Lady of Uruk
Iraq, 3500-3000 BC

The museum is empty, unguarded.

From nearby the sounds of gunfire and rockets, the rumble of rolling tanks, explosions that shudder the earth. It’s early afternoon and over a hundred degrees outside.

The first face ever carved into stone rests in a glass case in the main gallery, her dark vacant eyes looking out over the collection: cylinder seals of lapis and limestone, carnelian beads, alabaster figurines, clay tablets containing the first laws and first stories. These are the traces of the first humans to stop wandering and start building cities with streets and schools. Across the hall is the skeleton of an early king. He lies curved on his side in broken fetal position, bones missing, jeweled bracelets where wrists should be, a crushed gold crown still pressed against the skull. Giant winged bulls with human heads stand over him. Someone has pushed sandbags around their hoofs and haunches, and strapped foam rubber mattresses across their bearded faces.

More explosions, further away, then the sound of rushed footsteps. Men are hurrying down the shaded entryway, pushing into the galleries. Some of them know exactly what they’re after. Three of them smash the display glass that covers the king, reach in and grab the jeweled bracelets. They peel away the frail crown. The woman’s stone face is ripped from its case and disappears into a bundle of newspapers. Others try for bigger prizes: two men put a mattress at the foot of a statue and chip away at the pedestal, dragging off the sculpture when it falls.

Some have no skill at their work. After a few poorly-aimed chisel blows one man gives up toppling a statue and starts smashing indiscriminately, chipping off the nose and ears, breaking shoulders and legs.  His sledgehammer beheads a bearded priest: another man’s kick sends the head rolling down the stairs, smashing the nose and the chin.

Others break down the doors to the offices and carry off phones and computers. More shattered statues and glass cases. A stone lion loses its wings. Anything gold or silver, anything that looks expensive or just easy to carry is grabbed by hurried hands. People run off with vases they don’t understand. An acrid smell fills the air: some of the foam mattresses have caught fire, shriveling and falling in sooty lumps. Soon the chaos begins to exhaust itself. Scraps of paper from the offices—memoranda, catalog entries, antique calligraphic texts—litter the wide stone floors.

By nightfall the galleries are silent again. The ground still shakes. Smoke hides the stars. There’s no power, and the darkness is absolute. Stray dogs sniff their way through the debris, the shattered glass and fallen pedestals, lifting hind legs.