Jews of Iraq
by Miriam Phelan, Assistant Curator
Over the next few months we will be exploring Sephardi Jewish communities from around the world and throughout time on the blog, alongside our exhibition Sephardi Voices: Jews from North Africa, the Middle East and Iran. Explore the historic Iraqi Jewish communities in the first of these blogs below.
The history of the Iraqi Jewish community is a long and significant one that dates back to the 6th century BCE following the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem, and the subsequent exile to Babylonia, in present-day Iraq.
Life improved for the Jewish captives when the Persians, under Cyrus, who conquered Babylon in 537 BCE, allowed the Jewish community to leave Babylonia and vast numbers left for Jerusalem. Many, however, chose to remain in Babylon, establishing new synagogues and a community that remained in Iraq for almost 1,000 years.
I will take you through this rich history by looking at some of the objects we have in the Jewish Museum collection, both in storage and on display.
Incantation Bowl, 5th Century
Possibly one of the oldest in the museum’s collection, this incantation bowl is thought to have originated in Iraq and was decorated with Aramaic text and images believed to have mystical powers.
The image at the base of this bowl has long since faded but would most likely have been an image of Lilith. Lilith is a female demon from Jewish mythology, first referenced in the Babylonian Talmud around the 3rd-5th centuries.
These bowls were buried upside down in the foundations of buildings as a means of protecting those inside from evil
demons. During the excavation of the ancient Iraqi city of Nippur in the 19th and early 20th centuries many Jewish settlements had incantation bowls concealed in their foundations or walls. It was during this period, from the 3rd to the 5th centuries, that Babylon became the religious, cultural and scholarly centre of Judaism and when the Babylonian Talmud came to be written.
Torah Case, 19th Century
This highly decorated Torah case was made in Iraq in the late 19th century and is currently on display in our Judaism gallery.
This Torah case, or Tik, is made of wood and overlaid in silver decorated with a trellis pattern of flower-sprays and gilt ‘wheat-ear’ borders. Its inscribed top is set with small pieces of coral and a domed top hung with small bells, both common features of Torah cases made in Iraq at this time.
David Solomon Sassoon, the treasurer of Baghdad in the early 19th century, recorded in 1910 that there were more than 70 scrolls in the Baghdad Great Synagogue alone, many of them stored in cases such as this.
This highly decorated and beautiful object is indicative of the relative prosperity of the Baghdadi community during this period, although many families such as the Sassoon family, were forced to leave their homes and businesses following increasing persecution by Dawud Pasha, the Mamluk ruler of Iraq from 1816 to 1831.
Baby’s Dress, 1935
This small baby’s dress was made of cream-coloured silk with gold embroidery by a student at the Laura Kadoorie Girls’ School in Baghdad in the early 1930s.
Classes for vocational skills at the school were introduced in 1923 to teach poorer children and orphans of Baghdad the skills of dressmaking and embroidery, allowing them to earn an income making clothing for the community.
From the 19th century onwards more affluent members of the community supported the provision of free education for poor or orphaned children and better healthcare as part of an increased awareness of social care within the community.
The Alliance Israelite Universelle was formed in Paris in 1860 and created a network of schools throughout the Middle East, most successful of which was the Laura Kadoorie School for Girls (founded in 1911).
Conditions continued to deteriorate in Iraq for the Jewish community after the war and the population of around 150,000 Jews in the 1940s has since reduced to just a handful today.
Although the Iraqi Jewish community diminished in the second half of the 20th century, this history remains a hugely important part of wider Jewish history. We seek to preserve the story of this ancient community by collecting and displaying objects such as those shown here.
Help us grow our collection of Sephardi objects! The objects shown here were given to the museum by Sephardi Jews who settled in the UK. We would love to have more Sephardi objects in our collection. Do you have objects representing your own story that you would be happy to donate to us? Email [email protected] and let us know.