In Iraq’s national museum, home to some of the world’s most precious artifacts of ancient Mesopotamia, a caption beside a skeleton simply reads in English: “dated to very old time.”
And some of the museum’s most impressive pieces carry no labels at all – like a giant stone head lying on the ground that may or may not belong on a nearby empty pedestal labeled “Assyrian King Nimrod,” the Biblical tormentor of the patriarch Abraham.
Ten years after Iraq’s national museum was looted and smashed by frenzied thieves during the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein, it’s still far from ready for a public re-opening. Work to overcome decades of neglect and the destruction of war has been hindered by power struggles, poorly-skilled staff and the persistent violence plaguing the country, said Bahaa Mayah, Iraq’s most senior antiquities official.
“I wish that the great historical Baghdad would appear in her finest face and that the Iraq museum opens,” said Mayah, the head of antiquities in the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry.
“But our wishes crash against the unfortunate reality we live in.”
The museum was once the showcase for 7,000 years of history in Mesopotamia, birthplace of some of the first cities and one of the first writing systems – cuneiform – and home to a succession of major civilizations, including the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian, through to a flourishing Islamic empire.
The museum was left a wreck the day after Baghdad fell to U.S. troops on April 10, 2003. Ancient clay scrolls and pottery littered the floor. Looters made off with everything from gold bowls and ritual funeral masks to elaborate headdresses. The U.S. was sharply criticized for not protecting the museum.
Because the museum’s inventory was never completed, it’s uncertain how many pieces were stolen, but the number is estimated at 15,000 pieces. More than a quarter have been retrieved, said Mayah, who has overseen the museum formally since 2012 but has been involved in its renovations for the past five years.
Renovations began soon after the museum was smashed up in 2003, starting with the basics, like computers, office furniture, air conditioning. By mid-2004, the museum was rewired for electricity and most basic repairs to its structure completed. Since then, the U.S. and Italian governments have helped renovate the halls.
But work has been slow. Only five of 30 exhibition halls have been renovated so far – and two of those have to be done again because they were improperly done. As a result, the museum is still not open to the general public. Its only visitors are specially arranged foreign delegations, Iraqi officials and field trips by Iraqi students.
It’s part of a broader problem of preservation of antiquities in Iraq. There are over 12,000 registered archaeological sites in Iraq, but they are mostly not protected, allowing for widespread, ongoing looting, Mayah said.
The museum itself was shuttered from the early 1990s by regime officials who said they feared for its safety, as Saddam mired the country in war, leading to crippling sanctions. The closure meant the museum's inventory wasn’t updated. Sanctions meant staff couldn’t update their skills, and many qualified employees left amid an exodus of Iraqis from the country.
In a central Baghdad quarter, the museum is surrounded by high concrete blast walls. Guards check bags in a caravan set up in the neglected museum garden. The main entrance is under construction, so visitors enter through a corridor leading to administrative rooms.
On a recent visit by The Associated Press, the renovated exhibition halls were eerily quiet, with gleaming floors and shining display cases, the artifacts encased neatly inside. The sound of workers employing drills was palpable as they renovated another hall. A ladder was strewn under a map of ancient Mesopotamia.
Two of the renovated rooms are meant to showcase the Sumerian civilization, which emerged some 3,000 years ago. But the sparse labels on the artifacts shed little light on the antiquities that represent some of humankind’s most important milestones. Many labels lacked the age of the artifact, where it was found, what civilization it belonged to, or what its use was. Some didn’t have labels at all. Nowhere in the hall – or anywhere else – is it explained who the Sumerians were or how they influenced later civilizations.
In one of the displays lay a skeleton in the earth it was found in, alongside rings and jars. A printed label beside it read: “A human skeleton found in situ, put beside him some Jars and rings between him dated to very old time.”
The label on a fist-sized figurine of a monkey clutching his ears simply identifies it as “some monkey.”
A hand-sized stone carving in one display case was described as “the legendary hero Gilgamesh wrestling with two lions, early 3rd millennium,” with no further explanation of who Gilgamesh was – the Sumerian hero-king of one of the first written stories in history.
U.K.-based Iraqi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani, who follows the museum's renovations, said labels were lacking because the outdated inventory didn’t list the pieces and the staff, lacking expertise, weren’t familiar with the pieces’ background. A U.S. State Department official advising on the renovation said it was better to display the pieces imperfectly than keep them hidden. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with department rules.
But more problematic and confusing, the displays in the Sumerian halls mix in artifacts from the later Babylonian era, as well as from the Neanderthals, an entirely different hominid species from Homo Sapiens that died out some 30,000 years ago.
Mayah said the two halls would be renovated again this year. Sometime this year, he hopes, all the finished halls can be opened to the general public.
Other renovated halls fared better. Displays in the hall on Baghdad's Islamic dynasty were clear. Another hall explained the significance of the 5,000 year-old Arab city of Hatra, adorned with rare statues.
The museum’s prize is the soaring Assyrian hall, chronicling the kingdom that rose to become a major empire in the region in the 2nd and 1st millennia B.C. The hall is lined with stone etchings of giant winged creatures and statues of hand-clasped Assyrian kings.
Yet even here, at the hall’s rear, lay the unidentified broken stone head the size of an exercise ball, bearded and wearing a crown. Nearby stood an empty pedestal labeled for a statue of Nimrod.
“Even the renovations that have been done are disappointing. I won't compare it to the great museums of the world, but still – it’s way behind,” said a U.N. adviser to the museum who spoke anonymously, not wishing to offend local staff.
Turf battles over the museum haven't helped.
The Culture Ministry and Tourism Ministry both claimed authority over the museum in 2005, confusing staff and delaying renovations. The body that directly oversees the museum – the State Antiquities Authority – was leaderless from 2006 onwards. In 2012, the Iraqi parliament finally definitively put the museum under the Tourism Ministry.
Ongoing violence, particularly suicide bombings ravaging Baghdad during most of the past 10 years, also kept away foreign experts who could have helped speed the process, said Gailani. The violence also means tourists are staying away from Iraq, reducing the incentive for staff to speed up renovations.
Although Iraq is relatively safer since the height of violence in 2007, there are still frequent attacks against government institutions, mostly the hallmark of al-Qaida.
Ultimately, the museum didn't have to be world-class, said Gailani.
“The antiquities are so unique and rich, sometimes you forget if they are exhibited well or not,” she said.
The museum’s woes mattered little to a visiting group of Iraqi schoolgirls. They rushed into the room, gaping at the statues, taking notes.
“It's not like television,” said Sawsan Kadhim, 19. “Now if somebody says something about our history, I can say I saw it in reality.”