In 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction, 16 American soldiers from Mobile Exploitation Team Alpha entered the headquarters of Saddam Hussain’s intelligence building.
It was there that they came upon a flooded basement and discovered a treasure trove of documents, books and artifacts from the Iraqi Jewish community. It took weeks for the American team to gather the 2,700 volumes and tens of thousands of documents which they found floating in four feet of water. And while they were drying out, the water-logged pages soon became moldy in Baghdad’s intense humidity.
Seeking guidance, the American team called upon the National Archives in Washington, DC. With the agreement of Iraqi representatives, these historic materials were shipped to the United States for restoration.
Today 23 of those treasures are on display at the Jewish Museum of Maryland in the National Archives exhibit, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage.” The exhibit, which runs through January 15, was created by the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, with generous support from the US Department of State Spanning more than 400 years of Jewish life, “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage” features a number of manuscripts, documents and liturgical books that represent the centrality of Judaism to Iraqi society throughout the centuries.
Some of the highlights include a 1568 Bible from Venice (one of the earliest printed bibles), prayer books printed in Baghdad, a Haggadah from 1902 decorated by an Iraqi Jewish child and an array of Hebrew calendars, from 1959-1973 – some of the last examples of Hebrew items printed in Iraq.