam statue’s legs, as the Marine captain gestured for people to get back. After 10 minutes of preparation and confusion, the vehicle moved closer. The cable needed to be around the statue’s neck, the captain explained.

Reporters bought time, filling the dead air with commentary:

“It’s not long now.”

“It’s a breathtaking moment.”

“American Marines are trying to take pictures of this moment to take home to their families in the States.”

“Everyone wants to be here for this moment of enormous symbolism.”

A chain was pulled from the belly of the vehicle and wrapped around the statue’s neck. Then a soldier draped an American flag over its head. The flag was quickly removed and replaced with a less-colonial Iraqi flag, tied around the statue’s throat.[23]

 

At the museum, the statue of Entemena of Lagash was being stolen – again. Several thousand years earlier, he was taken from his place of admiration in the city-state Lagash to become property of a less-ancient king of nearby Ur. He was excavated there by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley in the 1920s and had been proudly on display at the National Museum of Iraq since. But now he was being removed, bound once again for someone’s private collection. It was the beginning of what would become Entemena’s longest journey.

 

Across the Tigris River, the larger-than-life statue of Saddam Hussein, his right arm gesturing to the sky, was about to move as well. Much newer than the statue of Entemena, it was erected one year prior in honor of the dictator’s 65th birthday. Just days away from its first birthday, the statue met its end at the hands of a chain noose and a petroleum-powered armored vehicle wielded by American Marines.

 

The dark, almost-conical, solid-diorite statue of Entemena – reportedly the heaviest item taken from the museum – could not have been carried out easily. Diorite is dense – far heavier than granite – and transporting the statue ordinarily took two staff members. To move it amid the pandemonium of indiscriminate looting would have taken dedication.[24] The professional thieves likely dragged it across the second floor, as indicated by a trail of scratches found afterward.[25]

 

No sooner was the statue of Saddam on the ground than the Firdos Square crowd began smashing it to pieces. The Marines watched. The news cameras rolled. The statue’s severed head, wrapped in chains, was dragged through the streets with a man riding astride the oversized face cheering as it went.[26]

Minutes later in Washington, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told reporters, “The scenes of free Iraqis celebrating in the streets, riding American tanks, tearing down the statues of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad are breathtaking. Watching them, one cannot help but think of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain.”[27]

 

Entemena likely broke the stairs on his way out of the museum. The heaviest item taken from the museum, Entemena had to be moved down from his second-floor gallery, across the main hall, and out the side door. Afterward, every step of the main staircase was chipped, clearly by something heavy being arduously pushed, pulled or rolled down.[28]

Whatever difficulties they faced, sometime between April 9 and 12 the professional thieves succeeded. They got Entemena out, managed to lift him into a vehicle and headed, most likely, north toward the Syrian border. One can imagine one side of the trunk of a car nearly scraping the road as it drove off. Entemena would not be seen again for three years.[29]

 

Conroy’s company was busy at its intersection. The troops continued to take fire for the next several days and sent additional reports of looting up the chain of command. But they were just a few more messages in a city full of rampant thievery. The company’s orders stayed the same: observe and report.[30]

 

As Baghdad descended further into chaos, American news channels replayed the toppling of the Firdos Square statue an average of once every six minutes.[31] In Chicago, Gibson grew tired of waiting for an email response. He turned to another tactic to learn the status of the museum, this time emailing the reporters he knew in Baghdad. By April 12, his messages had reached several newspaper and TV reporters.[32]

The bridge across the Tigris was finally open. A team of German reporters found their way across and arrived at the museum. It was still actively being looted and their cameras sent the thieves fleeing. Soon the looting of the national museum was making headlines.[33]

Staff members who lived near the museum entered the complex after the TV crew arrived and secured it as best they could. They chained the main door and hung a sign on it that said the building was protected by the Americans.[34] Someone – accounts differ on who and when – approached the nearest tank and asked Conroy’s soldiers to move it to guard the entrance. The tank commander radioed his superior but was told he was not authorized to move.

American soldiers would not enter the complex until four days later.[35]

Furious and appalled, Gibson returned to his emails, hammering his military contacts to get the museum secured. Who knew how much priceless history had been lost? Yet the military was slow to respond. There was confusion over who was responsible.[36]

 

In New York, Zainab Bahrani was sleeping when the news broke.

A British friend and archaeologist called in the middle of the night, waking her. The friend asked Bahrani if she was sitting down then told her the museum had been ransacked.

Bahrani burst into tears.

As a child in Baghdad, Bahrani had visited the museum more times than she could count. In her teens, she plastered her walls with posters of ancient statues from its galleries. The headless statue of King Entemena was one of her favorites. The museum was her childhood. It was what had inspired her, at age five, to want to study art history. She knew every gallery, every artifact’s story, every ancient civilization.

“Those statues were my friends,” she would say years later, recalling the shock of the news.

