In the shadowy halls of the Iraqi National Museum, the remnants of Babylon seem largely forgotten. The carved stone forms of 2,000-year-old rulers are scattered haphazardly throughout a maze of high-ceilinged, dusty halls; their silent expressions barely visible beneath even dustier shrouds of plastic wrap. Not a single tourist graces the building, where cardboard boxes and broken office chairs mingle with the treasure left in disarray.
The gloomy state of Baghdad's national museum comes as no surprise if you know its recent history. During the lawlessness following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the museum, which once housed the world's largest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities, was looted and ransacked beyond recognition. The event saw thousands of artifacts lost to international smuggling. For Iraqis the museum had been a showcase of their country's 7,000-year old heritage and its fate was felt with great bitterness.
Yet, despite the museum's current appearances, not all hope is lost. In fact, events of the past year, and especially recent weeks, would suggest the museum is making a comeback, albeit a slow one. Last week, the Iraqi government celebrated the return by Syrian authorities of more than 700 stolen artifacts, worth millions of dollars. Among them are gold necklaces, daggers, statues and pottery dating from the Islamic period to the Bronze Age. Negotiations with the Syrian government over the pieces took about three years, according to the museum's deputy director, Mahsen Hassan Ali. But it represents the biggest homecoming of looted Iraqi antiquities to date, and was hailed as a significant victory by the Iraqi government.
Muna Hassan, the head of a committee working on the restoration of pieces returned by Syria, says that further negotiations are now in the works with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Italy and Germany. So far, Ali says roughly 4,000 stolen pieces have been returned to the museum most of them confiscated within Iraq's borders. Two days ago, an Iraqi citizen in the southern city of Nasiriyah offered the museum 643 artifacts, some of which he claimed to have excavated himself, said one museum official, who was not authorized to speak to the press. Many other items looted from Iraq's museums are believed to have traveled outside national borders, and most are now suspected to be in neighboring Arab countries and Europe, Ali said. "We have valuable items in Saudi Arabia, in the United Emirates, in Kuwait, in Egypt, and in other Arab countries. In Jordan there is a massive quantity of 1,600 pieces," he told TIME. On Wednesday, an Iraqi television network tied to the government announced that official negotiations with Jordan over those items had begun.
Museum officials hail success on another front as well. The past year saw a sharp drop in sectarian violence across the country due to the combined effects of a major milita's cease-fire with the government, the expansion of Sunni tribal cooperation with U.S. forces, and the U.S. troop surge. Now, says one museum official, archaeologists are taking advantage of those gains. "After the events of 2003, there was no security. When stability returned to some of the provinces, we resumed excavations," said the official, who added that 11 sites were excavated in 2007 across southern Iraq, in areas like Diwaniya, Basra, and Babil. "This year we have plans to excavate again in the town of al-Hathar, just outside Mosul [in northern Iraq], but the security situation there is still bad," the official said.
The museum's deputy director Ali says the institution lost an estimated 15,000 of some 200,000 artifacts during the days of looting and chaos that followed the U.S. invasion of Baghdad. In March UNESCO said that between 3,000 and 7,000 of those pieces are still missing. Nevertheless, some museum officials say the number of missing items is impossible to pinpoint because of lost records. "We have some of the records, but others were taken... Outside of Iraq, people want proof that the pieces were taken from the museum. That is the problem now because we lost some of the files... I don't know the total number of artifacts before the looting. But we have 27 halls and they were all full," said the official, gesturing to a passageway lined with empty glass cases.
Ali, who insists that the unique characteristics of Iraqi antiquities are known worldwide, says the process of reclaiming the items can take a long time due to each country's regulations. "Each country has its own specific rule, and whatever they find in their country, they have a special law to deal with extracting it," he said. As for how long that may take: "It depends on the politics of each country, and how much they're willing to cooperate. Of course there are some uncooperative countries."
Perhaps not surprisingly, funding is another obstacle. Rehabilitation of the museum ranks low on the government's list of priorities in a country that continues to be wracked by violence, corruption and food scarcities. "It's very little," said the official of the museum's annual allotment from the Ministry of Finance. "We need more."
Indeed the museum's recovery may take a long time, and few who witnessed the looting have forgotten the frustration they felt as Iraq's riches were plundered. Five years after that catastophe, the centerpiece of Iraqi historical glory remains closed to the public. When it will reopen remains unknown. The larger stone pieces that never escaped the museum walls because of their weight remain in the shadows where they were left, some of them cracked from the failed efforts of looters to chip away chunks. But in one of the 27 halls, where intricately carved Sumerian wall panels depicting winged bulls beside kings were just too heavy to cart away, and where some repairs have been made to broken statues, the lucky visitor can catch a glimpse of the museum that once was and what it may some day be again. "We are optimistic and we all have hope," said the museum official. "God willing, whenever we get our artifacts back, it will be a joyful day for all of us." With reporting by Mazin Ezzat/Baghdad