Planet Earth

Discover Interview: Director of Iraq's National Museum

The archaeologist talks about the loss of artifacts and why he fled his homeland.

By Andrew LawlerAug 3, 2007 12:00 AM


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Uruk, located near Basra in Iraq, was one of the world’s first cities, and it is where the first writing system emerged. Babylon, just an hour’s taxi ride from Baghdad, was long the world’s largest and most sophisticated urban center. And the first truly international empire was ruled from the great Assyrian cities of Nineveh and Nimrud, near today’s Mosul in the northern part of the country.

Sumerian bust of a Bearded Man circa 3500-3200 BC | Image courtesy of U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs

The past four years of war and political turmoil have threatened that invaluable heritage—both above and under the ground. Donny George Youkhana, who chaired the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities, has been placed in jeopardy as well. The 56-year-old archaeologist has been vilified as a Baathist sympathizer by American neoconservatives, criticized as pro-West by Sunnis, and viewed with suspicion by Shiites because of his Christian background. “I never knew if I would make it to work,” he says of his daily life in Baghdad since 2003. “Or if I would make it home.” In 2006 he left Iraq, joining the ranks of more than 2 million Iraqis who have fled since 2003. Last November he accepted a teaching position at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is one of only a few hundred Iraqi refugees who have been admitted to the United States.

Donny George, as he is known in the States, started his career in archaeology as a storeroom assistant at Iraq’s National Museum, an institution that houses not only most of the artifacts excavated in Iraq during the past 150 years but also a vast store of knowledge on one of the first centers of civilization. Located in the center of Baghdad just off Haifa Street—now one of the most dangerous spots on the planet—the museum was founded in the 1920s by Gertrude Bell, an extraordinary British historian who helped draw Iraq’s borders, choose its first king, and negotiate a peace among Mesopotamia’s many clashing tribes.

Over the past three decades, George spent much of his time working on excavations in the field. Before the war, I accompanied him, along with some foreign archaeologists, to a site deep in the flat desert of southern Mesopotamia, where he was directing a dig at a buried 5,000-year-old Sumerian city. He talked of attending the weddings and funerals of the local tribe in order to win their trust and support in protecting the site. But when we arrived, he slung a rifle over his shoulder. During those hard years of economic sanctions, looters were already a danger.

George’s foreign colleagues judged him among the best and brightest of Iraqi archaeologists. But what made him a virtual celebrity was his role in the aftermath of the April 2003 looting of the museum. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the melee with the memorable phrase “Stuff happens.” While other antiquity officials avoided the media, George welcomed television cameras and print reporters to the museum grounds. His criticism of the U.S. failure to intervene helped turn the shocking event into a symbol of an invasion gone awry, and he traveled the world seeking financial and moral support for his battered institution. Although it turned out that most of the museum’s priceless artifacts were safe, thousands of pieces are still ­missing—a ­significant loss for any museum—and the search for them continues. Over time, George’s diplomacy won the trust of the Americans in the Green Zone and also of the emerging Iraqi authorities: In 2004, he was put in charge of the Iraq Museum as well as the country’s regional museums.

Meanwhile, the political tide in the capital began to turn. In 2006, a new Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, staffed largely by members of the party led by fundamentalist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, was set up to oversee the organization. George says the combination of professional frustration and a threat to his son’s life made him take his family first to Syria, then to America. “I never wanted to leave the board—that was my life,” he told me as we sat in the living room of his family’s modest new home, just a few miles from the Stony Brook campus, where he is teaching Mesopotamian history and archaeology. On the mantel, lit by small tea candles, stood an image of Jesus and Mary.

With regard to the care of antiquities, how do you compare the Saddam era with the way things are today?

Saddam wanted projects to bolster his image, to show that he was a patron of history and antiquities, as were the ancient leaders of Iraq. Now, with the interference of new people who are illiterate about cultural heritage, everything is much more problematic.

