The Baghdad Museum Project
THE BAGHDAD MUSEUM AND ITS TREASURES
In Iraq, the cradle of civilization, over 10,000 archaeological sites weave a fascinating story.
The relics of the past serve as reminders of what has been before, and as links in the chain of communication between past, present and future. This is what awakes the interest of a nation in its antiquities, whether they be standing monuments, movable objects or historical written documents. The awareness of a society for its past depends on the amount of relics surviving from it, and a society which possesses many fine museums has a corresponding stronger historical memory than a society without them. The Iraq National Museum in Baghdad (the Baghdad Museum) is one of the most important museums in the world which has major historical treasures not only for Iraqis but also for all humanity. This guide extends an invitation to the museum's visitors to strike up a real friendship with its exhibits.
The display of exhibits is executed in a simple way intended to appeal to visitors but taking full advantage of modern technical means. The exhibition is arranged chronologically.
The exhibits are distributed among twenty halls, according to their cultural periods. Visitors begin with Hall 1 on the upper floor where the earliest antiquities are displayed and are led from one hall to another with the guidance of notices and pointers until the visit is concluded at Hall 20 on the ground floor. The distribution of antiquities in the Halls are as follows:
Hall 1, Corridor 2
Stone Age and Prehistoric Cultures
These Halls contain the collections of objects and materials belonging to early man. The period involved covers 100,000 to 10,000 years ago and is termed the Old Stone Age or the Paleolithic Period. In these halls there are some of the finest examples characteristic of village and town culture from both north and south of Iraq. The period of these cultures commonly termed the Prehistoric Ages, ends in the middle of the 4th millennium B.C.
The Fertile Crescent
A thousand centuries ago, families of palaeolithic-age man gathered in and around the fertile Mesopotamian plain. Abundant fresh water flowing from the uplands of Armenia and Anatolia via the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers drew game and provided vegetation and fish for these nomadic hunter-fisher gatherers.
The annual springtime flooding and subsequent summertime drying, and the ever-changing courses of the Great Rivers and their tributaries made living in the Plain difficult. Most lived in the mountains and foothills surrounding the Delta.
For ninety thousand years, these early tribes moved their camps seasonally to hunt wild animals and to collect seeds, fruit, nuts, wild wheat, barley, and rye when they were ripe. Remains from their encampments show the slow development of the culture of man. Mesopotamian man left artifacts in Shanidar Cave about 50,000 B.C. showing elements of their life. They left flowers on the graves of their dead, a touching tribute to these early predecessors of modern man.
Over these millennia the bands began trading raw materials such as obsidian and bitumen for making spears.
By 10,000 B.C., groups at Shanidar and Karim Shahir had developed herds of sheep which they took to the mountains in spring and fall to graze on the sweet grass there. Various millstones, small stone hoes, and other implements excavated at these sites show that cultivation of grains including bread wheat also occurred at this time.
The cultivation of gardens and fields and the domestication of livestock brought a change in living habits, as people could now remain in one place instead of wandering about according to the migratory habits of animals or the availability of stands of wheat, barley, and rye.
By 6,000 B.C. in the Neolithic Age, permanent villages were formed where man learned farming, animal husbandry, house building, weaving, pottery, and even the creation of art objects by painting and sculpture. Sites at Jarmo, Hassouna, Um al Dabbaghlya, Matara, and Tel al Suwan are among these earliest villages of man.
The lush valley of the Fertile Crescent with its ample water proved able to sustain larger populations as man learned to harness and to control the natural irrigation formed by the levees and rivulets resulting from the ever-changing seasonal flooding of the Tigris and Euphrates.
Hall 3, Corridor 4
In these halls visitors see select examples of precious objects unearthed by Iraqi and foreign expeditions in such sites as Eridu, Kish, Uruk, Ur, Nippur, Shurupak, Eshnunna, Khafaji and also from other Sumerian cities. The emergence of writing in this period was the most significant development in the realm of civilization.
