(JTA) – Iraqi intellectuals decried the demolition of an historic building in Baghdad that once housed a Jewish finance minister as a “catastrophe” against historical preservation. The 19th-century villa of Yechezkel Sasson on A-Rashid Street in the Iraqi capital was bulldozed last Friday even though it was earmarked for preservation as an historic monument, the Israeli newspaper Maariv reported. Its demolition prompted condemnations online and on social media by intellectuals who said it was indicative of corruption under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Sasson, who died in 1932, is held in high esteem by many Iraqis as a patriot and an accomplished civil servant.
“Seen in the context of the urban history, heritage and architecture of Baghdad, the demolition of the Sasson residence is a catastrophe,” Adel al-Ardawi, a historian specializing in Iraqi heritage, was quoted in an expose by Maariv published August 8. The villa, located on a desirable riverbank street, was sold to a developer who had it torn down to make room for a high-rise apartment complex. Nabil al-Rube’I, an Iraqi historian specializing in the history of Babylonian Jewry said heritage sites of all stripes have been neglected and plundered in Iraq since the overthrow in 2003 of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein but “this is especially true for Jewish sites.”
The demolition moved a young poet, Mohammed al-Rakabi, to write a protest poem, which was shared online. “Sasson, your abode is in our heart. Love remains and will not die in chains. Had you been born in a country that recognizes its founders, it would not have given rise to ignoramuses turned masters,” reads the poem.
Sasson, also known as Sir Sassoon Eskell, is buried in Paris. He was born in 1860 and attended the Alliance Jewish high school in Ottoman-ruled Baghdad until his father, lawyer Ezra Sasson, sent him to Istanbul to complete a law degree. He served as an interpreter for the Baghdad district administration, landing a senior position at the water administration service before his election in 1908 to the city council as an alderman. He served for two terms before he was appointed a special advisor to the agricultural and trade ministry and later as finance minister. His private library was at one point one of Iraq’s finest but it was plundered and the collection was lost after 2003.