As looters rampaged through the city last week, they broke into its archaeological museum and hauled away hundreds of one-of-a-kind artifacts, including reliefs and clay cuneiform tablets from the ancient Assyrian cities of Nineveh and Nimrud, the great centers of Mesopotamia, which were at their most powerful about 850 B.C. Some of the cuneiform tablets had not been deciphered.
Although most Westerners probably never heard of Mosul before the war, the city is famous among archaeologists as the center of a region peppered with important digging sites. Successive human cultures have inhabited this region for 10,000 years.
Mosul has some of the oldest churches in the world, and the museum was known for its artifacts from the time of Sennacherib, an Assyrian ruler from the seventh century B.C. Now, the work of generations of scholars may have vanished.
Manhal Jabr, director of antiquities and heritage for the Nineveh Governate, said yesterday that when he walked into the ransacked Mosul Museum on Saturday, he was devastated. "I lost my heart," he said. "Really, I cried."
He held out his hand and showed a visitor the only thing the looters contributed to the collection, the brass shell of a Kalashnikov bullet, found on the basement floor.
The scale of the loss, he said, simply can't be calculated.
"I cannot tell," Jabr said, with a dazed smile. "Every piece, every shard was important to us."
Before the war, scholars were terrified that bombs and trenches would destroy artifacts buried in upper Mesopotamia, the fertile fields between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. What no one seemed to anticipate was the epidemic of looting that would follow the collapse of Baath Party power.
As the Iraqi army crumbled here last week, marauders twisted one of the gates protecting the museum entrance, smashed windows and slipped inside. Within 12 hours, they had taken almost everything of value, leaving behind piles of catalog cards, broken glass and ripped-up portraits of Hussein, Iraq's president.
The only things they didn't steal were objects too big and heavy to lift. A 6,000-year-old pottery oven the size of a small car squats in the foyer. Eight lion-clawed stone altars dating to 680 B.C. are lined up in the courtyard. And a 30-ton winged Assyrian bull with a human head broods in a gallery.
Some looters seemed to have little idea what treasures the museum contained. They pried safes open with crowbars or rifled desks, looking for cash. But others, Jabr said, understood what was valuable. "They knew what they wanted."
In the galleries, thieves ignored imitation statuary made of gypsum and carted away those carved from marble. In the basement library, they helped themselves to only the rarest books, maps and manuscripts, tossing aside the less-valuable scholarly volumes that make up the bulk of the collection. The theft of the rare books seemed to particularly upset the scholarly staff.
"This was the most important library in the humanities in Mosul," said a glum Abdullah Amin, an archaeologist who retired from the museum several years ago.
Fearing American bombs, curators packed up their most delicate pieces two months ago and shipped them to the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad for safety. About half the collection, they say, wound up in Iraq's capital.
"I didn't take the artifacts home," said Jabr, who has directed all archaeological digs in northern Iraq for the past 15 years. "I thought they would be safer at the office."
Coalition bombs spared Iraq's museums. Looters did not. They got to the Baghdad museum as well.
The staff of the Baghdad museum has said it put many valuable pieces in a secure storage site. Jabr said yesterday that he had not been able to reach his colleagues in Baghdad. But he hopes that at least some of the Mosul Museum's artifacts were saved.
He said he and the 50 museum staff members can only try to look ahead now.
"We will return to our work," Jabr said, though what that means isn't clear. Workers have precious little left to catalog, display and conserve.
Their biggest concern is that the looters will return. With so many guns floating around this city of 1 million, the museum's unarmed guards can't provide much protection. "There is no government here in Mosul now to help us," Jabr said.
The theft of artifacts is a familiar story here. Poachers began picking over archaeological sites about four years ago, Jabr said, when ordinary Iraqis found they could sell antiquities on the international black market.
He had hoped to discourage pilfering by setting up small museums throughout the region, including in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Perhaps then, he said, potential poachers would learn to respect their history. But he never got the chance.
Yesterday, with dust on his gray jacket, he sat wearily in the shade outside one of the museum's broken doors. He apologized. He has back problems, he said, as well as diabetes and high blood pressure. He was not feeling well.
He couldn't understand why people would ransack the museum, whether for greed, revenge against Hussein or anger at America.
"I am not a politician," he said. "I am an archaeologist. I am working in the fields, and I am working in the desert."