Basra Museum opened its doors to the public this week in another step towards restoring the country's cultural heritage damaged in conflicts dating back almost four decades to the war with Iran.
The museum in Basra had been closed since 1991, when it was among nine museums looted by mobs opposed to dictator Saddam Hussein at the close of the first Gulf War. Now, with the assistance of the British Museum and other organisations, thousands of artefacts dating back as far as 6000BC are back on display in the southern province.
The collection, housed in a former palace of the late dictator, covers Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Islamic periods of Iraq’s history.
“The museum has over 2,000 objects that are drawn from the vast storage rooms of Baghdad’s Iraq Museum and 100 were that were looted and found abroad are on display,” Qahtan Al Obeid, head of Basra’s archaeology and heritage, said during the opening on Wednesday.
“The preparations for the opening took 10 years," Mr Al Obeid said, with the first display room opened in 2016.
Iraq’s culture ministry plans to add a library of archaeological books, a conference room and a workshop to the Basra museum, as well as open four others in the province.
"The ministry will support the museum as it represents the cultural and touristic history of Basra," Deputy Culture Minister Qais Hussein told The National.
In the 16 years since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam, many of the Iraq’s ancient statues and pre-Islamic treasures have been either looted or destroyed. The loss has become representative of the chaos in the country following the invasion.
Adding to the devastation, ISIS looted or destroyed many of Iraq’s cultural sites and monuments after overrunning much of the country's north in 2014 and declaring a “caliphate” spanning Iraqi and Syria.
Thousands of Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Roman and Islamic artefacts are still missing.
“Some of the artefacts were stolen by gangs and taken outside of the country. We are not sure if these criminal acts were conducted by ISIS or by smugglers that were selling the treasures in the black market,” Mr Al Obeid said.
Iraq's efforts to restore its cultural have been supported by governments and groups abroad. The US says it has returned more than 3,000 stolen artefacts to Iraq since 2005. Britain has also returned looted antiquities recovered by authorities, including a rare Babylonian cuneiform stone that was handed over to the Iraqi embassy on Tuesday. The UAE meanwhile is working with Unesco to rebuild the famed Al Nuri mosque in Mosul, known for its leaning minaret, that was destroyed by ISIS shortly before the extremist group was driven out of Mosul in 2017.
Dr John Curtis, director of Friends of Basrah Museum, a UK-based group formed in 2010, said the organisation was working to ensure that stolen objects are returned to Iraq.
“Whenever I am aware of something that is illegally exported it gets reported to the appropriate side to ensure it returns to its rightful owner,” Mr Curtis said during the opening of the museum.
“It will be a museum for the whole of southern Iraq and for the wider region,” he said.
Politicians in Baghdad hailed the opening of the Basra Museum as a “message of peace”.
“This is not just a museum. It is a message that Iraq is a country of civilisation and peace,” said Maysoon Al Damluji, a former deputy culture minister.