As tanks maneuver through drill practices and bulldozers scoop up the desert floor preparing for ground war in the Middle East, McGuire Gibson cringes at the sight; where others see troops digging foxholes Gibson sees the pulverization of thousands of years of human society.
Gibson is an archaeologist, scholar of antiquities, and professor of Mesopotamian archaeology at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. He was planning to return to the field in Iraq January 3. According to him, the allied forces have already destroyed many irreplaceable archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq. “It’s a great tragedy,” he says. “You can almost not drop a bomb anywhere within Iraq and not be near a site.”
Since the late 60s Gibson has studied and explored ancient Mesopotamia, which includes all of modern Iraq and the eastern part of Syria, meticulously piecing together the objects that occupied the lives of our ancestors. “There are all sorts of things that appear first in Mesopotamia and then are picked up by the rest of the Middle East and become part of their tradition. And this works its way into the Greek and Roman world, and then into Europe, and then into America,” Gibson says. “This is all part of our tradition.”
“The world’s first cities developed in Mesopotamia,” he says. “The first irrigation was done in this country. The first monumental architecture. The first attempts at government. The first ideas of kingship. The first religion formalized in a very real way, and then put not just in a written form but also signaled through graphic form, given in statuary and relief sculpture,” he says. “That’s where you’re getting information on the relationship of man and god as he sees god or the gods.”
Working in the late 1970s in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, Gibson uncovered fragments of pottery that originated hundreds of miles away in the ancient city of Ur. “Nothing really extraordinary in terms of world history,” Gibson concedes, “but in terms of the understanding of the early history of civilization–we know that there are certain sites that are just in absolute contact with what’s going on up in Mesopotamia. There’s pottery being found down there that we know is coming from the site of Ur. That area has maybe 100, 150 sites that we have in fact located.”
“Mesopotamia is not like Egypt, where you have lots of standing monuments in stone,” he says. “There’s no stone native to a good part of Iraq. They used mud bricks. And so only a few sites that have been dug up in the south are very impressive. Ur is one of them,” he says. Unfortunately, “Ur is right next to one of the major air bases.” Ur, the home of the potter who made the ancient vessels Gibson found in Saudi Arabia, is also called Ur of the Chaldees, the biblical home of Abraham and the historic home of Sargon.
“That is the area that our Army has been chewing up for the last five months. These sites are small and rather shallow. I suspect an awful lot of that is gone,” Gibson says tersely. “They wouldn’t even know they’re on a site!”
Southern Iraq is an alluvial plain, a flat delta formed of silt and sand carried by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. “Everything that stands up, all these bumps you see, all these little hills, they’re ancient sites,” says Gibson. He estimates there are at least half a million of them. “We’ve barely mapped and begun to study only a tiny fraction.
“It’s one level built upon another built upon another through thousands of years,” he explains. “The Iraqi army knows they’re ancient sites. The American army doesn’t. It’ll be just a hill for them.”
Gibson says the most important site in Kuwait is an island called Falaika. “The entire island is a site. We know that’s being bombed, that was in the news the other day.”
Baghdad is like a second home to Gibson; he listens to news reports of assaults on that city with growing alarm and concern. The Iraq National Museum in Baghdad is the world’s biggest repository of Mesopotamian artifacts. “We have hit that building,” says Gibson, citing a news report from January 22. “The museum is bigger than the Art Institute, and it is the museum for Mesopotamian antiquities, Mesopotamian history. It has written records and artifacts from as early as anything that’s found in Iraq all the way up through almost the present day. It would be like bombing the National Gallery in Washington and the American History Museum in Washington–that kind of an effect.”
“They just put deep underground storage and a new wing on in the last few years,” says Gibson, “and I’m confident that the most precious of the artifacts are underground; I hope the bombs are not so extreme that they can dig down 20 feet and destroy, though with the kinds of bombs we’re dropping, that is quite possible these days. But a lot of things could not be put away.”
