Decades after king's toppling, Iraq revisits its royal history

The date of the assassination of Iraq's last king – July 14, 1958 – has long been a national holiday. In a sign of changing attitudes, some politicians say it's time to rethink that.

Jane Arraf
Cars given to Iraq's King Ghazi on display at the first exhibit in Iraq since the royal family was toppled in 1958.
Jane Arraf
Tamara Dhagastani, a family friend of the Iraqi royal family, looks at part of her collection of thousands of photos of palace life. Her collection formed the basis of Iraq's first exhibit of royal memorabilia since the 1958 revolution.

More than half a century after Iraq’s monarchy was toppled in a violent coup, Iraqis are coming to grips with a controversial part of their history that some consider the country's golden age.

July 14, when King Faisel II and members of his family were killed in 1958, is celebrated as a national holiday here. Bridges and roads are named after that date.

But there are calls by some politicians to revoke those celebrations. The Iraqi post office, responding to popular demand, has issued stamps commemorating Iraq’s King Faisel and his son and grandson who later took the throne.

And at an unprecedented exhibit of photographs and royal memorabilia recently, hundreds of Iraqis came daily to marvel at a history some didn’t know they’d had, or reminisce about a more peaceful time.

Raghad al-Suhail, a university professor and writer, is too young to have known the royal family, but she peered at the photographs as if searching for old friends.

Her father, she says, was the last person to play tennis with King Faisel II before he and his relatives were shot dead by a group of Army officers. Seeing the photos makes her want to cry.

“I loved King Faisel – all my family loved him,” she says. “He made Iraq. He built Iraq…. Who came after King Faisel and what did they do for us? The one who built Iraq, who said to the world, ‘we have a place which is called Iraq,’ was King Faisel.”

In the photographs, Iraq’s last king is eternally young – both the boy and the country at an age where everything seemed new and full of promise. In some photos, he poses delightedly in the new motor-cars, which were still sharing the roads with horse-drawn carriages. In others he’s a young boy playing football with his friends or fixing his bike.  

Faisel II was only three years old when his father, King Ghazi, was killed in a car crash. He ascended the throne when he was 18 and reigned for just five years before he was killed in the revolution that ended the British-backed monarchy.

Class differences still resonate

In an era in which Iraq’s oil industry was in its infancy, the royal family lived a life of privilege but not opulence.  But for some, the class differences that helped spark the revolution still resonate.

“We were dying from hunger, we had nothing, we were barefoot. Go back to the monarchy? Never! ” says Baghdad resident Kadhim al-Uqali, before launching into a nationalist poem. Mr. Uqali says he was given a pair of shoes by the king after ranking first in his class.

The revolution paved the way for a republic later headed by Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Until Mr. Hussein was toppled in 2003, the only portrait it was safe to hang was his own.

First public display of royal life

The exhibit at a cultural center on al-Mutanabi street was the first time Iraqis have seen royal life displayed in public.

In the courtyard of the restored Ottoman-era military college, a 1932 black Rolls Royce gleams almost as brightly as it would have when it was given to King Ghazi. Next to it was a silver 1936 Mercedes presented by Hitler to the king.

Also on display were the maroon-colored royal carriages made in Britain, and, in a sign of simpler times, the Chinese bicycle that was a birthday gift from Crown Prince Abdul Elah.

In addition to the official photo exhibit, hundreds of photographs were displayed in the courtyard as a labor of love by curator Hasham Mohammed Tarrad, who hopes to turn it into a traveling museum. 

His exhibit was the fairy tale, untarnished by the real-life ending. Although he has photos of the mutilated bodies, he refuses to display them.  “It wasn’t people who killed them, but politics,” he says.

At the official exhibition upstairs, among glass cases of medals and silver serving ware that survived the looting of the palace in 1958, women covered in black abayas gazed at the images of Iraqi women in short skirts and low-cut ballgowns.

The commemoration received support even from those who likely never would have come to power if it hadn’t been for the revolution.

“Even now our grandfathers are proud of their reign,” says Fawzi Akram, a member of the Sadr movement and a former member of parliament. “We regret the bloodshed and the massacre of the royal family.”

Baghdad’s governor, Salah Abdul Razzak, last month called on the Iraqi government to formally apologize for the massacre.

Scattered in exile

Those in the royal family who weren’t killed in 1958 were scattered in exile. Those who were close to them also fled.

Tamara Dhagastani, a family friend of King Ghazi, provided the 250 photographs in the official exhibit from her collection that she says numbers 8,000.

Her father was jailed after the revolution and the rest of the family took refuge in Jordan. On a trip to Baghdad after 2003, she went through her aunt’s photo albums.

“I sat looking at them and thought ‘it really can’t be just our family’s photographs. It’s a photographic history of Iraq and what we need to do is share it with Iraqis,’’ she recalls at her home in Amman.

She recently started posting the photos on Facebook to reach out to young Iraqis.

“I don’t know whether it’s because they’ve been through so much misery that this looks very rosy to them,” says Ms. Dhagastani. She insisted that the Baghdad exhibit include photos of the revolution. In one a group of soldiers poses amid the destruction. In another, a shoe – a symbol of contempt – hangs by the laces from a royal chair.

In Dhagastani’s living room, cats weave their way around silver-framed photos. From piles of photos stacked on tables and spilling out of bags, she pulls out images of weddings and children’s birthday parties.

“Everyone of them had a story, everyone meant something,” she says. “To me to be able to hang them in Baghdad meant the world. I couldn’t believe I was bringing them to Baghdad and the people were going to see them – this family that had been forgotten for 54 years.”

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