Sumer - The Dawn of Civilization
As late as two hundred years ago, the existence of Sumer was unknown. Scholars searching the Middle East for traces of the ancient civilizations of Babylon and Assyria, known to them from Greek classics and biblical references, began discovering evidence of the seminal Sumerian civilization from which much of ancient and even modern civilization has evolved.
We now know the Sumerians first appeared about 4800 B.C. at a place called Al-Ubaid. During the next few centuries they established other cities primarily along the southern half of the Mesopotamian river system.
They were not indigenous: from where they originated is debated by scholars. What is known is that they were a tremendously gifted and imaginative people. Their language, linguistically related to no other, ancient or modern, is preserved for us through the thousands of clay tablets on which they inscribed and developed the first writing as yet known to man.
Fortunately, the Sumerians were prolific writers and meticulous record- keepers: these tablets richly describe their existence. With the invention of writing the simple village life could evolve into complex civilization.
They developed schools for an educated elite and for the many scribes who were needed for all the record-keeping and letter-writing they liked to do. Not only business records were written down but also the first numbers, calendars, literature, laws, agricultural methods, pharmacopoeias, personal notes, maps, jokes, curses, religious practices, and thousands of lists and inventories of all manner of human interests.
These cuneiform tablets show the Sumerians established great city states at Ur and elsewhere, absorbing the indigenous peoples and extending their influence beyond Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean Coast, the Arabian Peninsula, to Egypt, and India.
Theirs was an urban civilization in which architects were familiar with all the basic architectural principles known to us today, the artist possessed the highest skills and standards of excellence, and the metal worker had a knowledge of metallurgy and technical skill which few ancient people ever rivaled. The merchant carried on a far-flung trade facilitated by the development of the wheel and axle and the sail-driven boat. The armed forces were well organized and victorious. Agriculture was productive and prosperous. Indeed, the great wealth accumulated by their civilization enabled the Sumerians to live in relative luxury for some 2000 years or more.
The various city states which comprised the Sumerian civilization continued to rise and fall in influence during these two millennia. Ur, Lagash, Kish, Eridu, Lar Sa, Babylon, Erech, and others - each ruled by a king - were in constant conflict, and their dominion over each other and over surrounding peoples shifted as often as the course of the rivers along side which their cities were built.
Hall 5, Corridor 6
Akkadian, Babylonian and Kassite Culture
Among the important exhibits is the Akkadian bronze head of Sargon, an alabaster relief and a fine collection of cylinder seals. The Old Babylonian Period is particularly marked by the collection and documentation of historical, social, literary and religious information. Knowledge and culture were widely dispersed and the city of Babylon became a great center of teaching and Culture .
At Tell Harmal near Baghdad, the Directorate General of Antiquities found more than 3000 inscribed clay tablets from this period, with contents relating to mathematical, literary, administrative and legal matters.
Sargon and the First Empire
In 2371 B.C. the Akkadians, a Semitic-speaking group who had been settling around the city of Babylon revolted against their Sumerian overlords and established a kingdom which united Sumer and outlying lands for the first time under central authority. One of their number, Sargon, became the first great conqueror of history.
Beginning as a cup bearer to the Sumerian governor of Kish he led a revolt which made him king of Kish and a number of nearby cities. Quickly he attacked the warlike peoples in Assyria and Syria, winning their allegiance. Then he fell upon Southern Sumer and captured all the cities there. Not yet content, he overran Elam and even reached the Eastern Mediterranean Coast, colonizing Lebanon. From his time the land of the two rivers was known to the ancients as Babylonia, in reference to the Sumerian city of Babylon from which Sargon established his empire.
After a short but fruitful reign of some two centuries the area was invaded by the Guti, a nomadic tribe from the east. From 2143 B.C., the barbarian Gutis sacked and pillaged the cities for thirty years until the Sumerians in 2112 B.C. revolted and reestablished rule under what came to be known as the Third Dynasty of Ur.
This was one of the most creative periods in Sumerian art and literature, but lasted only until 2004 B.C. At this time quarrels between the cities caused the breakup of central control and Sumer was the prey of invading Amorites from the west and Elamites from the East.
