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historical documents, including the old royal archives of Iraq were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 was 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 flames 100 feet

high were 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?