'A shadow of its former self': Mosul Museum and the long road to recovery
Five years ago, Mosul Museum grabbed international headlines when the Islamic State (IS) group released footage of militants defacing priceless artefacts with sledgehammers and toppling statues that had survived for thousands of years.
Today, the museum’s darkened interior stands as a memorial to a 21st-century cultural tragedy.
Stepping between pieces of Assyrian sculptures blown up by explosives, Mosul Museum director Zaid al-Obeidi gestured towards fragments bearing ancient Sumerian cuneiform lettering, one of the oldest writing systems in the world. “This is huge destruction and we need time to fix it, a lot of time,” he told MEE.
Among the shattered Assyrian treasures are two huge Lamassu (winged bull protective deities) from the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. Comparative pieces stand proudly in the British Museum, attracting thousands of daily visitors, as well as in Baghdad’s National Museum of Iraq. Here, just 30 kilometres from the ancient city where they once stood, this pair have been reduced mostly to mere rubble.
“IS put explosives between the walls and the Lamassu, tearing them away from the wall and destroying them,” Obeidi said. “They did the same to the king’s throne base from Nimrud, where the force of the explosion ripped open the floor.”
Nearby lie the sledgehammered chunks of an Assyrian-era lion statue from Nimrud’s Temple of Ishtar, decorated with cuneiform engravings detailing the life of King Ashurnasirpal II, who reigned from 883 to 859 BC. The back of the statue, which would have stood flush against a wall, was also etched with writing.
“The Assyrians did this, according to experts, because they thought one day their empire would be destroyed, so they wrote on the back of the statues, which were out of sight, to preserve their history for all time,” explained Obeidi.
“And they were right, it happened exactly as they thought. Those who came after the Assyrians destroyed and burned their monuments. And then, thousands of years later, IS did the same.”
Although larger fragments still lie where they were found in 2017 during the liberation of Mosul from IS, the surrounding floor space is taped into a two metre-squared grid as part of a laborious process to gather and label each statue fragment to help accurate future reconstruction.
“We’ve been collecting every tiny piece from each square, placing these carefully labelled in storage, so we know their exact location,” local archaeologist and conservator Ghassan Sarhan explained, adding that museum staff were working with France’s Louvre Museum on the project.
“Seven months ago, you couldn’t walk here because there were so many fragments scattered across the floor. But the conservation rescue teams have cleared this area following international rescue heritage rules, and have cleaned the pieces with world heritage approved products.”
The grid-system for collecting and preserving fragments, Sarhan noted sadly, was only deployed in the one section of the museum. “We only made the grid for the Assyrian gallery because we found many pieces there, but in the Hatraean gallery, we did not find any single piece.”
This gallery formerly held artefacts from the Unesco World Heritage site of Hatra, located in the Iraqi desert, 110km southwest of Mosul and also occupied by IS for three years.
Antiquities from Hatra [...] are unique to Iraq and even broken pieces are apparently very valuable on the global antiquities market
The gallery featured in a widely-shared IS video showing militants toppling and sledgehammering statues. But when museum staff entered the premises a few months after liberation, they found even the shards from this destruction had been carefully removed, and presumed stolen.
Antiquities from Hatra, which grew to prominence under the Parthians (247 BC - 224 AD) and is believed to have been the capital of the first Arab kingdom, are unique to Iraq and even broken pieces are apparently very valuable on the global antiquities market.
“It’s easy to say in words when the museum will reopen but the reality is that it’s very difficult to predict. Realistically, we’re looking at between three and five years before the museum will be receiving visitors again,” Obedi said.
“It will take up to three years to reconstruct the building and at least three years of continuous work to reconstruct the broken statues.”
Conservator Saad Ahmed, who heads Mosul Museum’s conservation laboratory, has a more pessimistic forecast for reconstructing the damaged exhibits. He predicts it would take around six years to complete reconstruction of just the two Lamassu and the Ishtar lion.
Despite ongoing efforts by museum staff, reconstruction has not yet started on these ancient Assyrian statues. Working with Louvre Museum staff, the first project will be the Ishtar lion, a project due to start this year but currently on hold due to uncertainty over potential Covid-19 restrictions.
Work has yet to even start on repairing the considerably-damaged museum building, which was affected by fighting as well as having its basement looted and set ablaze by IS.
IS controlled Mosul completely for two and a half years, during which time militants enforced their strict interpretations of Islam, inflicting a reign of terror on inhabitants. They also enacted a wave of destruction across the city, targeting historic and non-Islamic religious sites. The eight-month battle to liberate Mosul from IS resulted in extensive destruction, especially to the historic Old City of Mosul.
Even when Mosul Museum does eventually reopen its doors to visitors, with more than half of its former exhibits stolen by IS, it will be a shadow of its former self. Obeidi told MEE that as much as 60-70 percent of the museum’s collection remains missing.
Former Iraqi Minister of Culture Abdulameer al-Hamdani, recently replaced with the formation of a new Iraqi government, said that at all the country’s historic sites where IS had had control, there was a combination of destruction and looting in an effort to erase Iraqi and Mesopotamian culture.
But in Mosul Museum, IS stole much more than they destroyed, with museum staff believing that IS only destroyed artefacts too large to steal, such as the Lamassu and the Ishtar lion.
By torchlight, Obeidi pointed to empty walls where vacant exhibit niches have chiselled adjacent markings, indicating that artefacts were carefully extracted, explaining that the missing items are believed to have been smuggled out of Iraq by IS towards international antiquities markets.
These include many ancient artefacts of Islamic history, such as two mihrabs (prayer niches) made of Sinjar gypsum that were carefully removed from their display casings.
In the Islamic gallery, IS only left one single artefact: a large wooden tomb covering what was probably deemed too large to steal.
Since liberation, over a hundred antiquities from the museum’s collection have been recovered from civilian homes formerly occupied by IS militants, or seized at checkpoints by Iraqi forces. These remain in storage at the museum’s conservation laboratory on a separate premises until the museum is in a fit state for them to be reinstated. But many more remain missing.
IS were not the first to rob the embattled institution. The museum was also looted during the chaos that followed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. “To this day, none of those items have been returned, but, after the thefts, the US forces closed the museum doors and guarded it,” Obeidi said.
A plea for help
As well as the support of the Louvre, Mosul Museum staff have received training on how to manage damaged antiquities from the group of American museums and research centres known as the Smithsonian Institution.
But Mosul Museum is just one of Nineveh governorate’s many historic sites either targeted by IS or damaged during warfare, which include Hatra; Nimrud; the Assyrian city of Dur-Sharrukin; the mosque and shrine of Nabi Younis; the Great Mosque of al-Nuri and its adjacent al-Hadba (hunchback) leaning minaret. The head of Nineveh Antiquities Directorate Ali Hazeem told MEE that, in the face of such extensive destruction, Iraq desperately needed more external help.
“We need support for renovating these damaged and destroyed sites. We know it’s a very difficult thing because the destruction and damage is very big but we need help to proceed. Some help is being received but only on a very small scale and, at this point, mainly only in identifying parts," he said.
Noting that the help received to date is greatly-appreciated, he said that this remained inadequate compared to the extent of the work the Nineveh Antiquities Directorate was facing to regenerate its decimated historic sites.
“It's hard for us to manage this problem alone because the damage is so severe and the extent of destruction so large and we really need support, especially now that Mosul is safe,” Hazeem said. “And we are asking for international support because these monuments are not only for Nineveh but for all Iraq and all the world.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.