The Amorites, who like the Akkadians spoke a Semitic language, infiltrated the area around Babylon curing this final dissolution of the Sumerian Epoch, gradually gaining power. By 1894 B.C. they were in control of the whole of what is now known as Babylonia and some portions of Sargon's foreign Empire, establishing the first dynasty of Babylon, which lasted until 1595 B.C.
Hammurabi - The Law Giver
This period, particularly during the reign of Hammurabi (1792 1750 B.C.) is regarded as one of the highlights of ancient civilization. The collection of laws promulgated by him form a framework for laws governing society to this day, moving justice from the whims of the powerful, to a codified regulation applicable to all society.
Life in Mesopotamia changed considerably during Hammurabi's time. The Sumerian language was falling into disuse, giving way to the Semitic tongues of the Near East. The Sumerians themselves seem to have disappeared as they mixed with the foreigners.
A most significant change was in the concept and knowledge which the people of Mesopotamia had regarding the world. Traders came to Babylon from as far away as Egypt where the splendid days of the Middle Kingdom were just ending. From India to the east, traders brought cotton cloth and elaborate feather work. From the west, the island of Crete furnished beautiful pottery and unusual beads, while fine wool was imported from Anatolia. In the Arabian Gulf, the islands of Bahrain were the source of pearls. It is even thought that Lapis Lazuli was imported from as far away as the borders of western China. It was beginning to be a truly international world with Babylon as its center.
The requirements of trade needed the refinement of the standards of measurement introduced by the Sumerians, and gold and silver were increasingly used as standards of measuring value. Fixed weights and measures also were developed to facilitate commerce during this period.
Literary arts, architecture, sculpture. and the sciences all flourished. In geometry and mathematics the Babylonians had formulated theories which were in much later times ascribed to Euclid and Pythagoras. They used first and second degree algebraic formulae, and set the foundations of Logarithms. Medicine and surgery were highly developed, along with astronomy and astrology.
It was in to this civilization that the patriarch Abraham was born and raised in the (already) ancient city of Ur, sometime before 1700 B.C.
With the demise of the First Dynasty of Babylon the early period of the Mesopotamian world came to an end. The next four hundred years or so are shrouded in mystery as an Indo European group called the Kassites moved down from the highlands of southwestern Asia and conquered the plain, imposing their government on Babylonia and on Assyria in the north. The Kassite Dynasty, which rapidly adopted much of the culture and institutions of their predecessors but left little record of their own, lasted until 1150 B.C.
This Hall displays a collection of precious coins totalling 1600 in number. The coins are mounted in chronological order and according to their provenance, or kingdom, and the caliph, sultan or king who ordered their mintage.
Hall 8, Hall 9
Before moving down to the ground floor, visitors are reminded that there are two other exhibition rooms which form the Museum's Cultural and Educational Section (Halls 8 and 9) . Both are used for lectures and the study of photographs and original specimens of Iraqi antiquities and are accessible from the spiral stairs in Hall-12 on the ground floor.
The Assyrian Sculptures
The Hall of Assyrian Sculptures is the largest in the Iraq Museum. It houses colossal statues and sculptures which once graced the walls, facades and courts of the royal palaces, and the gateways of the cities of Khorsabad and Nimrud. Among them are the colossal winged bulls and huge statues of Assyrian kings and gods.
Assyria - The City Builders
In the first half of the last millennium B.C., the two cities of Babylon and Nineveh had ascended above all others in Mesopotamia.
It was just prior to this period that the Kassite Dynasty was overthrown in Babylon, replaced by the Second Dynasty of Isin, of which the most important ruler was Nebuchadnezzar I.
Nineveh, the capital of a vassal state of neighboring Mitanni called Assyria, was nearly as old as Babylon‹ dating back to the third millennium B.C. The Assyrians had been expanding and contracting their influence from this base for two centuries or more.
By 1000 B.C. the more northern Assyria began a far-ranging expansion of its empire, continuing up to 612 B.C. and extending to Syria, Palestine, the mouth of the Nile, and to Babylonia.
