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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Matthew Bogdanos ’80 returned to Bucknell to tell a remarkable tale: the story of his extraordinary efforts to recover antiquities stolen from the Iraq Museum, as documented in his recent book, Thieves of Baghdad: One Marine’s Passion to Recover the World’s Greatest Stolen Treasures.
In an Oct. 5 talk at the Elaine Langone Center Forum, the Marine colonel and Manhattan assistant district attorney told a tale of foreign intrigue that resembled a Hollywood script.
"This book is about the courage of people and the importance of history," Bogdanos began, asking the audience to put aside political opinion and focus on shared cultural heritage from the cradle of civilization.
Returns to active duty
Bogdanos, a New York native with graduate degrees in law, classics, and strategic studies, returned to active military service shortly after losing his lower Manhattan apartment in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He headed a multi-agency counterterrorism team against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, receiving a Bronze Star.
In March 2003, his unit was deployed to Iraq. Immediately following the April overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Iraq Museum was looted. Bogdanos recalled the moment he heard the news from a BBC journalist, who frantically alerted his unit that “the finest museum in the world” was being ransacked.
"Because of what I’d learned at Bucknell," said Bogdanos, a classics major, "I knew what she was talking about."
Shared cultural heritage
Bogdanos equated the Iraq Museum with the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the British Museum. "We know it as a museum that housed over 500,000 irreplaceable testaments to our shared cultural heritage. But that is not how the average Iraqi knew it," he said, noting that it had never been open to the general public. "The Iraqis reacted against the museum as they did against every other governmental building and palace that we came across."
The list of missing artifacts included the Sacred Vase of Warka, the world’s oldest carved ritual vessel; the Mask of Warka, believed to be the first depiction of a human face in stone; the Bassetki statue, thought to be the first example of the lost-wax method of copper casting; and the treasures of Nimrud and Ur.
"The Treasure of Nimrud makes the treasure of King Tut’s tomb look like it came from Wal-Mart," he said.
Bogdanos’ team entered the 11-acre museum compound and immediately established an amnesty program, allowing Iraqis to return stolen artifacts with no questions asked. To develop trust, the soldiers removed their helmets and spent many days playing backgammon with locals in the city’s teahouses. Their efforts paid off: in the first six months, more than 2,000 pieces were returned. Bogdanos’ team conducted raids to recover more missing treasures.
After taking questions from the audience, Bogdanos signed copies of his book, the cover of which depicts a missing plaque of carved ivory, gold, and lapis entitled “The Lioness Attacking a Nubian Boy."
"Until this piece and every single piece are recovered, we’re not done," said Bogdanos, who received a 2005 National Humanities Medal for his work. Of the 40 museum pieces he considers most valuable, 24 remain missing.
All book royalties benefit the Iraq Museum’s recovery efforts.
Posted Oct. 6, 2006