The past four years of war and political turmoil have threatened that invaluable heritage—both above and under the ground. Donny George Youkhana, who chaired the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities, has been placed in jeopardy as well. The 56-year-old archaeologist has been vilified as a Baathist sympathizer by American neoconservatives, criticized as pro-West by Sunnis, and viewed with suspicion by Shiites because of his Christian background. “I never knew if I would make it to work,” he says of his daily life in Baghdad since 2003. “Or if I would make it home.” In 2006 he left Iraq, joining the ranks of more than 2 million Iraqis who have fled since 2003. Last November he accepted a teaching position at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He is one of only a few hundred Iraqi refugees who have been admitted to the United States.
Donny George, as he is known in the States, started his career in archaeology as a storeroom assistant at Iraq’s National Museum, an institution that houses not only most of the artifacts excavated in Iraq during the past 150 years but also a vast store of knowledge on one of the first centers of civilization. Located in the center of Baghdad just off Haifa Street—now one of the most dangerous spots on the planet—the museum was founded in the 1920s by Gertrude Bell, an extraordinary British historian who helped draw Iraq’s borders, choose its first king, and negotiate a peace among Mesopotamia’s many clashing tribes.
Over the past three decades, George spent much of his time working on excavations in the field. Before the war, I accompanied him, along with some foreign archaeologists, to a site deep in the flat desert of southern Mesopotamia, where he was directing a dig at a buried 5,000-year-old Sumerian city. He talked of attending the weddings and funerals of the local tribe in order to win their trust and support in protecting the site. But when we arrived, he slung a rifle over his shoulder. During those hard years of economic sanctions, looters were already a danger.
George’s foreign colleagues judged him among the best and brightest of Iraqi archaeologists. But what made him a virtual celebrity was his role in the aftermath of the April 2003 looting of the museum. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the melee with the memorable phrase “Stuff happens.” While other antiquity officials avoided the media, George welcomed television cameras and print reporters to the museum grounds. His criticism of the U.S. failure to intervene helped turn the shocking event into a symbol of an invasion gone awry, and he traveled the world seeking financial and moral support for his battered institution. Although it turned out that most of the museum’s priceless artifacts were safe, thousands of pieces are still missing—a significant loss for any museum—and the search for them continues. Over time, George’s diplomacy won the trust of the Americans in the Green Zone and also of the emerging Iraqi authorities: In 2004, he was put in charge of the Iraq Museum as well as the country’s regional museums.
Meanwhile, the political tide in the capital began to turn. In 2006, a new Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, staffed largely by members of the party led by fundamentalist Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, was set up to oversee the organization. George says the combination of professional frustration and a threat to his son’s life made him take his family first to Syria, then to America. “I never wanted to leave the board—that was my life,” he told me as we sat in the living room of his family’s modest new home, just a few miles from the Stony Brook campus, where he is teaching Mesopotamian history and archaeology. On the mantel, lit by small tea candles, stood an image of Jesus and Mary.
With regard to the care of antiquities, how do you compare the Saddam era with the way things are today?
Saddam wanted projects to bolster his image, to show that he was a patron of history and antiquities, as were the ancient leaders of Iraq. Now, with the interference of new people who are illiterate about cultural heritage, everything is much more problematic.
Did you ever meet Saddam?
One time, when I was field director at Babylon. He arrived by car on September 21, 1987, stayed for two hours, and left by helicopter. We walked through the museum there, and he noticed an ancient inscription by King Nebuchadnezzar translated into Arabic and English. It mentioned that the king had been sent by the gods to serve and to lead the black-headed people. For some reason, Saddam told me the translation must be changed. I said, “No, this is a scientific translation, and we can’t change it.” He didn’t say anything, but later a bodyguard grabbed me by the arm and asked how I could say no to the leader. Then he said, “Don’t worry, you are safe.”
The bricks in the Babylon reconstruction are stamped with Saddam’s name. Whose idea was that?
This was his order, that we commemorate the reconstruction the same way that it was done in ancient Iraq, by some device such as stone monuments. The next day the written order came, and we put together a committee that decided that we stamp each brick with his name, and he approved that.