Heritage News Iraq

Decade of conflict takes its toll on Iraq

Looted items missing and museums still closed in Baghdad

US Marines head for Baghdad in 2003. Iraq’s heritage, like its people, suffered during and after regime change. Photo: Wally Santana/AP

It is ten years since, on 19 March 2003, the US-led coalition force launched its second invasion of Iraq—an event that has had a profound impact on the country’s archaeology and museums, as well as on its 34 million people. Major archaeological sites have been looted or left neglected and a generation has been denied access to museums, nearly all of which have been closed. At a time when Iraq is in desperate need of unity, its illustrious past is being forgotten.

The worst damage occurred as a result of anarchic conditions in Baghdad immediately after the invasion. The nation­al Iraq Museum, one of the most important museums in the Middle East, was looted between 10 and 12 April 2003, and initially there were chilling reports that its entire collection of 200,000 antiquities had been seized. Fortunately, the finest pieces had already been moved to a secret store, although the main storeroom was broken into.

An estimated 16,000 antiquities were stolen, around half of which have been recovered. Among the 8,000 or so items still missing are an important ivory plaque of a lioness and a collection of cylinder seals, with images of ancient life and myths.

No proper audit of the museum’s collection has yet been completed. Checking of the inventory was begun a few years after the looting, but work has been extremely slow and has so far covered only a small proportion of the 200,000 items.

One of the mysteries is what has happened to the missing antiquities. Relatively few appear to have come onto the market, so are they being hoarded by the looters? Others may have been sold quietly to collectors who turned a blind eye to their origin—most likely in the Gulf states, according to a European museum source.

The Iraq museum’s galleries were vandalised during the looting, but the superficial damage was cleared up relatively quickly. Four galleries were refurbished a few years later. The Italian government is now assisting with upgrading the entire museum, a task that could be completed next year. In the meantime, the museum remains closed to visitors (a few years ago, the four refurbished galleries were temporarily opened to VIPs). The museum closed at the start of the 1991 Gulf War and, apart from a brief period (2000-02), has remained shut ever since. Ambitious plans have just been announced for a “Babylonian-style” entrance to be built, but archae­ologists are keener on seeing the museum reopen than waiting for ambitious expansions.

Iraq’s second largest museum, in Mosul, suffered some looting during the invasion, although most of its collection had already been sent to Baghdad for safekeeping. A decade later, Mosul’s museum is still closed.

The situation is more encouraging in Basra, where a new museum is being set up in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. Funded by the Basra Provincial Council and foreign donors, the conversion will cost around $5m and should be completed next year.

Archaeological sites were looted during the chaos after the invasion. This was particularly bad between 2004 and 2005, with extensive damage in the south, in places such as Isin, Tell Jokha (ancient Umma) and Bismaya (ancient Adab). By 2006, however, the situation began to improve. This was because of the provision of more guards, better contacts between archaeologists and the local population, a gradually improving security situation and the drying-up of demand from collectors. The coalition military forces also inadvertently damaged sites, such as Babylon. This was particularly serious immediately after the invasion, but the camp at Babylon was closed at the end of 2004.

The challenges of rehabilitating Iraqi museums and sites have been made more difficult by political squabbling. There have been tensions between the Iraq Museum, the antiquities administration and the ministry of culture. Amira Edan has been the director of the Iraq museum since 2005. Above her is Bahaa Mayah, the acting head of the State Board of Antiquities, which has had its powers downgraded by the government in recent years. In control politically is the minister for tourism and antiquities, Liwaa Semeism, who has held the portfolio since 2010.

John Curtis, a keeper at the British Museum, has followed Iraq closely over the past decade. Last month, he told us: “It is disappointing that progress has been so slow. But we can look forward to next year’s opening of the Basra Museum and also, hopefully, the reopening of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad.”

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