Treasures still missing from Baghdad museum
Baghdad - The looting and destruction of the National Museum of Iraq in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq sparked a public outcry that resonated across the globe. The collection of artefacts and relics covering more than 5,000 years was desecrated, defacing the country’s cultural heritage and past.
The museum in Baghdad has since been rehabilitated and reopened to the public, even though a large part of its priceless collection has been lost. The reopening in February took place ahead of schedule in response to the destruction by the Islamic State (ISIS) of sculptures at the museum in Mosul, the northern Iraq city seized by the militant group more than a year ago.
Iraqi officials estimate that as many as 137,000 pieces, in addition to 15,000 registered artefacts, were looted from the museum and archaeological sites across the country.
“We have been able to recover 4,300 pieces in coordination with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They include 2,000 items carrying a registration number from the museum in addition to non-recorded artefacts which were illegally excavated from the sites,” said Qais Hassan Hossein, director-general of Iraq’s Ministry of Tourism and Archaeology.
“The process of recovering the pillaged pieces from (foreign) museums and international auction houses has been ongoing since 2003, especially in the US, France and Peru where most of the registered pieces have ended up,” Hossein said.
He explained that the Iraqi government has been following standard procedure to repatriate stolen heritage with the help of the Interpol. “We usually resort to traditional measures, using the intermediary of Iraqi embassies to stop the sale of tracked pieces in auction houses,” Hossein said. “But in some cases, the services of lawyers are hired and this is a complicated matter that costs the government a lot of money.”
For Haider al-Dahwi, an expert in social sciences and humanities, the looting of Iraq’s cultural heritage was a premeditated and systematic scheme aimed at erasing the country’s past.
“Iraq was subjected to the ugliest operation of wiping out its history and culture, the world’s most ancient. Most Iraqi artefacts are being traded in international auction houses amid government apathy,” Dahwi said, claiming that Iraqi politicians were involved in smuggling priceless pieces out of the country.
He said the government was able to track down and recover only 1% of the missing pieces. Many treasures, including the Iraqi Jewish archive, are yet to be repatriated. Ancient manuscripts, belonging to Iraq’s Jews and their descendants, were taken from the country with huge amounts of documents from the Iraqi state’s secret archives by US authorities shortly after the invasion.
“America was involved directly in the destruction of Iraq’s history,” Dahwi charged, accusing Washington of “forging many of the pieces”, which it claims it has helped return to Iraq.
Hossein acknowledges the reception of certain fake pieces, saying: “Archaeology mafias have been trying to forge valuable items in order to be able to sell the originals abroad. Usually these items are easily detected and we have a special store in the museum where fakes are kept.” He said all items on display in the restored museum are original.
He said Iraq is seeking to repatriate the Jewish archive from the United States in line with an agreement reached in 2010 under which Washington pledged to return the manuscripts, which some believed may have been transferred to Israel. The items include a copy of the Torah known as the Iraqi Old Testament Scroll, which was stolen from a convent in Mosul. “Although the Americans have been delaying the repatriation of the Jewish manuscripts, we have assurances that they are preserved and kept in a safe place and were not delivered to Israel as alleged,” Hossein said.
Despite the chaotic situation and rampant plundering of Iraq’s cultural heritage, the restored museum still harbours unique items which have been recovered, including the Warka vase, which reflects Sumerian philosophy of life and death; the Warka Babylonian Girl stone head; and the Sumerian guitar, the most ancient musical instrument in the world.
Iraqi archaeologist and excavator Junaid Amer complained that, in addition to financial constraints, the ministerial department in charge of archaeological treasures suffers from lack of expert staff due to the flight of professionals from Iraq.
“Moreover, there is no real control over archaeological sites because many are located in remote areas where the government cannot afford to have them guarded around the clock,” Amer said, noting that Iraq has more than 12,000 archaeological sites and only 4,000 ill-equipped guards to protect them.
“This has definitely exposed the sites and facilitated their looting by archaeology thieves and smugglers,” he added.
Iraq’s cultural heritage is far from safe.
At a time the government is trying to recover as much as possible of the looted treasures, archaeological sites and artefacts are being systematically destroyed and robbed in areas under the control of ISIS, which found in the sale of the valuable items a lucrative business to finance its warfare.