Iraq conjures up many enduring cultural images: the great lions of Babylon, the Ishtar Gate (pictured), and the superb spiral mosque of Samarra are some of the most renowned. These vast archaeological riches, spanning centuries of civilization, are part of the national heritage that is shared by all Iraqis – and part of the patrimony of all humanity.
Access to this shared patrimony is a right, protected by a number of international human rights instruments. Recent visits to the National Museum of Iraq by the UNESCO Office for Iraq, and UNAMI’s Human Rights Office (HRO) and Integrated Coordination Office for Development and Humanitarian Affairs (ICODHA) were part of the UN’s strong emphasis in 2013 on promoting economic, social and cultural rights in Iraq. Both visits were a chance to explore the Museum’s collections, and to learn about how Iraqis can access and enjoy their cultural heritage.
“The National Museum is a great cultural symbol for the people of Iraq,” says Mr. Francesco Motta, Chief of the HRO and Representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Iraq. “This visit is a chance for us to identify areas where the UN might be able to assist with the protection, preservation and promotion of this cultural heritage for all Iraqis,” he said.
Established in 1926, the Museum houses a collection that covers 7,000 years of Mesopotamian history. Artefacts date from prehistory, the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Islamic cultures, and range from tiny figurines to imposing stone statues of ancient gods.
The devastating impact of war and violence, visible throughout Iraqi society, has also left its mark on the Museum. Widespread looting of its collections occurred in 2003, and thousands of its treasures were smuggled out of the country. To date, only half of the missing pieces have been recovered, and up to 10,000 objects are still unaccounted for. For this reason, and because of damage to and deterioration of the building, it has been years since the Museum consistently opened its doors to the Iraqi people. Currently, a few exhibition halls are accessible to the public, by appointment only.
What will be left of this cradle of civilisations? It was 8000 years ago. Where are intellectuals, artists, thinkers, academics, social and human scientists, cultivated people of Iraq now? Everywhere in the world, but in Iraq...