Iraqi museum restores treasures destroyed by jihadists


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Mosul (Iraq) (AFP) – Left in ruins by the jihadists, the old Iraqi museum in Mosul and its 2,500-year-old treasures have been given a second life thanks to restoration efforts supported by French experts.

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

“We have to separate all the fragments … It’s like a puzzle, you try to recover the pieces which tell the same story”, declared the restorer Daniel Ibled, mandated by the famous Louvre museum, which supports the employees of the Iraqi museums.

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

When IS jihadists were in command, they filmed themselves hammering away pre-Islamic treasures they considered heretical, proudly announcing their rampage in a video posted in February 2015.

The biggest 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 foundation’s twisted iron bars pierce a gaping hole.

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

Two statues of winged bulls with human heads are among the artifacts being reassembled in Mosul Zaid AL-OBEIDI AFP

The smallest of these fragments – no bigger than a fist – are lined up on a table, and experts are working hard to sort them out.

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

Giant puzzle

These pieces, many of which date from the first millennium BC, are being revived with 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 the museum’s teams, as well as by the World Monuments Fund, headquartered in New York, which is responsible for restoring the building.


A Mosul museum worker walks past fragments of artifacts to be reconstructed and reassembled
A Mosul museum worker walks past fragments of artifacts to be reconstructed and reassembled Zaid AL-OBEIDI AFP

The base of the Assyrian king’s throne, covered with cuneiform writing, seems almost fixed.

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

“The base of the throne was pulverized in more than 850 pieces,” said museum official Choueib Firas Ibrahim, an expert in Sumerian studies. “We have recovered two-thirds of it.

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

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


When ISIS jihadists controlled Mosul, they filmed themselves hammering away pre-Islamic treasures they considered heretics
When ISIS jihadists controlled Mosul, they filmed themselves hammering away pre-Islamic treasures they considered heretics Zaid AL-OBEIDI AFP

But other pieces without a “flat surface or inscriptions” make them virtually indistinguishable and are more complicated, Yassin added.

Empty spaces

A year after the recapture of Mosul by Iraqi troops in 2017, the museum received an urgent grant in an attempt 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.


A view of a larger fragment of a statue of a
A view of a larger fragment of a statue of a “lamassu”, a winged bull with a human head, is seen being reassembled at the Mosul museum Zaid AL-OBEIDI AFP

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

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

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

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

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

After three missions this year, seven French experts will take turns in Iraq to guide the restoration process, carried out with around ten museum employees.

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


Once the restoration work is completed, an online exhibition will be organized to unveil the work.
Once the restoration work is completed, an online exhibition will be organized to unveil the work. Zaid AL-OBEIDI AFP

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

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

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