NationalGeographic.com [an error occurred while processing this directive]


 

  Field Notes From
Iraq's Treasures



<< Back to Feature Page



Iraq's Treasures On AssignmentArrows

View Field Notes
From Photographer

Randy Olson



Iraq's Treasures On Assignment

View Field Notes
From Author

Andrew Lawler



Iraq's Treasures On Assignment

View Field Notes
From Photographer

Steve McCurry



In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Steve McCurry (top, center) and Mark Altaweel



 

Iraq's Treasures

Field Notes From Photographer
Randy Olson
Best Worst Quirkiest

    When we arrived at Nimrud, the Assyrian city that holds the finest ancient gold ever found, the 101st Airborne was already there. Museum officials accompanied us into locked areas containing huge, beautiful reliefs of Assyrian kings. When we came out, some of the soldiers asked if we'd seen the "big pictures of the bearded guys." They had no idea of the site's importance and, in general, weren't happy with their peacekeeping roles. 
    Before coming to the museum, these soldiers were surrounded by Apache helicopters flying overhead and lobbing missiles into Iraqi bunkers. Now they were the equivalent of antiquity rent-a-cops. Since they had no idea of the value of the place they were protecting, they felt useless. So I asked Tony Wilkinson, an archaeologist on the team, to give them a brief history lesson. That helped cheer them up and gave them more pride in their duty. But allowing each of them two minutes on my satellite phone really boosted their spirits. I remember teasing one soldier when he wiped away a tear after talking to his mom. Some of them hadn't talked to their families in months.



    The worst part of the two-week trip was simply driving into Baghdad from Jordan. A local sheik decided it was a good idea to hijack journalists to improve his regional economy. So fully armed thieves were using fast cars to run travelers off the road and leave them naked in the desert.
    Journalists were perfect targets because we have expensive equipment and carry funds to get our work accomplished. We had to make sure we had four cars traveling at high speed in a phalanx that spread across both lanes so we couldn't be run off the road.
    As we approached the fiefdom outside Baghdad, we could feel the drivers tense up and accelerate. The drive from Amman, Jordan, to Baghdad took about seven hours, but the dangerous area was only 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the city. Considering that our drivers were going about 90 to 100 miles an hour (140 to 160 kilometers an hour), we experienced less than an hour of tension. The drivers seemed in control and, with four cars we were OK.  No incidents. But we'd heard stories of bandits hitting three-vehicle caravans. It was just an intense situation.



    The Iraqi expedition team was a large group, including some of the world's premier archaeologists and a National Geographic Television crew that was doing amazing things (When Baghdad Central Bank flooded they bought pumps to get the water out of the vault, so that the gold of Nimrud could be recovered.).
    As we headed into this lawless place, some members of our group were putting huge multicolored National Geographic flags on our oversize, white SUVs. The war was officially over, and most of the news convoys were headed out of the country. But as we charged in and the others charged out, I couldn't get the National Geographic theme song out of my head.





© 2003 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

National Geographic Magazine Home Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe