Italy puts Baghdad Museum online

6/10/2009 8:16:00 PM

Iraq's treasures on show in eight 'virtual' halls

(ANSA) - Rome, June 9 - The treasures of Baghdad's National Museum went online for the first time Tuesday as Italy inaugurated the Virtual Museum of Iraq as part of an ongoing cultural collaboration between the two countries.

Looted during the United States-led invasion in 2003, the Baghdad Museum partially reopened in February after six years but the website is designed to make its most important artifacts accessible to everyone.

The site (virtualmuseumiraq.cnr.it), in Arabic, English and Italian, offers visitors the chance to walk through eight virtual halls and admire works from the prehistoric to the Islamic period, while videoclips reconstruct the history of the country's main cities.

''It's not a simple container of the objects in the museum but a real virtual journey, created for the general public and the scientific community, across 6,000 years of Mesopotamian history,'' said Italy's National Research Council Director Roberto De Mattei.

Among the artifacts on display in the Sumerian hall of the virtual museum is the famous Warka Mask, a marble head of a woman from Uruk dated to 3,400-3,100 BC, which, as with many of the works, visitors can rotate to get an almost 360 degree view.

In the Assyrian hall visitors can also admire colossal limestone statues of human-headed, winged bulls called Lamassu, dated to the eight and ninth centuries BC, that guarded the ancient cities of Nimrud on the River Tigris and Dur Sharrukin, modern-day Khorsabad.

Presenting the website Tuesday, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the virtual museum ''has allowed Italy's excellence in this field to shine and above all to make culture a tool to allow a population that has suffered greatly from the war to get back on their feet, to find through their own cultural and historic heritage a sense of unity''.

The speaker of Italy's lower house, Gianfranco Fini, who promoted the virtual museum as foreign minister in 2005, was also present at the inauguration.

Italy contributed one million euros and provided expert staff to help restore the museum, creating a restoration laboratory in Baghdad and overhauling the museum's Assyrian and Islamic galleries.

In February Frattini said Italy would help Iraq create a new police unit to fight the trafficking of stolen works based on Italy's crack team of art cops, who have gained a worldwide reputation for their work in recovering stolen works and stopping illegal trading.

He said Italy also planned to help reopen the museums of Najaf and Nassiriya near the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, recorded in the Bible as the birthplace of Abraham.

Present-day Iraq lies on the site of ancient Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the Baghdad museum boasts one of the best collections of ancient artfacts in the world.

Around 15,000 of the museum's relics were carried off during a 48-hour looting spree in 2003 in the wake of the US invasion.

Denounced as the most catastrophic theft of antiquities since World War II, the plundering sparked international outrage and condemnation of America for failing to prevent the thefts.

Italian art cops were enlisted in the race to track down the looted treasures.

While around 6,000 works have been returned, including the Warka Mask, many other pieces are still missing.

The police believe many of the treasures found their way to a collection center for smuggled Iraqi artifacts which has contacts with interested buyers, particularly in Britain, Switzerland and the United States.