Iraqis find hope in their history — 5,000 years of it

Stamps and rings that were recovered from the April 2003 looting are displayed in the Baghdad Museum.
Stamps and rings that were recovered from the April 2003 looting are displayed in the Baghdad Museum. Matthew Schofield/Kansas City Star/MCT

BAGHDAD — Luma Yass led a visitor into the Assyrian Hall of the infamously looted museum of antiquities in Iraq's capital city.

"Please, before you enter, close your eyes," she said. Grabbing a hand, she led the visitor across the dusty marble threshold in silence. "Now," she said, "Open them."

Ten-foot-tall relief panels depicting the life of a king lined the walls, and a 12-foot-tall stone statue of a winged bull loomed ahead.

"This is some place wonderful," said Yass, the director of education programs at the museum. "After the years of killings, of fear, this is where I come to feel good. This is where I am proud of being Iraqi."

Now that the bombings and the attacks are less frequent, grocery shopping is no longer a tactical operation and casual strolls don't seem suicidal, Iraqis are thinking in broader terms again.

There may be no clearer definition of that than the recent spat over reopening the Iraqi Museum, a place with treasures so alluring that before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Baghdad filled with art thieves waiting for museum security to disappear.

Iraq's Ministry of Tourism wants the Museum to reopen. In fact, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki officially reopened it on Feb. 24.

The reasoning is simple: Iraq may have stumbled recently, but this was once a great land, said Tourism Ministry spokesman Abdul Zahra al Talqani. More than 5,000 years of civilization says it will be again.

"This museum is important; it is a statement to the people of the world that Iraq has faced more difficult tests, and has not failed, and will not fail now," he said. "To the people of Iraq, it reminds us of our greatness."

The significance of the collection, which includes artifacts from the Babylonian, Assyrian, Accadian and Islamic periods, reflects Mesopotamia's long reign as the center of civilization. Baghdad was a beacon for astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, medicine, law and global translation. The word "algorithm" comes from the name of Mohammed ibn Musa al Khwarizmi, a mathematician who lived in Baghdad from about 780 to 850.

The museum, however, clearly isn't open, at least not in the sense that museums are thought to be open. Like so much in Baghdad these days, though, it's possible to see how it might just work, maybe soon.

Visitors can't drop by, pay an entrance fee and tour the collection. Few are allowed past the guards at the surrounding gates, and inside the gates, there are other checkpoints.

Even inside the building, visitors are told that it's impossible for them to see the exhibits without written permission from the museum director, who's simply too busy to write such notes.

If she does find time, the director will say that unless another museum official is available as a guide, it's impossible to tour they displays. They've been cobbled together from artifacts that were locked in storage when the museum was looted after the invasion. They also include 6,000 items that have been recovered in Iraq and from art and antiquities markets around the world.

Talqani, of the tourism ministry, explained that for now, organized groups of dignitaries, of foreign journalists — and perhaps, he hopes, of school children — can arrange such tours.

"For individuals, more time will be needed, perhaps six weeks, perhaps six months, perhaps more," he said.

The Ministry of Culture, however, protested the idea of reopening now, even boycotting the opening ceremony. The reason: security. Can the museum protect its exhibits, not only from theft, but also from suicide bombers who might seek to destroy the museum as a statement about the fragility of the nation?

Khalid Hassan Jumaa, a historian and author at the University of Mustansiriyan in Baghdad, has no opinion on security at the place. He understands how serious such matters are, having fled to Syria in 2006 to escape the violence.

Still, he thinks the museum is very important to Iraqis.

"We must remember our history to survive this time with our spirit intact," he said.

Iraq survived Alexander the Great in 300 B.C.; the Mongol conquest of 1258; the Siege of Mosul in the 1800s, during which the people ran out of food and had to eat dogs and cats; and British imperialism in the 20th century.

"This war, it is not our first time of devastation, it will not be our last," he said. "But all Iraqis should know their history, know that we can rebuild. Civilization began here. It does not die here."

Mohammed Jassim, 56, an accountant, thinks that Iraqis need a reason to be proud of their country again, and the museum is the proof of the nation's strength.

"Walking into the museum would be like a dream come true," he said. "Bits of human history: a plate someone ate on 5,000 years ago."

He said, however, that he can barely remember the last time he was allowed to walk into the museum, and the politics at play now seem obvious.

"Of course, I have to say that the whole 'opening' is a media thing used by the government to give the feeling that everything is just fine, and there is law and order," he said, adding that he expects a long wait. Even so, he said: "It is our hope for the future."

(Schofield reports for The Kansas City Star.)


Sumerian and Babylonian Art

Assyrian Gallery at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

Mesopotamia: The British Museum

Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

Commentary: Baghdad is better, but for how long?

Obama to extend Iraq withdrawal timetable; 50,000 troops to stay

Iraq's Kurdish-Arab tensions threaten to escalate into war

Volatile Anbar province a test of Iraq's future

Related stories from McClatchy DC