Gibson says the National Museum contains 50 or 60 thousand clay tablets with cuneiform inscriptions. “There are things like the creation myth. And the Gilgamesh epic. The story of Sargon, an early king in Mesopotamia, a real person who becomes sort of a mythological figure. There’s a story about how they don’t know who his father is, but he’s probably the son of a god, and he is put in a little boat and put in the river, and he is rescued by someone from the palace, and is brought up in the palace. It’s the Moses story! And it’s 2,000 years older than the Moses stories written down in the Bible. There’s the story of the flood. There’s a guy who’s like Noah–he and his folks survive the flood. This is 2,000 years earlier than it is written down in the Bible.”
Gibson says the museum contains fragments of law codes older than Hammurabi’s, going back at least as early as 2200 BCE. Other tablets record “the earliest little funny riddles,” says Gibson. “These things very often come as school texts. These are things that boys would be, and very very rarely girls, most of the scribes were boys; they’d be taught to write by being given these funny little stories and riddles and things. If such and such and such is true, what is this? And you have to give the riddle and find out it’s the temple at Ur or some such thing.”
He suddenly remembers another tablet collection in the museum: “Proverbs!” he exclaims. “There are things akin to our ‘A stitch in time saves nine.’ Proverbs like that. There’s all this stuff on wisdom. There are texts on ideals of justice, ideals of right. Ideas of how to be a good king. Ideas of how to be a good individual.
“There’s wonderful what we call disputations–where you will have, for instance, the plow having an argument with the hoe on which is better. You find things that we think of as being terribly modern, like letters of credit–in effect checks, and even money, currency.
“An ancient Mesopotamian merchant could travel 1,000 miles away from his home, and could go into a place to people he’d never met, and he could collect money there on the basis of a tablet which he had in his hand which said, ‘Give this guy money.'”
Another of Gibson’s concerns is that historically important buildings in Baghdad may be damaged beyond repair. He describes the Abbasid Palace, a landmark piece of Islamic architecture, built in 1230. It and other old buildings are close to the Ministry of Defense and the telephone exchange, which were targeted in air raids.
Gibson claims that even if these buildings were not directly hit, they cannot have escaped damage from the blasts. “That is one of the oldest areas in the city and there are lots of buildings that have been preserved,” says Gibson. “They had been slated for restoration, to leave the fabric of Baghdad intact instead of modernizing everything. Those buildings were built in the Ottoman period, from about 1500 to the very early part of this century. They are built of brick and wood, and lots of glass, and it doesn’t take much of a blast to do a lot of harm. I expect that a lot of those old buildings around those areas were badly damaged.
“More important than that,” Gibson continues, “is the fact that directly across from the Ministry of Defense, within 100 yards, is the biggest hospital complex in Iraq, called Medical City.” He describes it as a modern building with walls of glass. “It wouldn’t have been a nice place to be in the hospital,” he says.
According to Gibson, Iraq recently opened its doors to Fulbright scholars including social scientists. The country had been improving working relations and official access for scholars only in the last few years. “Things were fantastic. We had better access to Iraq than we’ve had since the 50s. It’s a pity this thing has brought it to a screaming halt.”
He points out that the war will affect not only U.S. students doing research in Iraq, but also many Iraqi students who had made plans to study in the U.S.
According to Gibson, the same Iraqi-released report of the bombing of the National Museum also proffered a somewhat sketchy account of casualties. “I’m less concerned about the artifacts and the monuments than I am about the people,” he says.
“There’s a very personal worry in that. People were injured or killed. These are people we know very, very well. I’ve worked with them for 26 years. We’ve had them out on the dig with us. We’ve sat in their office and drank tea for 26 years. We’ve been in conferences together. We’ve exchanged information for all this time.”
He has repeatedly tried to contact his colleagues in Iraq. “The U.S. government cut all telephone and mailings and everything way back in August,” he says, though he has gotten second- and third-hand messages from Jordanian, Palestinian, and Egyptian refugees fleeing Iraq at the outset of war.
Gibson has tried with no success to contact Sabah Jasim Shukri, the director of the National Museum and a former student of Gibson’s at the U. of C. “I sent a letter to him and had it returned saying ‘cannot be delivered,'” Gibson says. “I tried making phone calls and got messages saying ‘These circuits cannot be opened.’ There was no way of calling in.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.