The world famous institution once exhibited some of the first things man ever made – with its oldest pieces dating back more than 11,000 years.
The National Museum was home to painted polychrome ceramics more than 8000 years old, to relief-decorated vases from Uruk, to golden treasures from Ur, Sumerian statues, Assyrian reliefs and figurines from Nimrud, Nineveh and Khorsabad.
But all that changed within the space of a few terrible days after US forces occupied the Iraqi capital last April. The home of 170,000 artefacts was looted and smashed.
While US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, joked that he did not think the museum had too many vases to steal, more than 15,000 registered objects were being stolen.
Of these thousands, about 30 artefacts in particular are internationally renowned, beyond value and irreplaceable.
US troops now guard the museum
Worse, the great store rooms were also raided, where thousands of uncatalogued antiques and relics were held.
There is no way of knowing how much was stolen, but it could be that 30,000 artefacts or more were stolen altogether – there is no way anyone can be sure.
Minister of Culture Mufid al-Jazairi told Aljazeera.net that about 2000 objects have been recovered so far.
“We have not lost hope. Two or three objects are turning up each day. Just yesterday a bag packed with 3000 year old pottery wrapped in newspapers was thrown over the museum’s three metre high security wall – and they didn’t break.”
Unwrapping some tissue paper, the minister showed me the day’s find – an ancient seal yet to be dated.
“More encouraging is that there is plenty of evidence to suggest the vast majority of stolen objects have still not left the country – and even some of the artefacts that have been smuggled out have already been recovered.”
Al-Jazairi said Jordanian and Kuwaiti authorities had already contacted his ministry with news of several seizures. There had also been one find as far away as Italy.
Al-Jazairi: About 2000 relics
“Iraq is receiving a lot of international cooperation, it is going to be extremely difficult for people to buy and sell Iraq’s antiquities – even on the black market.”
It is for this reason that much contemporary art, such as paintings by Rafi al-Nasiri, have come back relatively quickly.
But in reality, less than 10% of what was stolen has been recovered and rumours are rife in Baghdad about just who is responsible.
Questioning the minister about allegations that some US troops had encouraged looters to take some kind of wild revenge on the Baathist government, al-Jazairi said an ongoing investigation into just what happened would be completed within months.
“As US occupation forces entered the museum, one tank and two soldiers guarded the entrance and not a single person entered the complex. For some reason, and we don’t know why, the tank and soldiers left after a couple of hours. Now some people say that this was the American way of opening the museum up and encouraging the thefts.”
“We have not lost hope. Two or three objects are turning up each day”
However, the matter is not so straightforward. Some things that were stolen were hidden so well, he said, that it required an inside knowledge of the museum and widens the circle of suspicion as to who was responsible.
The museum will not be opened until December 2004, at the earliest, for a number of reasons.
Iraq’s director general of antiquities Jabir Ibrahim said he was still hopeful that more of the 30 most valuable objects would be found.
“And we need to upgrade security drastically – which was never really an issue before – also the lighting of exhibitions is just terrible at the moment – as is air conditioning, humidity etc. These are all problems that need to be dealt with.”
“But if everything goes as well as we hope, and we get serious help from some experienced international museums, we should be open by December 2004.”
One last unpleasant surprise may await Iraqis who queue up to see the country’s huge cultural heritage – there are plans to charge an entrance fee.