The Assyrians were remarkable not only for their mastery in battle, but for their love of building and for their political organization. They built or rebuilt great cities such as Assur, Nineveh, Nimrud, and Dur Sharrukin.
In the sixth century B.C. the Assyrian King Esarhaddin bequeathed Babylonia to one son and Assyria and the major part of the empire to another, Ashurbanipal. It was this latter king who assembled at Nineveh a great library of some 35,000 clay tablets which have given us much of our knowledge of Mesopotamia up through their time.
Unfortunately, civil war broke out between the brothers with the victorious Ashurbanipal allying with a semitic group called the Chaldeans who had been settling in Babylon since 1000 B.C. Ultimately, the Chaldeans (or Neo-Babylonians) usurped the power of Assyria, capturing Nineveh in 612 B.C. under their leader Nabopolazzar and finally finishing off the last remnant of their forces along with their Egyptian allies in 605 B.C.
Babylon, The Great
Nebuchadnezzar II, the son of Nabopolazzar, ascended to the throne at this time. During his reign (605- 562 B.C.), a new Babylon was created by the shores of the Euphrates. Enormous walls were constructed to guard the city. As one passed through the great gates, the roads into the city took one up to magnificent procession ways to dramatic groupings of palaces and temples. The most famous gate was that of Ishtar, which led to the Sacred Way.
In one direction the Way led to the great brick temples including the famous Etemenanki, dedicated to Marduk, patron god of Babylon. At seven sages high, it must have towered several hundred feet in the air.
In the other direction was the palace, on the grounds of which rose one of the Seven Wonders of the World, The Hanging Gardens.
Married to a Mede wife to seal a political alliance, Nebuchadnezzar built he Gardens to ease her homesickness Dr the forested mountains from which she came. He constructed a huge mountain of vaulted terraces, one above the other, arising to perhaps 350 feet. Surrounding the building was a moat of flowing waters, while inside it deep wells fed water to hydraulic pumps which raised the water to a reservoir at he top of the structure, from which it fed down to deep layers of rich soil on each terrace. Thus irrigated, a profusion of lowering trees, shrubs, flowers, and vines grew. Beautifully decorated vaulted halls were filled with the treasures of the Empire: The finest Phoenician fabrics, silver vessels from Asia Minor, wines from Palestine, and gold from Egypt. Slaves waited on guests who reclined on divans sipping the juice of pomegranates and other fruits, while below throbbed the teeming life of the Great City.
Nebuchadnezzar tried to revive Babylonia as it had been before the ravages of the Kassites and Assyrians destroyed it. He again filled the canals with water and the flat plain of Shinar turned green once more. He restored the temples in some of the ancient Sumerian cities and learning and the arts revived.
Artists, craftsmen, priests, and scholars, all contributed to the glory of Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon, but for all its splendor it did not have the military strength to survive the covetous and powerful enemies on its borders. Shortly after his death, the city was overrun by an alliance of western tribes in 539 B.C., which appropriated Babylon as the capital of their empire.
Seasonal Exhibition Hall
This hall, which actually constitutes the building’s high tower, is assigned for seasonal exhibitions held occasionally on the accumulation of new finds. Such new finds are shown to the public before being distributed for permanent exhibition in the halls of the Iraq Museum and to other museums of the country.
Exhibits of the Assyrian Objects
Exhibited in this hall are various Assyrian objects found at the four Assyrian capitals and elsewhere.
This hall is devoted to the ivories discovered at Nimrud by the British expedition under the directorship of Professor Sir Max Mallowan.
The Iraq Museum is indeed proud to be the possessor of a large and priceless collection of ivories, which may be classified into three major styles or industries, the Assyrian, Phoenician and Egyptian industries.
Exhibits of the Chaldaen and Achaemenid Periods
This hall contains objects and artifacts dating to the first millennium B.C. Among them are Luristan bronze objects, sets of jewels and ornaments in gold and silver, cylinder seals and a variety of other objects.
