The brutalities of the Iraq war accumulate so fast it is difficult to keep track. But in this season of fifth-year anniversaries, one largely forgotten crime demands to be recalled, in part because it relates directly to the politics of memory itself. Five years ago, US troops stood by as looters sacked the Iraq National Library and Archives (INLA)–one of the oldest and most used in the world. In Arab countries the old expression was “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads.”
American troops were under orders not to intervene. Library staff who requested protection from the GI’s were told, “We are soldiers, not policemen” or “our orders do not extend to protecting this [building].” American military orders did, however, extend to guarding the Ministry of Oil, and the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s secret police.
The selective passivity of US forces was not only ethically questionable, but also a violation of international law. The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954) makes clear that libraries should not only be spared attack in wartime but also actively protected.
Despite the sack of a major cultural institution and the collapse of the society around it, the library struggles on, continuing a long tradition of resurrection from the ashes of war. The world’s first library was located in Mosul, in Northern Iraq. It was built in the 7th century BCE and produced the first known catalog in history. In 1927 a British archeological team unearthed it and, for “purposes of preservation”, carried off many of its artifacts–including the oldest known copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh, the first great work of world literature.
Iraq’s intellectual golden era came later and coincided with the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258) whose capital was established at Baghdad. In 832, the construction of the Byat al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) established the new capital as an unrivaled center of scholarship and intellectual exchange.
The tradition of research there brought advances in astronomy, optics, physics and mathematics. The father of algebra, Al-Khawarizmii, labored among its scrolls. It was here that many of the Greek and Latin texts we accept as the foundation of Western thought were translated, catalogued and preserved. And it was from Baghdad that these works would eventually make their way to medieval Europe and help lift that continent from its benighted, post-Roman intellectual torpor.
In 1258, the Mongols descended on Baghdad and emptied the libraries into the Tigris, ending the city’s scholarly preeminence enjoyed for nearly 500 years. “Hence the legend developed,” as one scholar wrote, “that the river ran black from the ink of the countless texts lost in this manner, while the streets ran red with the blood of the city’s slaughtered inhabitants.”