Baghdad, Iraq – Entering the Iraq National Museum in the centre of the capital Baghdad feels like travelling thousands of years back in time.
Beyond the gates lives the legacy of Mesopotamia with its Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Akkadian civilisations.
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But while the sculptures are impressive, they’re just a small part of Iraq’s ancient heritage – one that has been devastated by years of destruction and looting.
It is an issue the Iraqi state has been working to correct.
The years following the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 saw large numbers of antiquities stolen, both from museums, such as the Iraq National Museum, but also because of illegal excavations at archeological sites throughout the country.
Items were also destroyed, particularly during the rise of ISIL (ISIS) after 2014.
Hakim al-Shammari, media director of the General Authority for Antiquities and Heritage at the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, says that efforts to recover stolen antiquities continue.
“We are working on returning these pieces to their original homeland in accordance with international agreements that emphasise the return of cultural property to its owners,” al-Shammari told Al Jazeera.
“Iraq has managed in recent years to recover about 17,000 artefacts from the United States, and 364 from Lebanon,” said al-Shammari, who estimates that the total number of looted antiquities is in the thousands. “Work is under way to recover antiquities in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Jordan, which are different and various.”
Most recently on March 30, the Iraqi presidency announced the return of nine stolen artefacts from the US, including seven seals dating back to the Babylonians, a piece of ivory in the shape of a human face, and a clay tablet from the Middle Babylonian era.
While the government’s success in returning some antiquities has been applauded, a lot of work remains, according to Haider Farhan, a philosophy of archeology professor at the University of Baghdad and an antiquities expert.
“The Iraqi government’s attempts to negotiate to recover stolen antiquities are … positive,” Farhan said. “But these attempts do not fully meet expectations … and what has been achieved is a partial success.”
“There are no official statistics of how many antiquities were stolen from the Iraqi Museum, and the numbers given are in fact inaccurate and incomplete when looking at the official inventory of the Iraqi Museum’s holdings,” Farhan added.
The Iraqi Foreign Ministry, which is responsible for the return of Iraqi antiquities from around the world, did not respond to questions sent by Al Jazeera. However, Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein has previously stated that 18,000 smuggled artefacts had been returned to Iraq, and expressed his hope that international cooperation and coordination would help return all stolen items.
The Baghdad office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) told Al Jazeera that it was working with the Iraqi government to recover more than 40,000 artefacts scattered and dispersed around the world, in addition to 30,000 pieces that had already been recovered between 2017 and 2022.
Other items are being kept in Iraqi embassies and antiquity loan centres around the world until suitable storage centres can be found in Iraq.
Lack of US protection
For many Iraqis, a lot of the blame for the loss of so many pieces of their country’s history lies with the US.
At the time of the invasion, US officials were reported to have been frustrated at the lack of willingness from the military generals to protect archeological sites, such as the Iraq National Museum.
Amer Abdul-Razzaq, an archaeological researcher, says the negligence was deliberate.
“American tanks surrounded the Iraqi Museum during the occupation and chaos, but they did not move a finger in the face of the mafias and antiquities thieves who attacked the museum and stole about 14,000 valuable pieces from it,” Abdul-Razzaq, who previously served as the director of antiquities in the Iraqi province of Dhi Qar, said.
“Although the US army was later committed to protecting Iraqi antiquities due to pressure from Iraqi archaeological institutions, it initially took archaeological sites as bases and camps, including in the city of Ur in Dhi Qar province, and they placed their heavy military equipment in the Ziggurat of Ur,” Abdul-Razzaq said, referring to the ancient Sumerian city-state and its famous monument.
“The American army turned the ancient city of Babylon into a military base, to the extent that they made earthen mounds of soil, and some of it was made from parts of the clay cuneiform figure,” Abdul-Razzaq added. “It is the same with the city of Nimrud in Mosul and other archaeological sites across the country.”
And while the US has already sent thousands of artefacts back to Iraq, Abdul-Razzaq believes it is still not enough.
“What was recovered is small. There are pieces still sold in auctions in the US and Britain, and in other countries,” Abdul-Razzaq said. “We need greater diplomatic efforts and international cooperation.”