BAGHDAD -- The empty galleries are covered with dust. Broken statues are still lying on the floor and damaged showcases still bear witness to the vandalism that took place here. In fact, if it weren't for minor, hardly visible repair work, a visitor could not tell that over a year has gone by since the Iraq National Museum in Baghdad was looted. Just a few years ago, this museum was considered to be among the biggest and most important in the world. Sumerian jewelry, Babylonian steles, Assyrians reliefs, Abbasid walls covered with calligraphy and many other beautiful objects used to be on display here, in 32 galleries, testifying for 55 thousand years of history and civilization that existed in Iraq. From villages to cities and entire empires, from the cuneiform alphabet to mathematical theories ... it was all on display here: the story of the evolution of mankind. Then came the war and with it the horrifying looting of this bastion of history. Ever since that black day in April 2003, things have not been the same behind the sealed doors of this building.
The events of this day have left a deep scar in the hearts and minds of the employees of the museum. "I walked on broken pottery in the storage rooms. The sound of it crushing under my feet still haunts me at night. These were objects that I had put aside to protect from the bombs. They were not spared," says Jinane, an archaeologist working on the inventory.
Today, there is a two-fold challenge in bringing back the museum to its former glory. Recovering the stolen artifacts is as important as motivating and re-educating the staff. The new director of the museum, Donny Georges has a difficult task at hand. "On the one hand we have to work on the recovery of the artifacts, and on the other we have to upgrade the museum to international standards" he says. "This is our battle for the Iraqi heritage and our duty toward this nation."
This has proven to be an ambitious mission. Iraqi archaeologists and curators haven't been in touch with the rest of the world for the last 20 years. They are not aware of any advances made in the field and the number of those who know how to use a computer is very limited. "If there ever was a positive aspect to looting of the Baghdad museum, then it would be the sudden care and attention which the international community has shown us," says Georges while walking through the empty galleries. "After the looting, our colleagues from abroad and some governments have offered to help us. Some of them are organizing training sessions for our young scholars, and others are paying for equipment needed for the laboratory and the offices. At the beginning of this year, more than 20 of our employees spent over three weeks in the United States. During that period they visited the big museums and were invited to participate in workshops held by museographers and curators. Leaving Iraq for a few weeks made these young people realize what the world looks like and gave them hope for the future."
It doesn't stop here. The French government sent 15 curators and museum employees on a five-month journey to different universities and museums in France. German institutes and universities are offering scholarships for some Iraqi archaeologists, and the Japanese government has taken care of training architects working on the restoration of archaeological monuments. The British Museum has coached a number of directors in the restoration labs.
The international community's contribution to a speedy recovery of the Baghdad museum is not limited to technical aid only. It includes the refurbishing of the entire site. The U.S. Congress donated $1 million to upgrade office equipment, create a new security system for the museum and build new storage rooms. Various Italian institutes have sent Baghdad museum state-of-the-art equipment needed for a restoration labs.
At the same time, efforts are being made to recover some of the looted artifacts. "The most recent inventory has shown that 15,000 objects were stolen from the storage rooms of the museum. It's a great loss for the museum. We are working on this issue in Iraq and abroad in collaboration with foreign customs departments. So far, 2,000 objects have been confiscated in Jordan and the United States. Here in Baghdad, we have recovered 3,000 artifacts, some of them were brought to us by ordinary citizens, others by the police," says Georges.
On one hand, the looting of the Baghdad museum has magnified the priceless value of many of its artifacts, it also points to the existence of organized traffic in antiquities, both on the local and international market. On the other hand, the recovery of some of these objects shows how devoted some Iraqis are to their heritage. Take Suleiman Aswad, an elder jeweler and owner of a small shop in Baghdad's Kazimieh district. Shocked by the looting of the museum, he decided to help recover some of the stolen objects. "A young girl came to my shop offering to sell me cylinder seals. I bought them without questioning her. I paid this gang over $1300 to return to the museum 92 cylinder seals."
Aswad had tears in his eyes as he was telling his story. He went on at length explaining how difficult it was for him to hear about what had happened. "The looting of our own heritage by our compatriots is like a son stealing from his father ... We can rebuild Iraq and never forget our dead but we can never bring back our history once it's taken from us."
Aswad is not the only Iraqi with a soft spot for his heritage. Ibrahim and Imad, Baghdadi citizens, have their own story to tell. As they were watching the looters entering the museum building, they joined them. Once inside, as they realized what was going on, they picked up several big artifacts from the ground and took them to their houses. This is where they kept them for weeks before returning them to the museum. Ibrahim saved the statue of King Shelmanazar III and more than 50 other objects. Imad snatched the Warka vase, considered to be among the most precious acquisitions of the museum.
"I did not know what it was. I saw a broken object on the floor, picked it up, and with the help of my uncle, packed it into a metal box and then tried to push it outside the building. The vase was so heavy that it felt like ages before we saw the exit door," Imad said. "We kept the vase in the box in my bedroom for a few weeks, waiting for order to return it to the museum. When we brought it back, I realized the importance of this artifact. The archaeologists were surrounding me, crying and shaking my hand."
The American forces in Baghdad, together with the Iraqi police have had their own experience in returning some objects to the museum. However, here, there was a lesson to be learned. An undercover agent, Riad Hussein, was assigned this mission for a few months. His mission turned out to be very successful. He returned four artifacts to the museum from a list of 32 most- wanted objects. "I have unearthed the Warka Lady in a farm in a suburb of Baghdad and discovered the Bassitki statue from under animal excrements. I have risked my life for the recovery of the statue of Ea and the Braiser of Ninveh - and in return, all I received was a letter of gratitude. My superiors were decorated with silver medals. Good for them, it wasn't good enough for me," he sneered. Hussein was hoping to receive a financial reward for each object he brought back. But that was not negotiable with his employers. After all, artifacts don't appear on the "most-wanted" lists.
In the long run, Hussein's disappointment may be more harmful to Iraq's archaeology than it appears. By now, he knows the looted artifacts and what they are worth. He knows the market and the dealers. "We are aware of this situation but we do not have any money to pay the likes of Hussein or anyone else who returns artifacts" says Georges. "We are hoping that the Iraqis who hold some of these objects will listen to their conscience and bring them back to the museum. I know it's a utopia but everything is possible and we can only hope that the best will happen, even in a war."
In this situation, hope is the only thing that people still have.
By Joanne Farchakh
Special to The Daily Star, Lebanon