Day of the Vulture

Why the looting of Iraq's ancient sites shouldn't have surprised anyone -- least of all the Pentagon

The first sign that we were approaching the ruins of Isin were the motorcycles that came buzzing down the dirt road in the opposite direction. Each one carried a driver, a passenger, and a bulging saddlebag draped over the back fender. Then a big cattle truck came lumbering along, a pack of men in the flatbed wearing head scarves and carrying more bulging sacks.

Looters, every one of them. Look at all they're carrying out," said Susanne Osthoff, a German archaeologist, shaking her head in sadness. She had worked with a team of researchers to excavate Isin until 1989 -- before U.N. sanctions shut most foreign archaeologists out of Iraq -- and returned in April, a few days after the fall of Saddam Hussein, to check out reports of looting at archaeological sites. Now, escorted by three armed bodyguards, Osthoff and I were approaching the ruined Sumerian city.

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Four thousand years ago, Isin was a place for the sick to come to be healed. It attracted the lame, the arthritic, and the chronically ill who came to pray to the city's patron goddess, Gula, to deliver them from pain. All over the site, archaeologists have found bones with signs of deformity and disease. Isin was a Babylonian Lourdes. Now it is little more than a group of sandy mounds, a city betrayed by the Tigris, which used to flow nearby but shifted course over the centuries and left it high and dry.

When we reached the mound that marked where the Temple of Gula stood, the land was pockmarked with holes. There were hundreds of them, some 20 or 30 feet deep, holes that looked so meticulously dug they seemed to have been made with earth-moving equipment.

Looters were swarming all over the temple. They crawled up out of their holes, emerged from behind mounds of backfill, came running toward us from every direction, carrying knives and shovels. There was no police presence of any kind, and the nearest American troops were 20 miles away, in the town of Afak.

Osthoff charged up the mound. "They are destroying the site, destroying it!" she said. "Twenty-five years of work is being ruined." We looked down into a hole; it was too deep to see the bottom. "This was where I worked," she said. "This was the temple floor." Turbaned looters came up to offer us things they had found: a clay tablet bearing an inscription in cuneiform, the world's oldest form of writing ($100), an exquisite little cylinder seal made of black hematite stone ($200), a clay votive plaque with an image of the goddess Ishtar ($500). Any of the artifacts would bring thousands of dollars in New York or London.

When did this looting start?" I asked one.

When Saddam Hussein fell," he said.

Did this ever happen when Saddam was in power?"

Only at night, and only a few people. Now we can dig all day. Many people are coming to do it."

Were friends of yours ever caught looting in Saddam's day?"

Yes."

What happened to them?"

They were executed."

All the men told similar stories. Under Saddam -- who saw himself as a modern-day Nebuchadnezzar and brutally punished those who defiled Iraq's ancient sites -- looters wouldn't have dared to approach the ruins. But since his fall, they have been running the place. Trucks, earthmoving machinery, assault rifles, a hundred men -- this wasn't villagers scrounging around for trinkets. This was organized plunder.

As we left the site, a barefoot man came running toward us. He carried a dark, oval-shaped stone the size of an orange, completely covered in cuneiform text. To write on soft clay is one thing, but to carve cuneiform into stone took skills and tools that only an important person would have had--an artisan working for a king or a high priest. Osthoff examined the stone, turned it over and over, with a look of fascination and despair. "This is top-level stuff," she whispered. "It's worth thousands of dollars."

The looter eyed us greedily. "This will sell fast," he said. "I won't have it for even five days." Every now and then a buyer came from Baghdad who claimed to represent an American client, he explained, but we had first crack. "If you buy this one, I'll show you others."

Around the globe, the aftermath of war in recent decades has come to mean the onset of looting. In Cambodia, the civil war that ended in 1991 was followed by the devastation of ancient Khmer cities that had stood basically intact since French archaeologists excavated them in the 19th century: Looters lopped off the heads of nearly all the Buddhas at Angkor and chiseled off hundreds of stone carvings. In Afghanistan, the U.S. invasion was followed by waves of looters at remote archaeological sites, compounding the vandalism done by the Taliban. In Bosnia, looters barely waited for the guns to go silent before stripping old churches of their icons. The systematic removal of artifacts by teams of pillagers has become as much a part of the aftermath of modern warfare as blue-helmeted peacekeepers and cnn.

The fighting starts, and the looters take over," says McGuire Gibson, head of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute who has worked in Iraq since 1964 and returned a few weeks after Saddam's fall. "It happened after the first Gulf War, and we told the Americans it would happen again now."

