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Iraqi National Museum Briefly Reopens - 2003-07-03

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The Iraqi national museum has reopened for one day. The museum houses priceless Mesopotamian antiquities, and it was looted in the days of chaos after the fall of Saddam Hussein. For the first time in months, visitors mill around a gallery in the Iraqi National Museum, viewing ancient Assyrian sculptures. About 30 people at a time are allowed into a smaller room to see a collection of priceless gold jewelry known as the Treasure of Nimrud.

It is only a symbolic opening, and the visitors are mainly journalists and diplomats. The museum's research director, Donny George, says he does not believe the galleries will open to the public for another year or two. But after the devastation of seeing the irreplaceable collections looted, Mr. George said he is happy to still have treasures to display.

"If I may speak personally, I feel the wound that I had in my heart, today [it] starts healing," he said.

Original reports that the museum's entire collection had been stolen turned out to be wrong. Looters took 42 pieces from the display galleries, and thousands more from the museum's storerooms. But most of the most valuable collections are still intact.

The looters missed the Treasure of Nimrud, because the pieces were stored in a vault deep beneath the Iraqi Central Bank, not in the museum.

Mr. George said some of the looters knew exactly what they were looking for, and exactly where to find it - even in the storerooms.

'The looters were prepared to get into the museum," he said. "They had plans; we found them. They had brought with them glasscutters. They had the knowledge of antiquities, and one of the most important things, we found keys brought by the looters themselves."

After the museum was looted, the U.S. military faced a barrage of criticism for failing to protect it. Coalition forces are trying to make up for that by recovering as many of the stolen pieces as possible.

U.S. Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos says they have recovered 10 of the pieces from the main gallery and about 3,000 items stolen from the storerooms. He says about half of those have been seized in raids, and half have been returned voluntarily, through work with community and religious leaders.

"We have gone to neighborhoods; we have gone to marketplaces; and we have let everyone know, near and far, that people can return these items, without any fear of retribution or prosecution," said Colonel Bogdanos. "And we appeal to their sense of culture, their history and heritage. And that has been overwhelmingly successful. Many of these pieces have simply walked up to the gate, in plastic bags, in the trunks of cars."

A group of visiting archaeologists, however, warns that pillaging is still going on. They say the military has so far not been able to adequately guard archaeological sites in the Iraqi countryside, where countless more artifacts are still buried underground.

Professor Elizabeth Stone of the State University of New York at Stony Brook says those sites are still being looted, and the world may never know what treasures and knowledge of ancient civilizations have been lost forever.

Professor Stone says the priceless artifacts, both from the museum and from unexcavated sites, will probably end up being sold illegally on the international art market.

"I think one of the things you have to understand about this looting is, it is not driven by Iraqis," added Professor Stone. "It is driven by rich Americans, Europeans, Japanese, Israelis, those are the primary purchase areas, who just want to have these things, and they do not care what is going on."

The archaeologists say looters at the excavation sites are highly organized, showing up by the hundreds with heavy machinery and lots of weapons.

Professor Stone has shown some of the sites to the Marines, but she says they will be very difficult to guard, because they are so remote and hard to get to.

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