It had stood forlorn since 2003, looted, gutted and doors bolted shut, a testament to Iraq’s slide into the anarchy of the post-invasion years. But on Monday, Iraq took another step toward shaking off the memories of its plundered past when its leaders reopened the National Museum in Baghdad and tentatively reclaimed the site as one of the Middle East’s most important cultural repositories.
The National Musxeum of Iraq is now again home to around 5,500 artifacts pilfered since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 and recovered in the five years since through a mix of painstaking work and rising numbers of guilty consciences.
Museum directors and the central government believe the number of returned relics is enough to risk throwing open the doors to the public, even amid a still-pulsing insurgency.
However, they estimate that around 15,000 more priceless items are still being traded throughout the art underworld, or in private collections across Europe and the US. All are thought to be critical contributions to an industry third only in value to drug-running and arms-smuggling.
“We want to make our museum a place which will be at the forefront of international museums,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said as he presided over the opening, flanked by the Assyrian water god, Aya, and giant slabs of carved, ancient rock spanning all eras of Mesopotamia, including Babylonian, Sumerian and Islamic.
“There’s a long road ahead of us. There are a lot of discoveries still being made at archeological sites,” he said, referring to the “dark age that Iraq passed through.”
Less than a third of Iraq’s ancient treasures have so far been recovered, despite the collective efforts of the art world across six continents.
The fragile security gains have left some Iraqis feeling that the museum’s reinauguration is a half measure being tailored to boost confidence in the government.
But to others in Baghdad, the symbolism could help accelerate a return to normality creeping into most other areas of society. Since the start of the year, Iraqis have been returning in droves to other public sites, book markets, coffee shops — even football stadiums and riverside parks.
“If they want to reopen this museum, then as Iraqis we should all go to see it,” said a shopkeeper, Omar al-Najafi, as he watched Maliki’s motorcade sweep by to the reopening.
Behind him were the museum walkways, which were regularly targeted by gunmen, particularly those belonging to al-Qaeda, who were determined to eradicate icons of Iraq’s ancient past and install an Islamic caliphate that disowned the pre-Islamic period. Several museum workers were shot dead as they walked between buildings.
“Even under Saddam, this was one of Iraq’s most important sites,” Najafi said. “If it was considered so important back then, it should restored to its ancient glory now.”