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Basra Museum struggles to keep Iraq's heritage at home

The Basra Museum displays around 2,200 objects from the Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Hellenistic eras — 100 of which were reportedly looted and returned to Iraq from Jordan and the United States.

Under a pink and turquoise ceiling and wooden panels with Arabic calligraphy carvings, galleries filled with objects dating back millennia are bringing new life to what was once Saddam Hussein’s residence in Basra. 

The former dictator’s palace, overlooking the Shatt al-Arab River, now houses the Basra Museum. 

Post-2003, the grand building became a base for British soldiers, exposing it to the ire — and mortar shells — of militias fighting the troops in the southern oil hub. 

It later fell into the hands of Basra’s authorities, but a local archaeologist was determined that the city should have a museum. The old one was looted in the first Gulf War — nearly three decades ago — and had been shut ever since. 

“There were no maps, no documents and no information on how many archaeological sites and heritage buildings we have in Basra, what kind of previous excavations and surveys had been done, nothing,” Qahtan al-Abeed, the director of antiquities and heritage in Basra, told Al-Monitor. The archaeologist worked for years to push Iraqi authorities to allow the former palace to be used as a museum.

After the first gallery was inaugurated in 2016three new wings opened in March, funded by a 530,000 pound ($686,000) grant from the British government’s Cultural Protection Fund. The grants have helped to safeguard heritage sites in 12 countries across the Middle East and North Africa, including Syria, Egypt and Yemen. 

There are now around 2,200 objects from the Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian and Hellenistic eras on display at the museum. While most of them are 2,500 to 5,500 years old, some date back eight millennia. Among them are around 100 pieces that some sources say were "looted" and returned to Iraq from Jordan and the United States. 

Other artifacts speak of the everyday lives of people who inhabited what is now Iraq thousands of years ago. Delicate azure blue glass perfume and makeup bottles tell the story of women’s dressing tables in the early Islamic period, more than 1,200 years ago. Crudely shaped clay oxen on display are children’s toys from Babylonian times, more than 3,000 years ago. 

A library should join the galleries at the Basra Museum in January 2020. The new space, also supported by the British government, will have the capacity for 10,000 books. Among books, records and archaeological studies, it will hold the archive of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, which is currently stored in Baghdad. 

Abeed said the museum’s aim is protecting cultural heritage, but also teaching Basrawis — and Iraqis in general — about Iraq’s rich history, and why it is still relevant.

“We are using this place as a starting point to tell people about their historical heritage, and how sites need to be protected,” he noted. “The aim of the museum is not to be frozen, not to put objects there and let people come to see them, and that’s it.”

Abeed hopes that a volunteer program in which the youth help to organize festivals, temporary exhibitions and cultural presentations will encourage Basrawis to be proud of their heritage. 

"This is a live museum, with activities; we want to create friends of the museum, to raise awareness and to show our civilization to the world,” he added. 

At the moment, most of the museum’s visitors are school parties, and in the cooler winter months the museum receives around 100-200 visitors a day, according to Abeed. 

Museum key-keeper Jawad Abdul Kadhim welcomes them. He was a mechanic for 25 years before coming to work at the museum and has taken it upon himself to learn about the objects on display, their uses and history.

“It makes me really happy to see the visitors’ interest,” he told Al-Monitor as he pointed enthusiastically at the high-quality glass display boxes. “Preserving this stuff is important, especially as we went 27 years without a museum in Basra.”

Labeling in English was added this month, helping non-Arabic speaking visitors to navigate the displays of the burial pots, Islamic-era coins and cuneiform tablets — clay squares showing one of the earliest writing systems. It was invented by the Sumerian civilization, which existed in southern Iraq some 6,500 years ago. 

“It is important to have Arabic and English [labels] as it is hoped that this will be a museum for international visitors and visitors from the region, including Iran,” said Joan Porter MacIver, UK project co-ordinator for the Friends of Basrah Museum, a UK-registered charity supporting the institution. “The next stage is text panels explaining the background and history and they are being worked on now too — also in English and Arabic,” she told Al-Monitor.

The cuneiform tablets are some of Abeed’s favorite items on display. 

“Various tablets show the activities of trade and organization; they show contracts for selling things,” he said. “Most importantly for me, they show a draft grammar book for students, studying verbs and language at that time. That means there was a school, teachers and language study back then. There are marriage contracts too that show there was organization — things weren’t done randomly. That shows the level of civilization.” 

For some Basrawis, the museum also provides a point of pride in a city often seen only through the lens of protracted water, electricity and unemployment crises

"Of course, as a Basrawi I’m proud of the presence of such a museum, as every object in it tells a story of ancient times, and this in itself represents the history of ancient Iraq,” Majd al-Maliky, an auditor in the Oil Ministry’s Iraqi Drilling Company, told Al-Monitor. “When you stand in front of each artifact, it sends a shiver through you, and takes you far away, and makes you realize how important it was at the time of its use.”

The museum has made heritage much more accessible to Iraqis, but Abeed said more support is needed from the Iraqi state to bolster Basrawi heritage. 

“They have to continue what we started,” he said. “They have to continue what we have done and protect what we have achieved.”

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