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An ancient way to rally Iraqis (+video)

A reformed democracy has helped unite Iraqis to fight Islamic State. Yet just as important is their shared history as home to humanity's first civilizations, reflected in the reopening of the Iraq National Museum.

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A man visits the newly reopened Iraq National Museum in Baghdad March 1.

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Ever since the 2003 American invasion, Iraq has tried to re-create a national identity. Its new democracy, however, suffered from mistakes and foreign meddling, which only elevated other identities, such as Sunni and Shiite. Yet in the past year, a more inclusive government has revived Iraqi identity, which now helps to motivate the Army to fight Islamic State (IS).

Yet Iraq is also home to a deeper and more historic identity. It goes beyond political inclusiveness, a shared geography, common ethnicities, or widely practiced Islam. For much of the 20th century, Iraqis felt strong ties to the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, such as Sumeria, Babylon, and Assyria, which sprang up around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers thousands of years ago.

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This legacy of living in the birthplace of civilization was once on display at the National Museum of Iraq. Yet the Baghdad museum, which housed the world’s oldest antiquities, has been closed for 12 years. It has taken officials that long to recover thousands of pieces looted in the post-invasion chaos.

Only on March 1 did the museum officially open again. 

The reopening was rushed in order to make a point – to “heal the wounds” from the destruction of ancient artifacts in Mosul last week by IS. The militants, for example, defaced a 40-ton Assyrian winged bull, much as the Taliban destroyed Bamiyan Buddha statues in Afghanistan.

Now, said one official, the museum can again act as “a lung that allows the Iraqi people to breathe.” From a museum perspective, the shared history resides in material forms that depict humanity’s first cities, first empires, first plow and wheel, and first known forays into banking, laws, mathematics, astronomy, and writing.

Yet, as scholars point out, Mesopotamia was also home to the first record of humans thinking about thinking, or a rational self-reflection that led to a search for immortality. This new type of consciousness provided a freedom of awareness. Humans began to seek meaning and look beyond themselves. The ability to transcend materiality created the conditions for the birth of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam centuries later.

This critical juncture of human history may not be readily apparent to Iraqis who can now visit their museum. Yet they are heirs to it, and, as a nation reforming itself, that history can elevate their discussions about what it means to be an Iraqi.