This corridor is made by the space between the Assyrian halls and the Hatra hall and is occupied by a round stone table, supported by three legs, modeled like lion's legs. This table is one of fourteen, in two rows of seven, used for offering sacrifices, which were found in "Sibitti" Temple at Khorsabad.
This hall contains remains from the civilizations which followed the fall of Babylon at the hands of Alexander the Great (331 B.C.). Most of the exhibits of this hall, particularly the big sculptures, were brought from the city of Hatra.
The Hellenistic Influence
This rule lasted until 331 B.C. when the Macedonian Alexander the Great overthrew the reigning power. Had Alexander lived, he intended to establish a world empire with the great Babylon as its capital. However, upon his premature death there in 323 B.C. at the age of thirty-two, his empire was left to be divided among his generals. Babylonia and Assyria fell to Seleucis I who ruled from 301 - 281 B.C. Under the Seleucid Dynasty, Hellenistic influences were increasingly introduced to the population.
These influences continued under the succeeding Arsacids (or Parthians) whose rule lasted from 250 B.C. until 224 A.D. During this time the Parthians built as their capital the city of Ctesiphon, not far from the future site of Baghdad. It is noted for a fabulous arch which still stands among its ruins still the largest single span brick-built arch in the world.
During the last two centuries of their reign, the Parthians were constantly besieged by Rome. Emperor Trajan Optimus invaded and by 110 A.D. briefly held all of present day Iraq. However, the Roman sovereignty lasted but a decade.
The final demise of the Parthians came at the hands of the Sassanids, and for the next four centuries the area was under constant cruel religious and political upheaval.
Exhibits of the Sassanian
This hall houses antiquities of the Sassanian period, some of which have already been encountered in the previous hall. In particular this hall has architectural decorative elements which adorned royal palaces, and other objects found at Ctesiphon and Kish in particular.
Halls 18, 19, 20
Arab Islamic Civilization
The antiquities on display in the three Islamic halls of the Museum date from different periods of Islam. Hundreds of books have dealt with the subject of Islamic art such as the finest examples of the achievements of Islamic architects in Iraq are to be found at Kufa, Wasit, Baghdad, Samarra and Mosul, with their mosques, minarets, domes, schools, and palaces decorated with the typical geometrical and floral designs in cut brick, mosaic, or stucco. The Islamic ceramic industries reached a very high level of technical and artistic excellence. The Islamic glassware also achieved a high degree of perfection. Other exhibits include metal vessels as fine works of art, the textile industry, wooden furniture, and Islamic calligraphy.
Islam and the Abbasid Empire
Finally in 637 A.D. the force of Islam and the Arabs swept across the desert plain to a place called al-Qadisiyyah. It was here that the Arab force routed the remnants of the Sassanids, chasing their king as far as Afghanistan where he was finally assassinated. In four years the Sassanids were pushed off the historical scene.
The establishment of Islam under the Arab Empire was to bring to flower yet another great civilization in Iraq. And it is the Arabs which first began to call the country "Iraq".
The first Khalif of Arab Iraq was one of the Companions of the Prophet Mohammed, who had died in 632 A.D. This new ruler, Umar ibn al-Khattab, was a stern but just ruler. He would walk the streets of the cities at night in disguise, looking for orphans or the destitute to help. He wore a patched robe in the kind of saintly poverty that was an ideal preached by the Prophet Mohammed. He was also an energetic city-builder, founding the two important cities of Kufa on the Euphrates and Basra at the confluence of the two Mesopotamian Rivers.
Several Khalifates followed, and by 750 A.D. a dynasty was established in Iraq called the Abbasid. The first Abbasid Khalif, al-Saffah had began his khalifate at Kufa, then moved it to a town re-named Hashimiya where he died in 754 A.D. His son al Mansur, on an expedition three years after ascending to Khalif, crossed the Tigris and found there a small village called Baghdad.
"What is the name of this place?"
"Baghdad," they answered.
