Iraqi Museum | Refuge for relics of the past

March 21 is a public holiday in Iraq to mark the celebration of the Kurdish New Year – Nowruz. This year, the Iraqi government declared Thursday, March 22 also a public holiday. It’s, therefore, a long weekend for us. We decided to visit the National Museum of Iraq, aka the Iraqi Museum on Thursday. The National Museum of Iraq is a cultural epitome of historically-rich Iraq. Established in the 1920s in Baghdad, the museum originally contained nearly 300,000 precious historical relics ranging from the Neolithic Age up to 100,000 years ago to the mid-19th century.

A statue of Nabu, the 8th century BCE Assyrian god of wisdom, stands before the building of the Iraq Museum.
A statue of Nabu, the 8th century BCE Babylonian and Assyrian god of wisdom, stands before the building of the Iraqi Museum, Baghdad.

The museum staff is very polite and cooperative. One museum official gave us a map of the museum to guide us through various halls in this two-storied museum dedicated to the collection and interpretation of the history of Iraq and its environs. The collections consist of mainly man-made objects covering the past 5,000 years and more. The types of objects in the collection represent Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Islamic cultures and include objects made of stones, glass, pottery, metal, ivory, and parchment, among others. Museums are an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures.

HISTORY OF THE MUSEUM

According to the American Journal of Archaeology, the Iraq Museum was founded in 1923 when Gertrude Bell, the British woman who helped establish the nation of Iraq, stopped the archaeologists from taking out of the country all of his extraordinary third-millennium BCE finds from the ancient Sumerian city of Ur (esp. the jewellery of the royal cemetery) for division between the British Museum in London and the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum in Philadelphia. She believed that the Iraqi people should have a share of this archaeological discovery made in their homeland and, thereby, started a museum in central Baghdad, pressing into service two rooms in an Ottoman barracks as its very first galleries. Later on, the museum was shifted to this new premises and formally opened in 1966.

PLUNDERING OF HERITAGE

The protection of a museum’s holdings in times of warfare or civil unrest is a multifaceted and complicated issue. Because museums present themselves as storehouses and display venues of treasure, they become targets of looting by organised gangs and by people from the street.

In the chaotic, violent April of 2003, as US tanks rolled into Baghdad, the Iraq Museum was broken into and pillaged. Looters rampaged through the halls, storerooms, and cellars, stealing more than 15,000 precious objects. Iraqi officials estimate that as many as 137,000 pieces, in addition to 15,000 registered artefacts, were looted from the museum and ar­chaeological sites across the coun­try.

Ironically, centuries after many of the remains of these ancient cultural entities were looted by European colonial forces in order to fill grand national museums, we are seeing a 21st-century version of cultural colonialism. Private collectors are enabling an entire economy of illegal activities.

Despite the chaotic situation and rampant plundering of Iraq’s cultural heritage, the restored mu­seum still harbours unique items which have been recovered, includ­ing the Warka vase, which reflects Sumerian philosophy of life and death; the Warka Lady’s stone head; and the Sumerian gui­tar, the most ancient musical in­strument in the world. The collections of the National Museum of Iraq include art and artifacts from ancient Sumerian, Babylonian, Akkadian, Assyrian, and Chaldean civilizations.

The Iraq Museum is still one of the best archaeological museums in the world, containing the material evidence for the development of civilised human society from the very beginning of its history.

Skeletal remains of a Neanderthal man found in Shanidar cave in Rowanduz area of northern Mesopotamia dating back to ca. 60,000-45,000 BCE, National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad.
Skeletal remains of a Neanderthal man found in Shanidar cave in Rowanduz area of northern Mesopotamia dating back to ca. 60,000-45,000 BCE, National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad.

THE LADY OF WARKA

There was a conference also going on the “The Lady of Warka”. The “Lady of Warka” a.k.a. the “Mask of Warka”, dating from ca. 3100 BCE, is one of the earliest representations of the human face. The carved marble female face is probably a depiction of Inanna – the ancient Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, sex, desire, fertility, war, combat, justice, and political power. She was later worshipped by the Akkadians, Babylonians, and Assyrians under the name Ishtar. The Mask of Warka is unique in that it is the first accurate depiction of the human face.

lady of warka
The ‘Mask of Warka’ is the oldest discovered accurate depiction of the human face (ca. 3100 BCE). It disappeared from the Iraq Museum after the 2003 US invasion. A US military mission to recover the artefacts found the mask undamaged, buried in a farmer’s backyard. National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad.