Bahrani phoned her contact at the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. She had helped create the list of sites to be protected so that this wouldn’t happen. And the museum had been the most important site. She screamed all this at the bureaucrat on the other end of the phone, not because the woman could do anything about it – the State Department had no authority in the active war zone that was Baghdad – but because Bahrani needed to yell at someone. She yelled for a good long while.[37]

 

In Baghdad, Donny George was desperate to get back to the museum and get American help to secure it. On the evening of April 12, he heard a BBC radio report of thefts at the museum. The next morning, he and Dr. Jaber Khalil, the chairman of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, went to the Marines at the Palestine Hotel to ask for help. The normally 30-minute journey took four hours.

They met Lieutenant Colonel Peter Zarcone, a Civil Affairs officer – the reserve force that generally took the lead on such cultural issues – who was stationed with the Marines at the hotel. He gave George and Khalil a handwritten letter authorizing them to pass unimpeded to the museum and sent word to his counterparts in the Army to send a unit right away. It was all he could do. The museum wasn’t his department.[38]

That afternoon, George and Khalil finally made it to the museum. The sight that greeted them was devastation.[39]

 

 

[1] Ibid.

[2] Gibson interview, March 22, 2018

[3] Rothfield. Pages 98-99.

[4] Gibson interview, March 22, 2018

[5] Composit of email exchange with Bahrani, April 28, 2018, and Rothfield. Page 78.

[6] Bahrani interview, March 5, 2018

[7] Composit of Rothfield. Pages 87-88, 107-108 and Donny George Youkhanna. Charlie Rose. Video Interview. 15:37 minutes. Accessed April 29, 2018. https://charlierose.com/videos/11530.

[8] BBC reporter dispatches. April 9, 2003

[9] Bogdanos, Matthew. “The Casualities of War: The Truth About the Iraq Museum.” American Journal of Archaeology 109, no. 3 (July 2005): Page 502. https://doi.org/10.3764/aja.109.3.477.

[10] Conroy, Jason. Heavy Metal: A Tank Company’s Battle to Baghdad. Pages 212-213. Dulles, Va: Potomac Books, c2005.

[11] Conroy. Pages 219-221.

[12] “The Toppling | The New Yorker.” Accessed April 1, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/01/10/the-toppling.

[13] BBC reporter dispatches. April 9, 2003

[14] “The Toppling | The New Yorker” and BBC reporter dispatches. April 9, 2003.

[15] Conroy. Heavy Metal. Page 223.

[16] Bogdanos. “The Casualities of War…” Pages 502, 510.

[17] Accounts and questions drawn from Rothfield. Pages 88-94, Bogdanos. “The Casualities of War…” Pages 501-507 and Bogdanos, Matthew, and William Patrick. Thieves of Baghdad: One Marine’s Passion to Recover the World’s Greatest Stolen Treasures. Pages 204-211. Reprint edition. New York, NY: Bloomsbury USA, 2006.

[18] Conroy. Page 223-224.

[19] Bogdanos. “The Casualities of War…” Pages 507-515.

[20] Hanson, Katharyn. Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past. Page 15, figure 1. Edited by Geoff Emberling. Chicago, IL: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2008.

[21] Bahrani, Zainab. Mesopotamia : Ancient Art and Architecture. Page 72. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017.

[22] Bogdanos. “The Casualities of War…” Pages 507-508.

[23] BBC reporter dispatches. April 9, 2003

[24] Email exchange with Bahrani, April 29, 2018.

[25] Bogdanos. “The Casualities of War…” Page 508, footnote 114 and George, Donny & Gibson, McGuire. Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past. Page 23.

[26] BBC reporter dispatches. April 9, 2003

[27] ProPublica. The Toppling: How the Media Created the Iconic Fall of Saddam’s Statue. Accessed April 1, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=178&v=YDu7bXqx8Ig.

[28] Gibson, McGuire. Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past. Page 23, Figure 6.

[29] Meier, Barry and James Glanz. “U.S. Helps Recover Statue and Gives It Back to Iraqis.” The New York Times, July 26, 2006, sec. Middle East. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/26/world/middleeast/26antiquities.html.

[30] Conroy. Page 232.

[31] ProPublica. The Toppling: How the Media Created the Iconic Fall of Saddam’s Statue. Accessed April 1, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=178&v=YDu7bXqx8Ig.

[32] Gibson interview, March 22, 2018

[33] Email exchange with Bogdanos, May 4, 2018, Rothfield. 98-99 and “Looters Ransack Baghdad Museum,” The BBC. April 12, 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2942449.stm.

[34] Rothfield. 108.

[35] Bogdanos. “The Casualities of War…” Page 505.

[36] Gibson interview, March 22, 2018

[37] Bahrani interview, March 5, 2018

[38] Rothfield. Pages 87-88, 107-108.

[39] Rothfield. Page 110.