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Saddam Hussein's Basra Palace Transformed Into Museum

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq has lost thousands of antiquities to looters and more recently to ISIS. Modern Iraq is a land that once contained some of the most important places in human civilization, including Babylon and Mesopotamia. This week, a new museum opened its doors, aiming to preserve that heritage with help from curators from the British Museum. It's in Basra in southern Iraq in the palace of a dictator, and that is symbolic, says the director of the Basra museum, Qahtan al-Abeed. We reached him by Skype.

Welcome to the program.

QAHTAN AL-ABEED: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: The museum, it's housed in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, old palaces. And what does that mean to you? Because obviously there must be some bad connotations to one of Saddam's buildings.

AL-ABEED: You know why we turned this building to be a museum? It's to let the bad memory of Iraqis during the Saddam Hussein time to be a civilization place, a cultural place, not a dictatorian (ph) place.

MONTAGNE: Right because I know Iraqis are very proud of their very, very long place in history.

AL-ABEED: Yes. We have a grand history, and we have the Mesopotamians for humanity. This is the civilization. It's not only for Iraq. So that's why we're trying to make a museum to exhibit objects from all the periods.

MONTAGNE: And describe for us what is on display at this moment in time. For you, the most prized items are antiquities.

AL-ABEED: All the objects are very important, but we have some unique coins in this exhibitions. This is the first time for presentation, this coins. It's Parthian, Sasanian, Islamic period. which mean 400 B.C. until the 18th century. For me, this is very interesting, but we have 440 different artifacts - pottery jar, glazed jar, mosque decoration, different plates and bronze and different objects from Basra's excavated sites. But the difference between the Basra museum and other museums in Iraq, we are planning to make Basra museum as a model for other Iraqi museum and maybe for the region.

MONTAGNE: How so?

AL-ABEED: Our aim, it's not just to put the object inside the showcases and ask the visitors come to see. No, our idea, it's the education first and the cultural activities. Also we opened education room. This is for the teaching the students how to make pottery, glass, how to write cuneiform or drawing, painting, different activities.

MONTAGNE: You've been working on this for years. It is your museum, in a sense. You're the director. What does it mean to you that the doors have opened on this Basra museum?

AL-ABEED: I feel proud. I really feel very happy because we did very hard time 2008, 2007 and '06, very dangerous time. We have a religious problem in the country that was really very difficult, but we did our best. And supporting by our friends from outside Iraq, it was really very strong. And that's why we have this very good succeed. I think if we all together be in one hand at the end, we will have the peace. So this is the most important things.

MONTAGNE: Qahtan al-Abeed is the director of the Basra museum in southern Iraq. Thank you for talking with us.

AL-ABEED: Thank you. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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