One Marine’s Passion for Ancient Civilizations and the Journey to Recover the World’s Greatest Stolen Treasures

THIEVES OF BAGHDAD: One Marine’s Passion for Ancient Civilizations and the Journey to Recover the World’s Greatest Stolen Treasures

Munns, David W

Thieves Traces Painstaking Search For Iraq Museum Antiquities

THIEVES OF BAGHDAD: One Marine’s Passion for Ancient Civilizations and the Journey to Recover the World’s Greatest Stolen Treasures by Matthew Bogdanos, with William Patrick, New York: Bloomsbury, Oct. 2005. 320 pp. $29.95. ISBN: 0-58234-645-3

Matthew Bogdanos was not out of his element when he went to Iraq, despite being 6,000 miles away from his office in Manhattan where he was an assistant district attorney. A reservist Marine colonel, Bogdanos had been recalled to active duty after Sept. 11, 2001, and received a Bronze Star for counterterrorism operations during his two years of service in Afghanistan. When he traveled to Iraq in 2003, however, Bogdanos, who had prosecuted celebrity defendants and high-profile murder cases for more than 15 years, was tasked with criminal investigation duty.

His work in Iraq involved commanding a team of military experts, archaeologists, linguists, and immigration and customs officials to hunt for antiquities looted from the Iraq Museum in Baghdad during the chaos that ensued after the 2003 invasion. A student in classics, Bogdanos had an academic interest in this mission; however, given the size of the problem accounting for an estimated 15,000 stolen artifacts it would become a personal charge.

More than 5,000 artifacts were recovered by Bogdanos and his team. Among them was the Mask of Warka, the first-known realistic sculpture of a human face. The mask is thought to represent the goddess Inanna, the Sumerian queen of heaven. Worship of Inanna, the patron goddess of Uruk, an ancient city of Sumer now known as Warka, was a pivotal moment in Sumerian history.

Though ancient Sumerian society is best remembered for its novel attempts to preserve history – through its copious literature and invention of libraries – Sumer offers few physical artifacts as evidence of its spiritual history. The Mask of Warka provides such evidence.

The mask stands as one of the only artifacts from three millennia B.C., when a patriarchy began to take hold of the Sumerian culture and female deities, such as Inanna, were diminishing in esteem. The importance of this, and the thousands of other recoveries, including the treasure of Nimrod, transcends academic significance.

Bogdanos writes: “In this collection of their handiwork, as perhaps nowhere else, you can trace early human civilization in one unbroken stream.”

Dr. Nawala al-Mutwali, the director of the Iraq Museum, was by Bogdanos’ side throughout most of this venture. A devout Muslim, al-Mutwali insisted on being there when Bogdanos and several Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials initially surveyed the loss. Such was her faith that when al-Mutwali broke her toe while opening a large iron door into the dark basement where many precious artifacts were stored in preparation for the invasion, she stood still and cringed in lieu of backing up and merely brushing against Bogdanos.

The heat – “hotter than the hinges of Hell, specifically, the hinges of Dante’s eighth circle, the one he reserved for thieves and hypocrites to suffer together for eternity” – later laid al-Mutwali unconscious on the dusty floor amid strewn boxes that once held thousands of ancient coins and cylinder seals. With great respect for the team and al-Mutwali’s religion, Bogdanos recalls: “For all the hours we’d worked together and the friendship we’d struck … she and I had never so much as shaken hands. My team’s mission in Baghdad was delicate enough without scandalizing Muslim sensibilities.”

Bogdanos dispels many myths purported by press reports during this recovery effort. He points to a popular image of the Iraq Museum with a cannon hole in the front of the building. While it was implied that this was destruction caused by unruly American forces, Bogdanos reveals that the museum was actually commandeered by Saddam Hussein loyalists to fight off foreign troops and the tank fire was launched in defensive posture.

USA Today balked when photographs of the 3,200 B.C.-era Vase of Warka after its recovery showed it broken into 14 pieces, ostensibly by the thieves who lifted it from the museum. However, Bogdanos notes, the vase had only been recently restored to a single piece by the museum after having been discovered in the same number of fragments decades before.

Bogdanos’ journey to recover these artifacts spanned continents. Upon returning to New York, he recalls the prosecution of the first Ivy League academic who was caught carrying cylinder seals in his toiletry bag at La Guardia Airport. His prosecutorial skills employed yet again, Bogdanos’ analysis of the significance of this prosecution lends close-to-home realism to the politics of the underground smuggling network.

Though a significant player on the team that recovered, and still searches for, the thousands of artifacts lost, Bogdanos describes himself as “shrimp-sized … compared to this ocean of history.” History, teamwork and human drama are all high points in this book.

Bogdanos writes Thieves of Baghdad with the character and candor of a great Agatha Christie mystery novel. Appropriately, many of the artifacts stolen from the museum were originally discovered decades ago by Christie and her husband, Sir Thomas Mallory. His candor and humility in relaying this story make Thieves of Baghdad an intimate portrait of the Marine efforts in Iraq.

By DAVID W. MUNNS, Assistant Editor

Copyright Navy League of the United States Feb 2006

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