Even as Iraq mourns the destruction of priceless artefacts by jihadists in Mosul, the national museum in Baghdad has brought joy and pride to visitors by opening its doors for the first time in 12 years.
The public opening at the weekend was brought forward in response to a video released last week by the Islamic State group showing militants destroying statues in Mosul.
Many of the pieces on display in Baghdad were among the 15,000 looted when mobs ransacked the museum during the plundering spree that gripped the capital when US forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The blow was cataclysmic for an archaeological collection until then considered to be one of the world’s richest.
Close to a fifth of the stolen artefacts have been recovered.
Around 100 visitors trickled into the national museum on Sunday morning – the start of the work week in Iraq – as the reopening took Baghdad by surprise.
Like many visitors, education ministry employee Umm Ahmed was a first-timer.
“I always felt I should see the museum,” said the middle-aged woman, wearing a black cardigan and a beige headscarf.
“These are masterpieces. I have never felt so proud,” she said, slowly walking along a spectacular relief of nine huge slabs depicting Assyrian king Sargon.
Hassan Ali and his two friends rushed to the museum because they wanted to see an artefact representing Ur-Nammu, a Sumerian king who ruled 4000 years ago and is credited with giving the world its first legal code.
“He’s always mentioned in our books and courses, so we had to come and see him,” said the law student, who was nine years old the last time the museum was open to the public.
“We are proud that these civilisations were in our country.”
Last week’s footage of IS militants in Mosul gleefully smashing ancient statues with sledgehammers and defacing a colossal Assyrian winged bull at an archaeological park with a jackhammer shocked Iraqis and the rest of the world.
Museum staff and archaeologists worldwide rejoiced at the fact that Iraqis, for an entrance fee of $US1 ($A1.28), will be able to see their country’s greatest heritage treasures without travelling to the Louvre in Paris or to London’s British Museum.
“It will make accessible to the Iraqi people and to the world community the unparalleled collections in its galleries, which have been mostly unseen for a generation,” said Charles E. Jones, a US professor at Penn State University who has worked on the recovery of artefacts looted in 2003.
“It is one of the great national museums of the world.”