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Barbara Plett reports from Baghdad
Click to watch Barbara Plett's report
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Friday, 5 January, 2001, 18:06 GMT
Iraq looks to its rich history
Ancient stone carving
Iraq has a rich cultural heritage
By Barbara Plett in Baghdad

In every spacious hallway and under every sweeping arch, workers are chipping damaged plaster off the walls of Baghdad's old post office.

On the ground floor, a bank of rusting postal boxes waits for a new life - this once grand building is being restored and turned into a museum.

"Heritage sites like this one are important because they show the old civilisation of Iraq," says the contractor Soran Najjad Omar, stepping carefully so as not to get chalky dust on his shiny grey suit.

"This post office will look like it did in 1907. The style is beautiful, it's far better than the current fashion in architecture, and the construction is also more sound," he said.

Children at the Iraq museum in Bagdad
Iraqi children are now able to see the country's ancient treasures
Most of the buildings in old Baghdad date back to the Ottoman period around 150 years ago, their finely crafted exteriors a stark contrast to the soulless Soviet-style apartment blocks that started taking over in the 1970s and 80s.

Restoration work had slowed almost to a stop because of wars and UN sanctions, but it has started to recover recently. Baghdad has also revived efforts to preserve and protect its ancient heritage, which is a much bigger job.

Ancient remains

Hundreds of kilometres south of Iraq, archaeologists carefully scrape away rock and sand covering the remains of a 5,000-year-old city - so far they've found the remains of a temple, a palace and a cemetery.

It's 60 degrees, there's no shade, and the incessant wind is like the breath of a dragon, but these hardy workers are not only exploring the past, they're protecting it.


The Iraq museum is now open, and the regional museums are opening up too

Archaeologist Donny George

Sites like these were looted during the chaos after the 1991 Gulf war and the years of poverty that followed. Four thousand artefacts were also stolen from regional museums, some by organised smuggling rackets.

For the most part, the department of antiquities watched helplessly, until it decided recently that it must try a new approach.

"We tried all kinds of protection, but the best idea was to go by ourselves, and be here to protect the sites with our own guards, with the workers working here," says archaeologist Donny George.

"This proved to be 100% perfect because since we came here, nothing has been lost from these cities."

Over the past two years, archaeologists have begun excavations at 21 threatened sites. This is only part of a plan to resurrect Iraq's rich heritage, a history of civilisations that range from the ancient Sumerian to the medieval Islamic.

National Museum

This year Baghdad re-opened the national Iraq Museum for the first time since the Gulf War. Its precious artefacts were hidden for most of the past decade to protect them from theft or destruction.

Now the collection is back on display, including a prehistoric skeleton, statues of gods, and superb Assyrian stone reliefs that impress a class of visiting school girls.

Iraqi children at the museum in Bagdad
The museum was closed for a over a decade to avoid theft
"I really liked the Assyrian artefacts," says 12-year-old Marwa Salah, "especially the carvings of the flowers. They were holy symbols, which the people used to decorate their dresses, and even to wear on their wrists like a watch."

Restoring Iraq's past is a presidential priority. Saddam Hussein issued a decree several years ago to get the work back on track. He even allocated a budget, although no one can say how much or where the money comes from.

Iraq has since recovered thousands of stolen pieces with the help of neighbouring Jordan.

"We are working, excavating and making restoration projects," says Donny George. "The Iraq museum is now open, and the regional museums are opening up too."

The task is still enormous: Iraq has some 10,000 archaeological sites and an official protection force of 2,000. It's impossible to say how much Baghdad has lost and may never recover.

Recent efforts though are restoring not only the sites but a sense of national pride, and have increased Iraq's determination to some day finish the job.

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29 Apr 00 | Middle East
Baghdad treasure trove reopens to public
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