"By God," said the Khalif, "This is indeed the city which my father told me I must build, in which I must live, and in which my descendants after me will live. Kings were unaware of it before and since Islam, until God's plans for me and orders to me are accomplished. . . By God, l shall build it. . . It will surely be the most flourishing city in the world. . . and shall never be ruined."
In 758 al-Mansur exactingly laid out the plan for the new city. One hundred thousand workmen - architects, engineers, masons, laborers, craftsmen, carpenters, smiths, and diggers were called together. Under his plans they erected a round city, nearly a mile and a half in diameter, centered around a great square which contained the palace, adjoined by the cathedral mosque. Avenues were then laid out 75 feet wide, with streets of 25 feet, and dead-end alleys as needed.
For centuries Baghdad was the center of civilization. Not only was the wealth of the world concentrated there, but so was its intellect. Rome had declined to a weedy town of 50,000 peasants in whose empty streets cattle browsed. London and Paris were villages, and Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, but a second-rate city. In the only other empire of consequence, the Holy Roman Empire founded by Charlemagne, the nobles could barely write their names, and nothing else.
Under the Abbasids everyone was expected to be educated. Great universities were established at Baghdad and Nippur. The classical Greeks were translated into Arabic and then retranslated into Latin and the Western languages. Science and mathematics flourished - Arabic numerals were universalized. Literature peaked, creating such works as the renowned Thousand and One Nights.
The Arabian Nights
During 786-809 A.D. under the rule of the fifth and most famous khalif, Harun al-Rashid, Baghdad reached the full glory and opulence associated with the Abbasid era.
Fortunes equivalent to the greatest today were made in Baghdad and elsewhere in the empire, as money and wealth rolled in from the provinces and dependencies. Even for the middle-classes, the equivalent of $100,000 a year was considered a fair income. Houses were cooled by ice brought down from Zagros mountains. Tableware was made of silver. Clothing of all sorts, brocades, taffeta, damask, pewter, glass, stained glass, gold and silver, pearls, rubies, lapis-lazuli, turquoise, antimony, silks, perfumes, porcelain, dyes, spices, ivory, marble, sulfur, paper, pitch, tar, and mercury, all were brought into and became part of the economy and lifestyle.
Agriculture flourished. The Tigris and the Euphrates delta was drained, new canals were dug, and crops of barley, wheat, rice, and dates were bountiful. With the addition of exotic imported food stuffs from the provinces, cooking was developed into an art.
With literacy common and not the privilege of a few, social standards were high. There were 27,000 public baths. Medicine and pharmacy was a Baghdad specialty; there were 800 doctors, licensed to weed out the quacks. And libraries were translating into Arabic knowledge from the farthest reaches of the world.
As with all great dynasties, this, too, came to a slow end. By the 9th and 10th centuries, the kingdom had disintegrated to the point where nomadic Turkish tribes had began to make incursions into the outlying districts. The influence of the Khalifate began slowly to recede to Baghdad and nearby areas.
The Abbasids remained in power there until 1258 though, when the Mongols under Genghis Khan's grandson Hulagu raided from the east, sacked the city, and massacred over a million people.
The Turks then drove the Mongols out of the area after years of heavy warfare. In establishing the Ottoman Empire beyond the borders of Iraq, the conquerors left a ravaged, desolate land, stripped of the great wealth accumulated over the ages.
The Fertile Crescent thus degenerated into unappealing provinces at the mercy of unscrupulous Ottoman governors, whose main interest was squeezing the last diner of wealth out of the wretched people.
This sad state continued until the end of World War II and the collapse of the Ottomans. Mesopotamia was divided then into English and French provincial "spheres of influence" for a time, and granted nominal independence in 1921 under a monarchy.
In 1958 the monarchy was overthrown and a Republic was established.
The text for this Museum Walkthrough was adapted from documents posted at www.iraqi-mission.org, the website for the Permanent Mission of Iraq to the United Nations, and includes excerpts from Treasures of the Iraq Museum by Dr. Faraj Basmachi, published in Baghdad in 1975/76.
Source of illustrations: Treasures of the Iraq Museum by Dr. Faraj Basmachi.