The National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad reopened a few weeks ago – prematurely, say critics. Inadequate security systems jeopardise the legacy of Mesopotamia and Babylonia, reports Birgit Svensson from Baghdad
Not until the black motorcade of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki arrived in the inner courtyard of the museum it was clear to all present that there was no turning back. Up to then, no one knew for sure whether the National Museum of Iraq would actually be reopened. Months of disputes between the ministries of tourism and culture seemed to have come to an end. At least for a day.
Music played and women in traditional costume lent the event a touch of normality. Drinks and biscuits were served in the courtyard. The prime minister was evidently pleased with the show, wanting to demonstrate with the ceremony that Baghdad had taking another step forward.
Built in 1966 by a German architect, the museum had been closed for over six years. The Iraqis evidently foresaw the pending invasion of American and British troops, because several months before the capture of Baghdad on 9 April 2003, the exhibits were already closed and – something that would only be discovered later – the most important treasures hidden away in a vault beneath the Central Bank.
The legacy of Mesopotamia and Babylonia in danger
When plunderers stormed the building and laid waste in particular to the administrative offices, there were rumours at times that 75,000 art objects had been looted.
The British Guardian even spoke of 270,000 individual pieces being lost. Other newspapers put the number at 170,000. Iraq's National Museum was at the focus of international concern. Archaeologists and historians the world over spoke of an irreparable catastrophe.
The legacy of Mesopotamia and Babylonia seemed to have been lost for all time. As it turns out, however, things are not quite as bad as they at first seemed. When the flooded tunnel under the Central Bank was drained again, several art objects emerged, amongst them the famous treasures of Nimrud.
US administrator Paul Bremer then asked that the museum be opened for a few hours so that the media, a few selected visitors and he himself could appraise the artefacts that had been recovered. The public was not admitted, though.
In the meantime, Amira Edan has been able to determine exactly how many art objects were actually stolen. The director of the Iraq Museum has put together a catalogue, which is now available to UNESCO and other international institutions.
According to the catalogue, 15,000 objects were looted from the museum, and 6,000 have been returned to date. A room on the museum's upper storey shows the recovered coins, oil lamps, reliefs, clay tablets, scrolls and even huge water vessels from Babylonian times.
Pieces were sent back to the museum from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Italy, the USA and Peru. It took a long time before customs officials at the borders were instructed to look for illegal imports of objects that might be part of Iraq's cultural heritage.
Nevertheless, Ms. Edan still receives phone calls almost daily offering items for sale that were once owned by the museum. "The art-theft and antiquities mafia has spun a tight web", the resolute director lamented to Qantara.de.
On a tour through the museum, whose rooms display the various epochs in the 8,000 years of Iraq's history, it is soon evident that by far not all of the art objects are on view. Only a few display cases are in place and filled with exhibits. Many of the pieces are replicas rather than originals. In some places, thematic overviews and detailed descriptions are missing.
Of the renowned treasures of Nimrud, only photos are on display. In 1989 Iraqi explorer Said Muzahim discovered the treasures in the remains of the capital of the Assyrian Empire. The find was just as spectacular as the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt. Muzahim found three graves packed full of gold – enough to be measured not in ounces, but in kilograms.
The 1,400 or so pieces of jewellery are regarded as the most splendid ever produced in the Middle East. Now the artefacts are in safekeeping in a vault at the Central Bank. The only items on display from Nimrud are oversize statues of Assyrian rulers that survived the war and lootings intact.
A long road back to normality
The conflict between the ministers of culture and tourism has produced a peculiar compromise. The latter has pressed for a long time for the reopening of the prestigious museum, but for the other, the security issue was of paramount importance.
As neither alarm systems nor any other specific security measures are in place to protect the valuable objects from theft, it would be better to wait, cautioned the Ministry of Culture. Surveillance cameras and museum guards are by no means enough, they warned. Besides, this kind of public building is still a potential target for bombing attacks.
Director Amira Edan would also have preferred to wait until she is able to display more pieces, suitable building systems have been purchased and installed, and the artefacts have been completely restored and properly prepared. "Not even the air conditioning is working", said the 46-year-old Iraqi, pointing to the idle units on the wall. In the end, however, she was forced to bow to the demands of the Prime Minister.
The museum reopened a few weeks ago, but only for registered visitor groups. It will take some time before a daily stream of visitors flocks to the museum again during regular opening hours. Baghdad still has a long road to travel back to normality.
© Qantara.de 2009
Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor