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Fisk: The Sacking of Baghdad

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  • ummyakoub
    Robert Fisk: Library books, letters and priceless documents are set ablaze in final chapter of the sacking of Baghdad
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 17, 2003
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      Robert Fisk: Library books, letters and priceless documents are set
      ablaze in final chapter of the sacking of Baghdad

      Robert Fisk: Library books, letters and priceless documents are set
      ablaze in final chapter of the sacking of Baghdad
      15 April 2003

      So yesterday was the burning of books. First came the looters, then
      the arsonists. It was the final chapter in the sacking of Baghdad. The
      National Library and Archives – a priceless treasure of Ottoman
      historical documents, including the old royal archives of Iraq – were
      turned to ashes in 3,000 degrees of heat. Then the library of Korans
      at the Ministry of Religious Endowment were set ablaze.

      I saw the looters. One of them cursed me when I tried to reclaim a
      book of Islamic law from a boy of no more than 10. Amid the ashes of
      Iraqi history, I found a file blowing in the wind outside: pages of
      handwritten letters between the court of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who
      started the Arab revolt against the Turks for Lawrence of Arabia, and
      the Ottoman rulers of Baghdad.

      And the Americans did nothing. All over the filthy yard they blew,
      letters of recommendation to the courts of Arabia, demands for
      ammunition for troops, reports on the theft of camels and attacks on
      pilgrims, all in delicate hand-written Arabic script. I was holding in
      my hands the last Baghdad vestiges of Iraq's written history. But for
      Iraq, this is Year Zero; with the destruction of the antiquities in
      the Museum of Archaeology on Saturday and the burning of the National
      Archives and then the Koranic library, the cultural identity of Iraq
      is being erased. Why? Who set these fires? For what insane purpose is
      this heritage being destroyed? When I caught sight of the Koranic
      library burning – there were flames 100 feet high bursting from the
      windows – I raced to the offices of the occupying power, the US
      Marines' Civil Affairs Bureau. An officer shouted to a colleague that
      "this guy says some biblical [sic] library is on fire". I gave the map
      location, the precise name – in Arabic and English – I said the smoke
      could be seen from three miles away and it would take only five
      minutes to drive there. Half an hour later, there wasn't an American
      at the scene – and the flames were shooting 200 feet into the air.

      There was a time when the Arabs said that their books were written in
      Cairo, printed in Beirut and read in Baghdad. Now they burn libraries
      in Baghdad. In the National Archives were not just the Ottoman records
      of the Caliphate, but even the dark years of the country's modern
      history, handwritten accounts of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, with
      personal photographs and military diaries,and microfiche copies of
      Arabic newspapers going back to the early 1900s.

      But the older files and archives were on the upper floors of the
      library where petrol must have been used to set fire so expertly to
      the building. The heat was such that the marble flooring had buckled
      upwards and the concrete stairs that I climbedhad been cracked.

      The papers on the floor were almost too hot to touch, bore no print or
      writing, and crumbled into ash the moment I picked them up. Again,
      standing in this shroud of blue smoke and embers, I asked the same
      question: why?

      So, as an all-too-painful reflection on what this means, let me quote
      from the shreds of paper that I found on the road outside, blowing in
      the wind, written by long-dead men who wrote to the Sublime Porte in
      Istanbul or to the Court of Sharif of Mecca with expressions of
      loyalty and who signed themselves "your slave". There was a request to
      protect a camel convoy of tea, rice and sugar, signed by Husni Attiya
      al-Hijazi (recommending Abdul Ghani-Naim and Ahmed Kindi as honest
      merchants), a request for perfume and advice from Jaber al-Ayashi of
      the royal court of Sharif Hussein to Baghdad to warn of robbers in the
      desert. "This is just to give you our advice for which you will be
      highly rewarded," Ayashi says. "If you don't take our advice, then we
      have warned you." A touch of Saddam there, I thought. The date was 1912.

      Some of the documents list the cost of bullets, military horses and
      artillery for Ottoman armies in Baghdad and Arabia, others record the
      opening of the first telephone exchange in the Hejaz – soon to be
      Saudi Arabia – while one recounts, from the village of Azrak in
      modern-day Jordan, the theft of clothes from a camel train by Ali bin
      Kassem, who attacked his interrogators "with a knife and tried to stab
      them but was restrained and later bought off". There is a 19th-century
      letter of recommendation for a merchant, Yahyia Messoudi, "a man of
      the highest morals, of good conduct and who works with the [Ottoman]
      government." This, in other words, was the tapestry of Arab history –
      all that is left of it, which fell into The Independent's hands as the
      mass of documents crackled in the immense heat of the ruins.

      King Faisal of the Hejaz, the ruler of Mecca, whose staff are the
      authors of many of the letters I saved, was later deposed by the
      Saudis. His son Faisel became king of Iraq – Winston Churchill gave
      him Baghdad after the French threw him out of Damascus – and his
      brother Abdullah became the first king of Jordan, the father of King
      Hussein and the grandfather of the present-day Jordanian monarch, King
      Abdullah II.

      For almost a thousand years, Baghdad was the cultural capital of the
      Arab world, the most literate population in the Middle East. Genghis
      Khan's grandson burnt the city in the 13th century and, so it was
      said, the Tigris river ran black with the ink of books. Yesterday, the
      black ashes of thousands of ancient documents filled the skies of
      Iraq. Why?



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