After the 1991 Gulf War, looters pulled down stone reliefs from the ruins of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh in northern Iraq, a city once so renowned it was mentioned in Genesis. The slabs were chopped into marketable chunks; photographs of at least 11 such pieces were circulating in the late 1990s among art dealers throughout Europe and the United States. "Each fragment came from a different slab," notes John Malcolm Russell, an archaeologist at Massachusetts College of Art who has traveled frequently to Iraq, "and most of them had been broken from the middle of the slab, suggesting that the looters destroyed whole slabs to extract the best-preserved bits." When I visited Nineveh this summer, there was little left to see. Looters had simply dismantled the place.

For months before the Bush administration launched its attack on Iraq, Gibson and a group of other academics and museum directors met with Pentagon officials, pleading with them not to bomb cultural sites and to guard them once Saddam was toppled. They got their first wish, but not the second. Within hours of Saddam's fall on April 9, looters descended on archaeological sites all over southern Iraq and began turning them inside out to find artifacts. Thieves also hit the National Museum of Antiquities in Baghdad, known as one of the world's great archaeological institutions and a repository for everything legally excavated in Iraq for the past 40 years.

The looters sell the artifacts to middlemen who smuggle them out, and within weeks the pieces wind up with collectors or art galleries in places like Tokyo and Zurich. You could call it illegal, and of course it is, but the $1 billion antiquities-laundering business operates with such impunity all over the world that most of it happens completely in the open. You can go to galleries in New York or London and find Iraqi artifacts with the telltale signs -- no record of having been excavated by an archaeologist, no sign they were previously in any collection. Either a lot of anonymous collectors are all suddenly unloading their possessions onto the market or, more plausibly, the looters have found buyers who don't ask too many questions.

Just south of Iraq's border with Turkey lies the city of Mosul, where Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters rattle overhead all day and U.S. troops in beige fatigues stop cars to search for weapons. The American occupation feels rawer here, more in-your-face than in Baghdad.

The ruins of the legendary, 3,000-year-old city of Nimrud stand on a hillside nearby. Its walls of polished stone bear the carved images of kings and deities and cuneiform inscriptions recounting centuries of conquests, coronations, and heroic exploits. The Old Testament calls Nimrud (the ancient Calah) "the principal city" of the Assyrian empire, which ravaged neighboring kingdoms from Persia to Egypt. For a few centuries, Nimrud was Rome. And then, as empires have a way of doing, it collapsed. Nimrud was sacked by the Babylonians in 612 B.C. and the Assyrian realm disappeared forever.

No one is going to sack Nimrud now. Half a platoon of U.S. soldiers guard the roofless and overgrown site with M-4 rifles that can fire armor-piercing rounds; trucks equipped with grenade-launching gunner positions; shoulder-fired anti-tank missile launchers; and thermal imaging devices that can spot a person from six miles away, any time of the day or night. "We got so much armament in this place, it's unreal," says the U.S. commanding officer at Nimrud, Lieutenant Cory Roberts, an earnest Texan whose green eyes matched his tank.

Problem is, the Americans got here a bit late. Looters swept into Nimrud on April 11, two days after Saddam's fall, and hacked out a piece of a stone relief showing a winged man carrying a sponge and a holy plant. It's a distinctively Nimrud image, one that a buyer anywhere in the world would have to know was looted from this site. "They knew just what they wanted," says Muzahim Mahmud, the Iraqi director of the site. "They ignored everything else, went right to that frieze, and took it." He added armed guards, but over the next few weeks the looters kept returning to threaten them. It wasn't until May 4 -- the day after looters had carved out two more reliefs -- that Roberts arrived with a full infantry battalion.

When I visited Nimrud, the courtly, white-haired Mahmud gave me a tour of the site while Roberts hovered around us in fatigues and a Kevlar vest. From time to time, Roberts would correct Mahmud on the specific dates or details of the looting. Mahmud graciously ignored him.

I was impressed by the earnestness of Roberts and his men in protecting Nimrud. One had launched a project to photograph the entire site and had so far filled nine compact discs; another was reading the Iliad. I asked Roberts what would happen when the troops left. Wouldn't the looters return? "Well," he said, "that's the concern."

At Nimrud, Isin, and most other ancient sites in this ancient land, the Americans have shown an extraordinary knack for arriving a day late. And being late is often only a little better than never arriving at all. If thieves strike at a museum, the works can be recovered and reassembled. But once looters have rifled through an archaeological site, most of the knowledge that might be derived from it is lost forever -- a fact that experts have struggled to impress on the U.S. military command in Iraq. "Once it's gone, it's gone," says archaeologist Russell. "It can never be put back the way it was."

In late May -- the day after a New York Times reporter visited the Isin site -- the U.S. Army finally began flying helicopters low over archaeological sites, firing warning shots to shoo away looters. At one site, several looters were killed. "That's all they can do right now," an Army captain told me. "After one or two incidents like that, maybe looters will start to get the message."

But by now, I thought I knew what the message was: After the horses have left, you can count on the United States to send a laser-guided, satellite-positioned, bulletproof barn-door closer.