BAGHDAD – Iraq’s National Museum on Sunday welcomed the return of more than 700 antiquities stolen during the chaos that followed the U.S.-led invasion five years ago.
Gold necklaces, daggers, clay statues, pots and other artifacts were displayed briefly during a ceremony attended by Syrian and Iraqi officials. Syrian authorities seized the items from traffickers over the years and gave custody of them Iraqi delegation in Damascus last week.
Mohammad Abbas al-Oreibi, Iraq’s acting state minister of tourism and archaeology who led the negotiations with Syria, said he plans to visit Jordan soon to persuade authorities there to turn over more than 150 pieces.
“This was a positive initiative taken by Syria, and we wish the same initiative to be taken by all neighboring countries,” he said. “The treasures contain very important and valuable pieces.”
Looting broke out in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities following Saddam’s ouster in April 2003. Museums were ransacked and thousands of items taken, dealing a harsh blow to collections that chronicled some 7,000 years of civilization in Mesopotamia including the ancient Babylonians, Sumerians and Assyrians.
Iraqi and world culture officials have struggled to retrieve the treasures with little success. Between 3,000 to 7,000 pieces are still believed missing, including about 40 to 50 considered to be of great historic importance, Laurent Levi-Strauss of the U.N. cultural body UNESCO said last month.
Artifacts have been recovered before, but Dr. Muna Hassan said Syria was the first country to return such a large quantity of stolen antiquities, and officials hope others would follow its lead.
Syria has said it arrested some of the antiquities traffickers but did not provide details.
The items recovered by Syria were packed in 17 boxes and flown back to Baghdad on Saturday, according to Hassan, the head of a committee working to restore the artifacts. Hassan declined to put an exact value on the trove, saying only that the items were collectively worth millions of dollars.
Dr. Emina Idan, the head of state board of antiquities and heritage, said 701 pieces were returned. The head of the Syrian Antiquities Department, Bassam Jamous, said some of the objects were from the Bronze Age and early Islamic era.
Hassan said negotiations were under way with several other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Italy for the return of more looted antiquities.
For Iraqis, the museum is an important reminder of their cultural heritage. However, the facility remains closed to the public because of violence, lack of security, and the building’s condition.