The Iraqi Jewish Archive: The Story and its Implications

Bible: Writings, Venice, 1568 (From the Iraqi Jewish Archive)

On May 6, 2003, American troops were searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Their search led them to Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters in Baghdad. Troops had been informed that the building contained a copy of the oldest known Talmud in existence, possibly dating from the 7th century. The decision was made to try to save this document.

The team discovered a very flooded basement. A water pump was needed, and so they resolved to return the next day. Unable to procure the pump by the next day, they came back another day later. By that time, someone had already made their way through the debris and taken the items they felt were valuable. Among the missing documents was the 7th century Talmud.

The remaining accumulation of documents and volumes was called the Iraqi Jewish Archive. It was not a “collection” in the traditional sense. Doris Hamburg, Director of Preservation Programs at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) explained, “We gave it the name ‘Iraqi Jewish Archive’. There’s some confusion in that it really is not an archive. The books and documents…had come from different parts of the Iraqi Jewish community. They were never collected as one collection” (US National Archives, 2013). Nevertheless, the team did recover approximately 2700 volumes and tens of thousands of documents that painted a picture of a rich and vivacious Iraqi Jewish community over the course of five centuries.

Tik (Torah Case) from Baghdad, 19th-20th century (From the Iraqi Jewish Archive)

The Archive contains both Hebraic and Arabic language materials.  Rare Hebraic materials like the ‘Ketubim’ volume of the monumental Third Rabbinic Bible (published in Venice in 1568) were found.  Other items include Hebrew calendars from 1959 to 1973, a student’s school certificate from the 1970s, and an ornate Torah case. Sadly, all of these items had been thoroughly soaked upon discovery.

By August 2003, it was decided that NARA would take temporary custody of the Archive to perform conservation and preservation work, as well as to create an exhibit; Iraq didn’t have the means to do that kind of work at the time.  After nearly ten years of work, in 2013, the exhibit was ready to go on display.  It featured only twenty four artifacts (some reproductions) and was called “Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage.”  As of September 2014, the exhibit is set to go on tour to several additional US cities (it has already shown in New York and Washington DC).

For more information on Iraqi Jews, check out these books, available at Touro College Libraries:

Bashkin, O. (2012). New Babylonians: A history of Jews in modern Iraq. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Abbas, S. (2005).  Iraqi Jews: A history of the mass exodus. London: Saqi.

Contributed by: Victoria Reyz, Library Assistant, Midtown


Markoe, L. (2014, September 5). Iraqi Jewish Archive to go on the road. Washington Post. Retrieved from

Miller, J. (2003, May 7). Aftereffects: A find; Iraqi documents on Israel surface on a cultural hunt. New York Times. Retrieved from

Miller, J. (2003, May 9). Aftereffects: Missing documents; G.I.’s search, not alone, in the cellar of secrets. New York Times. Retrieved from

NARA. (2003, October 2). The Iraqi Jewish Archive preservation report [PDF]. Retrieved from

US National Archives. (2013, November 7). Discovery and recovery: Behind the scenes work on the Iraqi Jewish Archive [Video file]. Retrieved from

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