First Published: 2004-03-25

 
Reopening of Iraq's National Museum in a year
 

Iraqi culture minister says Iraqis must see National Museum's treasures first before they are sent abroad.

 

Middle East Online

By Patrick Kamenka - BAGHDAD

The landmark arch of Iraq's national museum in Baghdad

Iraqi culture minister Mufid al-Jazairi says Iraqis should first have a chance to view the archeological treasures held by a reopened National Museum before they are sent abroad.

"The reopening of the museum will take place within a year to show Iraqis the treasures of Nimrod, which the people have never seen because Saddam Hussein hid them," Jazairi said.

The treasures of the ancient city of Nimrod are among the world's finest collections.

After their discovery at the end of the 1980s the treasures, an exceptional collection of 650 Assyrian jewels dating back to the 8th and 9th century BC, were hidden in a central bank vault for protection.

It was a move that saved them from being stolen after looters went on the rampage in the days after Saddam was removed by US-led forces on April 9 last year.

"We could then see them exhibited abroad, Paris could possibly be the first city for such an exhibition," the minister said.

Mercilessly ransacked, the museum remains shut, its exhibition rooms barren, glass cabinets smashed, antiquities defaced and the floor thick with dust.

Jazairi said it was far too early to reopen the museum as a lot of renovation work is needed, particularly on its security system. "The Italians and the Japanese are helping a lot with that," he said.

With insurgents launching daily attacks on troops, police and civilians, the authorities fear the museum would make a tempting target were it open.

"Around 15,000 pieces were stolen from this museum, 4,000 of them have been returned from abroad," he said, looking back at the pillaging in April 2003.

"Five hundred were seized in France, 250 in Switzerland, 700 in Jordan, and around 1,000 in the United States," he said, but was unable to give a better breakdown of the figures.

"Stolen pieces are returned everyday and sometimes we'll get 600 in one hit," he said, adding that Iraqis from all walks of life are trying to help find the missing works.

And he called on "all countries to help Iraq" in this endeavour and thanked the United Nations and in particular UNESCO for their work.

During Saddam's rule, no exhaustive list was made of the museum's real stock of wealth, making it difficult to calculate what was lost.

Officials from the time are also accused of stealing an Assyrian sculpture. "The statue was so big they would have had to cut it into to pieces to take it away," said the minister.

Arshad Yassin, Saddam's brother-in-law and bodyguard, was allegedly the regime's specialist in trafficking in antiquities.

The former regime made "culture its enemy," Jazairi said.

"The culture ministry became the anti-culture ministry," he said, as Iraqis were deprived of all culture that "did not serve to glorify the regime."

"Before, the image of culture in our region was: Cairo writes, Beirut publishes and Baghdad reads. Since then books have been abandoned," he lamented.

Today it is difficult to "fill the cultural vacuum left by two decades of Saddam, wars, embargoes and looting," he said.

The looting of the museum, which was not protected by the US-led forces that had invaded the country, raised an uproar internationally and particularly in the United States.

While culture is not a priority now war-torn Iraq, the minister hopes that by working with Iraqi intellectuals new life can be injected into the arts and that exhibitions can soon be held around the country.

 

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