As armed conflict continues in Iraq, so do hopes that life will return to normal, so that Iraqis can safely resume their everyday activities: going to work, shopping for food, strolling along the Tigris, visiting art exhibits and museums. A group of Iraqi archaeologists and museum specialists have come to the United States, hoping to contribute to that peaceful future by reviving, and celebrating, their country's ancient history.
Iraq sits in the cradle of civilization and at the crossroad of cultures. Yet the record of this important history could disappear. Many ancient sites have been damaged or destroyed by years of war, neglect and vandalism. There is a chronic lack of funding for new archeological digs. With the fall of Baghdad last year, important antiquities disappeared from the Iraqi National Museum.
But museum official Muhammed Jaffar said estimates of the losses were greatly exaggerated, "Most of the stolen antiquities were restored," he said. "Other countries are keeping precious Iraqi antiquities and willing to give them back to the Iraqi museum, hopefully in the near future."
In preparation for that day, Mr. Jaffar is one of more than 20 young Iraqi archaeologists participating in a training program in the United States. Tareq Soubhi, of the Iraqi Department of Antiquities, says the group is anxious to put what they've learned into practice.
"During this program," he said, "we studied methods of preservation and conservation. Part of what we've learned will be immediately applied. Other aspects are going to benefit us in the future. This includes the most recent scientific techniques in excavation and antiquities documentation."
Museum official Muhammad Jaffar said he learned new techniques for preserving and archiving ancient cuneiform documents, his special field of interest. "This training program has greatly helped us," Mr. Jaffar said. "We are trained on the advanced methods of preserving and storing different kinds of antiquities."
During the five-week program, the Iraqi specialists have spent time at museums in Washington D.C., New York, Philadelphia and Santa Fe. David Liston, a program analyst at the Smithsonian here in Washington, helped teach classes on exhibit security.
"They enjoyed the training," he said. "We taught them that it was both a matter of having fun and a matter of learning. We took digital pictures every day. They enjoyed the variety of experiences here."
Mr. Liston believes that the learning during such programs goes both ways, on both personal and professional levels. "When you deal with people from other countries, when you deal on a person to person level, a lot of barriers break down," he added. "All of a sudden you start identifying with each other. Hesitation at the beginning, but all of a sudden there is a bonding. And my students taught me that this country's civilization and the Babylonian civilization are not well known. The Egyptian culture and civilization is well better known because the Iraqi and Babylonian culture have been closed for so long."
One goal of the training is to open that culture, not just for foreigners, but for Iraqis. David Liston feels he'd like to see the museums explore all eras of the country's history. "The museums that exist in Iraq for the most part serve to explain the old culture of the archaeological sites," Mr. Liston said, "and a few museums to explain the history up until maybe the 1800s. And indeed they'll come of age when they realize that even this recent history deserves recognition and acceptance because it's the only way to go on."
With this training program coming to an end, the visiting students say they feel even more hopeful about their country's future.
Jaffar: "I hope Iraq will restore its security and stability, which is a prerequisite for its economy to thrive. Then, people from all over the world will be encouraged to come and see the Iraqi civilization."
Soubhi: "I wish our colleagues in Iraq would get the same opportunity, and learn about the modern methods of antiquities excavation and preservation."
If these curators can jumpstart their museum system, and make their ancient civilization better known to the world, other Iraqi archaeologists and museum specialists could get similar opportunities, not only in the United States but at museums in Europe, Asia and elsewhere in the Middle East.