Baghdad to destroy home of Jew who helped found modern Iraq
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Baghdad to destroy home of Jew who helped found modern Iraq

Country's tourism ministry slams decision to demolish 100-year-old house of Sassoon Eskell

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Sir Sassoon Eskell, a Baghdadi Jew who served as Iraq's first finance minister and was a key player in the founding of the early kingdom. (Courtesy: wikipedia)
Sir Sassoon Eskell, a Baghdadi Jew who served as Iraq's first finance minister and was a key player in the founding of the early kingdom. (Courtesy: wikipedia)

The Baghdad municipality announced Friday it would demolish and then give to a developer the 100-year-old home of Iraq’s first finance minister, Sir Sassoon Eskell, while an official in Iraq’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities slammed the decision as a “violation” of the law.

Eskell, who was born into an aristocratic Baghdadi Jewish family in 1860, was instrumental in founding the Iraqi government’s laws and financial infrastructure.

The municipality of the Iraqi capital said in the press release that Eskell’s home “is not a heritage site according to the book of the heritage department,” the Iraqi site Assabah al-Jadeed reported Saturday.

“The home was constructed 100 years ago on Rashid Street, in central Baghdad, and is presently granted to a citizen to invest in,” the statement continued, stressing that “the investment is done in accordance with the law.”

Sir Sassoon Eskell, a Baghdadi Jew who served as Iraq's first finance minister and was a key player in the founding of the early kingdom. (Courtesy: wikipedia)
Sir Sassoon Eskell, a Baghdadi Jew who served as Iraq’s first finance minister and was a key player in the founding of the early kingdom. (Courtesy: wikipedia)

But Sa’id Hamza, head of the investigation department of heritage sites within the ministry, accused the municipality of “violating the law” by giving away Eskell’s home for investment.

“Who in Baghdad’s municipality considered the home to not be a heritage site?” he reportedly wondered.

Hamza added that Eskell’s home is composed of two parts: one that is meant to be handed over to the Finance Ministry, and another that is supposed to be returned to his scion Albert Sassoon Eskell.

Eskell, who was knighted by King George V in 1923, was a key figure in the founding the Iraqi state in 1920, and served five terms as the country’s finance minister before his death in 1932. He also served as the deputy for Baghdad in the first parliament of the Kingdom, and was reelected to all successive parliaments until his death.

When Winston Churchill convened the Cairo conference in 1921 to discuss what would become Iraq, Jordan and Israel, Eskell was one of two Iraqis sent to determine the fate of his country and choose its king.

Eskell was so well-regarded for his strict managerial ethic, with employees, officials and even King Faisal, that his last name has been transformed into a verb meaning “to be strict in holding people to account for their actions,” Assabah al-Jadeed reported.

The famed English writer Gertrude Bell wrote admiringly of Eskell’s personality and political talents.

Photo taken at the Cairo Conference- 1921. Seated: from right: Winston Churchill, Herbert Samuel. Standing first row: from left: Gertrude Bell, Sir Sassoon Eskell, Field Marshal Edmund Allenby, Jafar Pasha al-Askari. (Courtesy: wikipedia)
Photo taken at the 1921 Cairo Conference. Seated: from right: Winston Churchill, Herbert Samuel. Standing first row: from left: Gertrude Bell, Sir Sassoon Eskell, Field Marshal Edmund Allenby, Jafar Pasha al-Askari. (Courtesy: wikipedia)

“The man I do love is Sasun Eff. [Eskell] and he is by far the ablest man in the Council. A little rigid, he takes the point of view of the constitutional lawyer and doesn’t make quite enough allowance for the primitive conditions of the ‘Iraq, but he is genuine and disinterested to the core. He has not only real ability but also wide experience and I feel touched and almost ashamed by the humility with which he seeks — and is guided by — my advice,” Bell wrote in 1920.

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