Did you ever meet Saddam?

One time, when I was field director at Babylon. He arrived by car on September 21, 1987, stayed for two hours, and left by helicopter. We walked through the museum there, and he noticed an ancient inscription by King Nebuchadnezzar translated into Arabic and En­glish. It mentioned that the king had been sent by the gods to serve and to lead the black-headed people. For some reason, Saddam told me the translation must be changed. I said, “No, this is a scientific translation, and we can’t change it.” He didn’t say anything, but later a bodyguard grabbed me by the arm and asked how I could say no to the leader. Then he said, “Don’t worry, you are safe.”

The bricks in the Babylon reconstruction are stamped with Saddam’s name. Whose idea was that?

This was his order, that we commemorate the reconstruction the same way that it was done in ancient Iraq, by some device such as stone monuments. The next day the written order came, and we put together a committee that decided that we stamp each brick with his name, and he approved that.

Did Saddam ever visit the Iraq Museum?

Only once, before he was president. He never came after that. That says to me he was not really interested in history and archaeology.

Did the Saddam regime interfere with your work?

We felt we had a good measure of independence as a scientific institution. There was never any interference when I was excavating or writing reports. But my contacts with foreigners were closely monitored. The one time it really hurt was when they formed a special team in 2003, before the invasion, to store safely the museum artifacts. I knew everything in the museum and had worked to store everything before the Gulf War in 1991. I think they were afraid, since I knew foreigners and was a Christian, that I would reveal the secret place where the material was stored. That really hurt.

How did you react after the museum had been looted?

I was angry. I knew it could have been prevented; I knew American forces were beside the museum and didn’t do anything. It was a very, very big mistake that could have been prevented. Like most Iraqis, I thought the arrival of the Americans was very welcome, but when you work as an archaeologist for 30 years, love the field, and know each piece, and then you see all the destruction and looting—this was very hard. I can’t support people who did not protect the museum. And I can’t blame the soldiers—they didn’t have orders.

What is the impact on Iraq as scientists and professionals like you leave?

I have seen hundreds like me leave. A good number, if they couldnot travel abroad, work in the north, in Kurdistan. But the result is a complete drain of good minds from Iraq. In 2003, there were big hopes people would come back and work.

How did the new Iraqi government handle antiquities?

In 2004, I was made director of museums, and from the start they started sending people loyal to al-Sadr’s party to monitor and control everything in our institution. They interfered in every single thing and changed things without our knowledge. They encouraged the staff of the department to go directly to the ministry, rather than through us. They removed people not connected to the party and put people in who were not qualified. It is worse than under Saddam.

How is the new minister, who was appointed in 2006?

He’s a dentist, and his wife—who is a member of the Parliament—is a relative of al-Sadr. I knew he knew nothing about antiquities, so I went to see him and explain how we work. After about 10 or 15 minutes, I realized there was a complete wall between him and me. He seemed to be listening but not following. I felt helpless. Afterward, he continued the same policy as his predecessor. He appointed one person without experience in manuscripts to be in charge of manuscripts. And the director of manuscripts was moved to the excavation department. It would be amazing if he even knew where Babylon was—it’s not his field. I was by then chairman of the board, and I had the authority of a deputy minister. But I was given no authority over personnel or budget.

At the end, I found myself coming to work, sitting there, and doing nothing. The last straw was when I was told by the minister’s adviser that I should look after myself. He said the al-Sadr party had given an order that since I was Christian, I should not be allowed to keep my job, that it was very important a Shiite Muslim have the position. I was shocked. I understood that if I stayed, they would fire me, or it would lead to problems or even assassination. That happens. A month or so later—the 30th of July—I applied for retirement. And the minister approved it immediately. Normally, a minister would call to find out the reason a senior official resigned, so it was clear he was waiting for me to quit. A week or so later we left Baghdad.

What is the status of the museum today? Is it threatened?

