After international outrage at the failure of US troops to protect hospitals and the looting of the famous National Museum, Baghdad’s National Library and Archives went up in flames yesterday. Almost all of the contents of the library are destroyed.
British war correspondent Robert Fisk reports the library was a priceless treasure of Ottoman historical documents, including the old royal archives of Iraq. He saw pages blowing in the wind of handwritten letters between the court of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who started the Arab revolt against the Turks for Lawrence of Arabia, and the Ottoman rulers of Baghdad.
Fisk also saw the Koranic library burning nearby, which includes one of the oldest surviving copies of the Koran.
He rushed to the offices of the Marines’ Civil Affairs Bureau. He gave the map location and said it would take only five minutes to drive there. Half an hour later, there wasn’t an American at the scene.
Meanwhile, nine British archaeologists published a letter in the London Guardian yesterday, charging that private collectors are persuading the Pentagon to relax legislation that protects Iraq’s heritage by prevention of sales abroad.
The Guardian reports Pentagon officials are denying accusations that the US government is succumbing to pressure from private collectors to allow plundered Iraqi treasures to be traded on the open market.
Months before the US-led invasion of Iraq, a coalition of wealthy American antiquities collectors met with defense and state department officials to discuss the fate of the country’s ancient artifacts.
Among other things they urged the Bush Administration to weaken Iraq’s strict antiquities laws make it easier for U.S. dealers to export Iraqi artifacts out of Iraq.
The main group behind this move was the recently formed, The American Council for Cultural Policy.
The group’s treasurer William Pealstein described Iraq’s laws as "retentionist."
But well established archaeological groups have strongly criticized these efforts.
The director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological said, "Iraqi antiquities legislation protects Iraq. The last thing one needs is some group of dealer-connected Americans interfering. Any change to those laws would be absolutely monstrous."
- Andrew Lawler, the archaeology correspondent for Science Magazine.