Nearly a decade after former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down in an iconic moment seen globally, Baghdad will finally replace it with new artwork to mark its selection as next year’s Arab Capital of Culture.
It is the latest in efforts by authorities to promote the country and the capital, which this year marks 1,250 years since its founding. Baghdad played host to a landmark Arab summit in March, followed by talks between world powers and Iran in May over the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.
Baghdad’s selection as Arab Capital of Culture also gives the country a chance to make up for its failure to ready Najaf in time for it to take over as this year’s Islamic Capital of Culture, with the latter honor marred by delayed projects and allegations of corruption.
Organizers of the Baghdad cultural capital project are planning to erect 19 new statues, monuments and memorials across the city to highlight its cultural heritage and to mark late artists and cultural icons.
However, chief among them will be Abbas Gharib’s monument, to be erected at Firdos Square in the center of the city, where for decades a giant bronze statue of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein stood until it was pulled down with the help of US Marines on April 9, 2003, in a scene witnessed around the world on television.
Gharib will replace what is left of that statue — just the metal replicas of his feet — with an architectural ode to the past millennium in Iraq at the square, named after the Arabic word for paradise.
“The monument reflects the idea that Iraq is a unified country,” Gharib said.
The 21m cylindrical monument, a scale model of which Gharib showed off at a recent culture ministry news conference, flares at the top in 18 arches, symbolizing the country’s provinces.
Rounding the monument off is another cylinder of bronze, through which one can trace the history of Iraq — through the Mesopotamian, Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations.
Four “doors” to the monument pay tribute to the style of the Abbasids, who founded Baghdad in 762 AD.
Surrounding it will be gardens, while lights inside will point to the sky to show that “Iraq is still a source of enlightenment for mankind,” Gharib said.
Other statues and memorials around Baghdad will pay tribute to late cultural figures such as Kamel Shiaa, who was assassinated in 2008, the poet Nazik al-Malaika, killed in 2007, and the intellectual Ali al-Wardi.
“I think this is the first time Iraq has paid tribute to these figures of culture and heritage,” said Abdul Qader Saadi al-Jumaili, culture ministry spokesman.
Authorities also plan to build an opera house, theaters, concert halls and ultimately to restore a city struck by years of violence and, before the invasion, crippling international sanctions throughout which maintenance of its heritage took a back seat to other more urgent priorities.
The city has already taken some early steps to restore its former glory — in preparation for the March Arab summit, new grass and palm trees were planted along the airport road, referred to by US troops as “RPG alley” for the frequency of rocket-propelled grenade attacks during the worst of the violence.