HATRA

Hatra (Al-Hadr in Arabic) is located in the Al-Jazira region between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. Their written language was Aramaic. Hatra is believed to have been built by the Assyrians or possibly in the 3rd or 2nd century BCE under the influence of the Seleucid Empire.

Iraq Museum-IMG_1571

Hatra flourished under the Parthians, during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, as a religious and trading center. The remains of the city, especially the temples were Hellenistic and Roman architecture blend with Eastern decorative features, attest to the greatness of its civilization.

God and Goddess of Hellenistic era from Hatra (c. 312-139 BCE)
God and Goddess of Hellenistic era from Hatra (ca. 312-139 BCE), National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad.
Iraq Museum-IMG_1592
A slab stone of Alabaster with a prominent relief of the Sun God (Shamash), found in the city of Hatra (312-139 BCE), National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad.

Iraq Museum-IMG_1602

Iraq Museum-IMG_1603

ASSYRIA

The Assyrian Hall, National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad
The Assyrian Hall, National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad

Nabu is the ancient Mesopotamian patron god of literacy, the rational arts, scribes, and wisdom. Nabu was worshipped by the Babylonians and the Assyrians. Nabu was known as Nisaba in the Sumerian pantheon and gained prominence among the Babylonians in the 1st millennium BCE when he was identified as the son of the god Marduk. He was also the inventor of writing and a divine scribe. Due to his role as an oracle, Nabu was associated with the Mesopotamian moon-god Sin.

A gigantic limestone statue of Nabu, god of knowledge and wisdom, found in one of gates of the Nebu temple dated to the 8th century BCE.
A gigantic limestone statue of Nabu, god of knowledge and wisdom, found in one of the gates of the Nabu temple dated to the 8th century BCE. Characterised by the homogenous style and technique as well as conventional posture of a worshipper showing bent arms and clasped hands, National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad.
The palace reliefs
The palace reliefs were fixed to the walls of royal palaces forming continuous strips along the walls of large halls. The style apparently began after about 879 BCE, when Ashurnasirpal II moved the capital to Nimrud, near modern Mosul in northern Iraq. Compositions are arranged on slabs, or orthostats, typically about 7 feet high, using between one and three horizontal registers of images, with scenes generally reading from left to right. Orthostats are depicting royals, ministers are paying tributes and bringing gifts for the King. National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad.
An orthostat depicting a winged genie, National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad.
An orthostat depicting a winged genie, National Museum of Iraq, Baghdad

A big pottery jar with Barbotine decorations with designs and motifs of lion heads, animals, human face, plant and geometric motifs found in Mosul belonging to the fourteenth century.

assyrian hall

We were unlucky as the Babylon Hall was closed for maintenance and documentation. I may have to visit again, at least for the Babylon Hall. This time my main attraction was the Lamassu, about which I have written a separate article.

8 thoughts on “Iraqi Museum | Refuge for relics of the past

  1. Somali K Chakrabarti

    It is interesting to know that a British lady helped to establish the Museum of Iraq and stopped the archaeologists from taking out of the country all the treasured artefacts. I am of the opinion that a country’s artefacts should remain within a country.
    Yet, though I may never get a chance to see the museum of Iraq, I can relate to some of these artefacts as many of these were present in the Museum of Pennsylvania and the British Museum, and I had a chance to visit both these museums.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Indrajit Roy Choudhury

      Yes, I am also of the same opinion that relics of the country must remain with them. But most of the important relics are in the British museum, Louvre or in the Universities of the US. They took the advantage of the western imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Sayanti aka Shine

    Hello, Indrajit. Your post reminds me the memory of reading the history book of school days.Babylon, The Mesopotamia civilization, etc hit my brain to remember the story of the civilization. I don’t know, whether I can visit Iraq or not. But, from now I’m including Iraq travel on my bucket list. Very nice post.

    Liked by 1 person

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