Mar 14, 2007 — On the morning of April 8, 2003, Dr. Donny George awoke to the sound of bombs exploding in the city of Baghdad as US forces invaded. He rushed to the Iraqi National Museum, where he was director, and together with the chair of the museum’s board and some staff, he hunkered down behind locked doors to keep watch over the museum’s antiquities.
“I felt very strongly—and still do—that the Iraq Museum’s collection represents the cultural heritage of mankind—it does not belong just to Iraqis,” Dr. George said at a presentation of slides documenting the looting of the museum and archeological sites, which was sponsored by the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Center for International Affairs and the Yeshiva College Office of the Dean on March 7.
Dr. George—who has devoted more than 30 years of his life to excavating, restoring, and preserving the region’s archeological riches—has been visiting professor of anthropology at SUNY Stony Brook since fleeing Baghdad last year, first to Damascus and then to Long Island.
When the museum became caught in the crossfire, Dr. George and his staff were forced to leave. Looters moved in, taking about 15,000 items and smashing many of those that they couldn’t remove. After learning about the destruction on the news, Dr. George appealed to the US army to protect the building, located precariously close to the hot spot of Haifa Street.
“The looters left glasscutters behind and didn’t touch many replicas, which leads us to believe that they came prepared and knew what they were doing,” he told the audience of YU students, faculty, and alumni.
After a period of amnesty was announced and rewards were offered for the return of various pieces, many antiquities were returned—3,709 to date. Nonetheless, the stolen objects—particularly clay tablets—have flooded underground markets in Europe, the United States, and Japan.
Dr. George shared his ideas for how to address the problem of looting. “The protection of antiquities should be regarded as a human rights issue and should be brought before the United Nations Security Council,” he said. “And museums should be built in such a way that they can defend themselves because there will be no-one guarding them in times of war.”
Although he no longer runs the museum—which remains sealed at this time—Dr. George continues to try to track down stolen material. “My pain is like a line of blood drawn in the sand from Baghdad to Damascus—and now to New York,” he said.