It’s been a long wait for Ahmad Mahmoud al-Daftar, a local living in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. Too long, in fact. The city’s brand new and already much lauded Museum of Antiquities opened just a couple of months ago. But al-Daftar had already opened his own museum, at home.
Al-Daftar has been collecting antiques from around Basra for years and dedicated part of his own home to displaying them.
“Some of the things on display date back centuries,” he says proudly. “They reflect the history of Basra and give the younger generation a better understanding of their own city, at different times in history.”
Al-Daftar says he inherited his collector’s nature from his father, along with some of his father’s collection. Other things he has bought from their owners and he has hundreds of items, including swords and other kinds of weapons, that both locals and foreigners have come to see. Al-Daftar has been so happy with the response to his collection he plans to expand his display and construct a new building.
In the past, Basra has been home to a wide variety of well-known museums. At one stage the city had a museum of antiquities, a natural history museum and a floating maritime museum near the entrance of the Ashar River. However these museums were either destroyed or looted.
“All the antiquities in the museum at Basra University were destroyed during the war in 1991 and the historic building was also destroyed,” says Qahtan al-Obaid, director of the city’s new Museum of Antiquities. “Half of the items were stolen but the other half was saved because it was sent to Baghdad for safe keeping. These items will be returned to Basra when we have an appropriate place to display and store them.”
Al-Obaid says he hopes that further halls will open in the near future where items from the ancient Babylonian, Sumerian and Assyrian periods will be displayed. There is also a plan to open a special museum for cars, he adds.
Because the official museums were destroyed or looted, Basra’s enthusiastic locals have played their own part in preserving their city’s heritage.
Basra biology teacher, Hisham Khairallah, created a museum space in which he has displayed local animals preserved through taxidermy. The animals do come from around Iraq but many are from Basra itself and its surrounds.
“This museum tells the natural story of the city and southern Iraq,” Khairallah explains. “It is also used by biology classes. The animals here reflect the environmental diversity of this part of the world.”
A museum of natural history was supposed to be being built near the newly opened Museum of Antiquities but the work has now stalled. So Khairallah says he is pleased to be keeping his collection at home as well as lending it out to seasonal exhibitions.
“Caring for our heritage – both natural and cultural – is important for attracting visitors but it also has an impact on the local community, in an intellectual sense, and it helps encourage multi-culturalism,” says Anwar Gaseb al-Tarrif, a local researcher.
Al-Tarrif believes that the world’s image of Arab culture has been distorted, as has Basra’s own image. “It is important to create the image of this place as it should be,” al-Tarrif told NIQASH, “and to have both the local community and tourists see it this way.”