Museum, Art: Iraqi museum restores treasures destroyed by Islamic State jihadists

A Mosul museum worker attempts to piece together from shattered fragments a larger artifact bearing cuneiform inscriptions, at the museum in the northern Iraqi city
Image: Zaid AL-Obeidi/AFP

LLeft in ruins by the jihadists, the famous Iraqi museum in Mosul and its 2,500-year-old treasures are finding a second life thanks to restoration efforts supported by French experts.

Ancient artifacts in the museum were shattered when Islamic State fighters seized the northern city of Mosul in 2014 and made it their seat of power for three years.

“You have to separate all the fragments … It’s like a puzzle, we try to recover the pieces that tell the same story,” said restorer Daniel Ibled, commissioned by the famous French museum of the Louvre, which supports the employees. Iraqis from the museum.

“Little by little you manage to recreate the complete set.”

When IS jihadists were in charge, they filmed themselves hammering at pre-Islamic treasures they deemed heretical, proudly announcing their rampage in a video released in February 2015.

The largest and heaviest artifacts were destroyed for their propaganda, but smaller pieces were sold on black markets around the world.

The scars of their destruction remain today.

On the ground floor of the museum, the twisted iron bars of the foundation go through a gaping hole.

In other rooms, stones of various sizes are scattered, some with engravings of animal paws or wings. Others show inscriptions in cuneiform script.

The smallest of these fragments – no bigger than a fist – are lined up on a table, and experts are busy sorting them.

For now, their efforts are focused on a winged lion from the city of Nimrud, the jewel of the Assyrian empire, two “lamassu” – human-headed winged bulls – and the base of King Ashurnasirpal II’s throne.

giant puzzle

These pieces, many of which date back to the first millennium BC. AD, are revived thanks to funding from the International Alliance for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Conflict Zones (ALIPH).

Alongside the Louvre, efforts are also being made by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, which trains museumas well as the World Monuments Fund, headquartered in New York, which is responsible for restoring the building.

The base of the Assyrian king’s throne, covered in cuneiform script, appears almost fixed.

Some parts are held together by rubber bands or small metal rings.

“The base of the throne was pulverized into more than 850 pieces,” said Choueib Firas Ibrahim, museum manager and expert in Sumerian studies. “We’ve gone up two-thirds of it.”

For some pieces, writing fragments or straight lines helps teams put them together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

“We read the inscriptions on this base, and we were able to put the pieces back in their place,” said restorer Taha Yassin.

But other pieces with no “flat surface or markings” make them virtually indistinguishable and more complicated, Yassin added.

Empty spaces

A year after Iraqi troops retook Mosul in 2017, the museum received an urgent grant in a bid to restore it to its former glory.

After delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, museum director Zaid Ghazi Saadallah said he hoped restoration work would be completed within five years.

But many gaps will remain, and posters on the walls identify the lost artifacts.

“Most of the parts are destroyed or looted,” Saadallah said.

Iraq has suffered for decades from the looting of its antiquesparticularly after the US-led invasion in 2003, as well as during the subsequent ISIS takeover.

But the current government says it has made the repatriation of the objects a priority.

The Louvre has assigned 20 people to help with restoration efforts, said Ariane Thomas, director of the Louvre’s Department of Near Eastern Antiquities.

After three missions this year, seven French experts will go to Iraq in turn to help guide the restoration process, undertaken with a dozen museum employees.

Once the restoration work is complete, an online exhibition will be organized to unveil the work.

“When we said that with time, money and know-how, we could revive even the most damaged works, it proves it,” said Thomas.

“Completely destroyed works have begun to take shape again.”

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