Cameras flashed, mobile phones rang, television cameras moved round, chatter never ceased, a brief power cut plunged all into darkness, but successive speakers kept to their task, and the audience united in its appreciation of an enterprise so worthy of support.
It was the opening, in late September, of the new Museum of Antiquities in Basra, the second city of Iraq.
The building is splendid. A lakeside palace built for Saddam Hussein, its original decoration by Moroccan craftsmen survives and has been restored. Its octagonal entrance hall is roofed with a dome, with large rooms for galleries leading off from it. Geometric patterns in pale pastel colours contrast with dark carved woodwork for doors and parts of ceilings. Near the tops of some inner walls there is painted muqarnas — “honeycomb” — ornamentation.
The creation of the new museum is the realisation of a dream that was born in 2010 when the Friends of Basra Museum formed a charity, with the support of donors from cultural and business institutions, to replace the previous museum, which had been looted and damaged following the Gulf war and the 2003 US-led invasion; its former director was shot dead in 2005.
Some of the old museum’s treasures were removed to safety in Baghdad, and the National Museum there has provided objects for display in a spirit of co-operation that bodes well for the future. The British Institute for the Study of Iraq has donated its library, which is currently languishing in crates in an embassy basement in Baghdad. Now the new Museum of Antiquities is headed by the energetic and effective Qahtan Alabeed, who has seen the work through to the opening of this building and its first gallery. Already installed, this exhibits objects from Hellenistic times to early Islam, accompanied by wall panels displaying historical background in English and Arabic text, elegantly presented with an appropriate colour illustration from an Islamic manuscript. The selected episodes all relate to Basra and its neighbourhood.
The next gallery will exhibit Sumerian antiquities, followed by two more, for Babylonian and Assyrian objects. A substantial room has been allocated for public engagement, and there will be a library for archaeologists and a room for conservation. A shop and a café will help boost visitor numbers and revenue.
The museum stands back from the Shatt al-Arab with a lagoon on one side, in the southwestern outskirts of the city, a stone’s throw from the wide channel that carries the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates into the Gulf. An evening boat trip gives a feel for the great width of the channel and a view of the new museum from the water as the sun sets.
As part of a long-term plan to revive a devastated region through the deep cultures of antiquity, this museum is the first in a group of three. In a dilapidated but charming district of Old Basra nearby, a traditional-style Ottoman building with a garden now restored will become the Museum of Ethnography. A Museum of Natural History is planned for another substantial building along the road from the Museum of Antiquities. The planners have identified parkland around the Museum of Antiquities with the lagoon on one side as space suitable for future cultural activities.
For all three museums, the focus will be on the city of Basra and the environment of southern Iraq, where trade in luxuries with Arabia, Persia, India and Southeast Asia has continued through four millennia of recorded history. There the earliest Sumerian cities flourished, and there Alexander the Great built the last and reputedly the largest of the cities named after him: Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, later known as Charax Spasinou. That site, identified in 1967, was recently surveyed by a British team, which has now begun excavations at the invitation of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.
To the north of Basra the once devastated marshes are now reviving. A boat ride in substantial wooden canoes with outboard motors (opportunities for racing are eagerly taken by the boatmen) leads through thickets of reeds and swimming water buffaloes. On my visit, this adventure took place after a great lunch in a ceremonial mudhif, a cathedral-like building constructed entirely from reeds, apart from the marble floor.
From Basra it is also feasible to make an outing to Ur, and climb to the top of the first stage of the great ziggurat for an overview of one of Mesopotamia’s most illustrious archaeological sites. There the unrobbed tombs of very early rulers were excavated long ago, their riches now exhibited in the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad, the British Museum in London and the Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia. Three archaeological teams currently work there, Iraqis and westerners together.
At the new museum’s opening ceremony the pillared hall, sometimes referred to as Saddam’s throne room, was packed to hear speeches by Qais Rashid, chairman of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Maysoon Al-Damluji, chairman of the National Parliament Committee for Culture and Heritage, John Curtis, representative of Friends of the Basra Museum and president of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, and Qahtan Alabeed.
Eventually the national rules for entry charges will apply, but at this stage entry to the museum is free for all visitors, and large numbers of the local public flocked there after the opening. Funding problems continue, but the opening marks a significant step forward in a well-planned project. Regeneration through culture for an area that has suffered so much deserves heartfelt support.
Stephanie Dalley is an Assyriologist at the University of Oxfordfriendsofbasrahmuseum.org.uk
Photograph: Joan MacIver
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