About three or four months before I left, we had a mass kidnapping take place in the street outside the museum. A dozen official cars painted in camouflage drove up, full of personnel who were completely armed, equipped, and wearing uniforms. They took 50 people off the street. Shortly after, the interior minister announced that they had nothing to do with the kidnapping. I immediately called my senior staff and asked one simple question: What can we do if these people come to the museum, accuse us of hiding something in our storerooms, and demand to go in? Can we stop them? We agreed there was no stopping them, so we started immediately securing the museum. We put antiquities in the registration rooms and labs into boxes, took them down into the storeroom, and started welding the iron doors. For a day and a half, we welded all the doors leading to the storerooms and to the museum area. And the last thing we did was to build a wall half a meter thick with bricks and concrete at the entrance. The museum was completely sealed. Now, unfortunately, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities wants to reopen the museum just to show the outside world Baghdad is OK and everything is fine. The museum director e-mailed me that she’s under pressure to reopen. Of course it would be ridiculous to do this. [Since this interview, the tourism minister has been forced to resign, along with several other Shiite ministers. The museum remains closed.]

How bad is the looting in southern Iraq?

Last year, al-Sadr’s followers attacked and burned the museum of Nasiriyah and its library. They said to the guards—and I know this is true because I spoke with them—“tell [local inspector] Abdul Amir Hamadan we will do to your antiquities exactly what the Taliban did!” In Najaf, al-Sadr’s party was heard to tell worshippers that looting artifacts is ethical so long as the money goes for guns or building mosques. And we have started to have problems in an area in Basra called Zobeir—the original Basra—which was founded by the caliph Omar in A.D. 638. Our inspector says people are building houses on the site, in practice destroying the first Islamic city that was built outside the Arab peninsula. Historically, Omar is considered the enemy of all Shiites. So is it being destroyed intentionally or just neglected? I don’t know. But I’m worried this is exactly what happened to the Samarra mosque and shrine [destroyed in a sectarian bombing in 2006]. This kind of conflict might also lead to huge destruction of Islamic monuments and archaeology. We have an armed force of 1,400 men to patrol the provinces, and we managed to get some cars from the State Department and about 45 cars from Unesco. We concentrated on Nasiriyah because the looting was so bad there and because there are over 700 archaeological sites in the area. Inspector Abdul Amir [Hamadan] and his team did a very good job, patrolling, arresting looters, and sending looted antiquities to the museum. But rich people on the city council with ties to the Islamic parties are agitating for easy access to antiquities.

Are archaeological sites in the north around Mosul—such as Nineveh and Nimrud—secure?

There are 1,600 sites in the Mosul area alone, but the situation is not as bad as it is in the south. The museum is safe; it’s closed and there’s no one there. People in the north and middle part of the country have always been much more educated, more careful with ancient sites, than the people in the south. It’s not their fault. They were not educated and given what they need to live. In the late 1990s, I saw Iraqis starving in the south because of bad policies.

What was life like, living in Baghdad as a high-profile official and a Christian with ties to Americans?

I would drive to work with different cars—mine, my son’s, the department’s. I didn’t want bodyguards because they draw attention. One day I would leave at 7 a.m. and another day at 10 a.m. Once home, I never went out after 4 or 5 p.m. In the last weeks, when the doorbell rang after dark, I’d grab my gun—I always had it at the ready. People are known to rush in and kill families, and I was worried this would happen to us. Even in the museum, guards and secretaries would check everyone coming to see me and turn away anyone we didn’t know.

Do you see a way out of the mess that is Iraq today?

The situation now is that the Iranians are fighting the Americans in the south, Saddam’s allies are fighting the Americans in Baghdad, and the militias are all fighting each other for power. I always say I’m not a politician, but everything can be solved by politics rather than force. The problems can be dealt with immediately if the Americans sit down with the Syrians, the Saudis, and the Iranians. In the end, you always have people sitting in a room with each other.

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