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msnbc.com contributor

Explainer: Seven priceless treasures lost to war

  • Image: Artifacts
    Khalid Mohammed/AP

    During the fall of Baghdad in 2003, thousands of artifacts were taken from the Iraqi capital's National Museum, whose holdings documented the rise of civilization in ancient Mesopotamia. Scholars called the losses a tragedy for all of humanity.

    Since the looting, about 5,000 artifacts have been recovered and returned to Iraq, including the antiquities shown here that were seized by Syrian authorities after they were smuggled across the border. About 600 of the artifacts that had been returned went missing once more - and were found again just this month, misplaced among kitchen supplies at the Iraqi prime minister's office.

    Experts believe more than 15,000 artifacts remain at large.

    Click ahead to learn about six more historical and archaeological treasures lost to wars and conflict, from the invasion of Iraq to a 17th century attack on the Parthenon. Some treasures have been restored or replicated; others are gone forever.

  • War-torn Iraq takes a toll on Babylon

    Image: Jeffrey Allen, Mohammed Taher
    Maya Alleruzzo  /  AP

    Babylon, the 4,000-year-old city in Iraq famed for its Hanging Gardens and Tower of Babel, has been heavily damaged from decades of use and abuse, and now is caught up in a dispute over how best to restore it to splendor.

    Archaeologists carted away some of its most prized treasures, including the Code of Hammurabi, in the 19th century. Then, in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein embellished the site with his own poorly constructed structures and turned it into a theme park.

    The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 added insult to injury. It was a military base for three years, a use that a UNESCO report called "a grave encroachment on this internationally known archaeological site."

    Now, a U.S.-funded project aims to restore Babylon. In this image, Jeffrey Allen, co-coordinator of the effort, right, talks to guide Mohammed Taher, center, outside a reproduction of the Ishtar gate at the site.

  • Buddha statues destroyed in lawless Afghanistan

    Image: Buddha statues
    Muzammit Pasha/Reuters (left) and Sayed Salahuddin/Reuters (right)

    A pair of 1,500-year-old giant statues of Buddha carved into the side of a sandstone cliff in Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley were destroyed with explosives in 2001 by the Taliban because they were viewed as idolatrous under Islamic law.

    The international community was outraged. UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said at the time that the "destruction represents a true cultural crime. The loss is irreversible." Discussions are ongoing about whether, and how, to rebuild the statues.

  • Bactrian gold lost and found

    Remy De La Mauviniere  /  AP

    In 1978, just before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Soviet archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi found an estimated 22,000 pieces of gold at a first-century burial ground in a northern province of the war-torn country. In the 1980s, the hoard disappeared.

    The fate of the so-called Bactrian gold — crowns, daggers, medallions, coins and the like — remained unknown until a mysterious group called the key holders revealed its whereabouts in a vault under the presidential palace in 2006, several years after the U.S.-led invasion.

    A National Geographic Society archaeologist cataloged the Bactrian gold, which then went on display at museums in Europe and the United States. In this photo, a tourist views pieces of gold when the hoard was at the Guimet Museum in Paris.

  • Room of amber panels goes missing

    Alexander Zemlianichenko  /  AP file

    A chamber full of elaborately carved amber panels, presented as a gift from Prussian King Frederick William to Russian Czar Peter the Great in 1716 and installed in a palace outside of St. Petersburg, was considered by some to be the eighth wonder of the world.

    The Amber Room was looted by German soldiers in 1941 and moved it to a castle in Koenigsberg, which is now the Russian city of Kaliningrad. In 1945, it disappeared.

    Theories abound as to its whereabouts. Some claim it lies within a sunken ship. Others say the panels were buried in a pit in the German town of Deutschneudorf on the Czech border. One popular theory holds that the panels burned in the Koenigsberg castle as the city fell to the Soviets.

    A reconstruction of the famed Amber Room is on display in the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg and is shown in this image.

  • Beijing's Summer Palace burns and rises again

    Image: Beijing Summer Palace
    China Photos/Getty Images

    An imperial garden in Beijing that is today considered a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design was torched during the Anglo-French invasion in 1860. The gardens and palaces were rebuilt in 1886 and today serve as a favorite summer retreat to escape the heat in Beijing.

    The palace's seamless integration of hills and open water with human-made structures made it worthy of designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. In this photo, a tourist walks in the palace's Bafang Pavilion.

  • Parthenon bombed

    Image: Parthenon
    Aris Messinis/AFP - Getty Images

    The Parthenon, a temple on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, that was completed in 432 B.C., ranks as one of the world's most widely recognized ruins.

    The temple's ruinous condition is mostly due to the fighting in 1687 when the Venetian troops attacked Athens. The Ottomans, who had taken over the city in the 15th century, were stashing gunpowder in the ancient temple. When a mortar struck the temple, the gunpowder exploded. Walls crumbled. Statues fell. The roof caved.

    Today, damage from the explosion is visible to the throngs of tourists who visit the Parthenon each year.

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