Saturday, February 15, 2014


A decade on from the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and whipped up a tsunami of theft in Baghdad, Iraq's National Museum is preparing to display its treasures of Mesopotamian culture - even if thousands are missing.
"The museum is now displaying some of the stolen antiquities that were recovered and restored. From a historical perspective and in terms of restoration, it's a very good thing, and they're ready to be presented," Shaimaa Abdel Qader, a tour guide with the museum, told Reuters on a recent visit.

The museum is open to visitors who get special permits - mostly students, officials and foreign dignitaries - but could admit the general public as early as February or March, depending on construction and preparation efforts, she said. The plundering of the museum, whose collection comprises artifacts from over 5,000 years of Mesopotamian history, was one of the most sensational episodes in the immediate aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Halls and display cases were stripped of priceless sculptures, amulets, coins and cylinder seals.

Today, only seven of the museum's 23 wings are open. Some sections smell of mildew and are only dimly lit by old fluorescent lights. Much of the signage is limited to printed paper replete with misspellings and mounted in plastic holders. Undeterred, employees said the museum was adding an entrance hall, installing electronic screens and refurbishing damaged relics.

The museum boasts an impressive array of statues, mosaics and bas reliefs of empires from the Sumerians to the Ottomans. Some of the world's first cities, irrigation systems, legal codes and forms of writing were developed in what is now Iraq, earning it the name "the cradle of civilization". The evidence of the past glory of empires such as the Babylonian and Assyrian contrasts with the reality of modern Baghdad, with its faded and crumbling concrete buildings and streets choked with traffic and checkpoints.

The museum is about as old as modern Iraq. It was founded in 1923 by King Faisal I, scion of a prominent family from what is now Saudi Arabia and chosen by British colonial rulers to fuse three disparate Ottoman provinces into a new country.

Overall, about 15,000 pieces were stolen from the museum during the invasion. Some 8,000 to 9,000 of those relics have been recovered, including the Sumerian-era Lady of Warka stone mask, Abdel Qader said. The Assyrian hall features statues of colossal winged bulls with human heads that once flanked the gates of the ancient capital Khorsobad and extensive bas reliefs of kings, demons and eunuch courtiers. Many of these were simply too big to steal.

The plundering of Iraq's antiquities predates the U.S. invasion by decades and has continued since U.S. troops left. Low salaries meant guards were susceptible to bribery while poverty and the state's weak presence in rural areas made looting easier and more attractive - problems which increased under international sanctions in the 1990s. Antiquities still come back to Iraq in a trickle from countries in Europe, Asia and North America - although it is unclear how many will eventually return.


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