views updated May 08 2018


City in Iraq; Iraq's only seaport, but situated some 75 miles (120 km) north of the Persian/Arabian Gulf, on the Shatt al-Arab.

Basra is an administrative and commercial center for Iraq, with a population of some 1.3 million (according to a 2002 estimate). It is linked to Baghdad, the capital, by railroad and is governed by the muhafiz, a chief of the administrative unit who is also the representative of the central government in Baghdad.

The seaport itself is actually situated at the head of the Shatt al-Arab, the confluence and the lower reach of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which flows for some 112 miles (180 km) to empty into the Persian Gulf. Basra is bounded on the north by the

governate of Maysan, on the east by Iran, and on the west by the Western Desert. Basra has a desert climate with great temperature variations between day and night, summer and winter. The high temperature reaches 106°F (50°C); the low is above frost. Annual relative humidity is 44 to 59 percent; annual rainfall ranges between 2 and 8 inches (50200 mm). Winters are warm, with temperatures above freezing.

With its multitude of waterways, Basra has the right conditions for the successful cultivation of dates; the incoming and outgoing tides of some 635 rivers and channels that water approximately 14 million palm trees make the region one of the world's most fertile. Despite the devastation that occurred here during the IranIraq War (19801988), the orchards are still farmed in quantity. Besides the 530 kinds of dates, other crops include maize (corn), citrus, apples, and many types of vegetables.

Petroleum has become the leading industry of Basra. The upstream operations are carried out by the Iraq National Oil Company, beyond the areas allotted to the British Petroleum Company, according to laws passed in 1961. In 1975, Iraq nationalized the Basra Petroleum Company, and the era of oil concessions ended. The oil refineries and the petrochemical and fertilizer plants were moved out of Basra during the IranIraq War, but the paper, fishing, and date industries still operate. Through Basra as a port-of-entry come imports, such as sugar, timber, coffee, and tea. The main exports are crude oil and petroleum products, dates, leather, and wool.

Although historically Basra was a multiethnic city, because of the political changes in Iraq since 1958, Muslim Arabs form the majority: Armenians, Indians, and Iranians are, for the most part, gone, as are the Jews. Arabic is the language of the city, and Shiʿism is the predominant form of Islamalthough some few Christians, Jews, and Sabaeans remain.

The University of Basra and a branch of the University of Technology are the schools of higher education; some 385 primary schools, 175 secondary schools, and 15 vocational schools exist. The Center for Arab Gulf Studies was located in Basra, but it was moved to Baghdad in 1985.

Basra was founded by Caliph Umar I in 638 c.e. It is the Bassorah of the Arabian Nights and Sinbad. In 1534, Basra was made part of the Ottoman Empire by Sultan Sulayman, who incorporated Iraq into his empire; along with Baghdad and Mosul, Basra was designated one of the vilayets (provinces) of Ottoman Iraq. Although the Mamluks ruled Iraq for several centuries, the Ottomans reestablished their authority in 1831, ousting the Mamluks and forcefully subjugating the tribal areas. British companies meanwhile established a sphere of influence, strengthening ties with tribal shaykhs and controlling the importexport market. The strategic position of Basra as a link in the overland route to Asia or the Mediterranean created a competition between the Ottomans, Germans, British, and Indians. The growth of the British and German presence in Basra during the eighteenth century awakened the Ottomans to its importance. They therefore attempted to reestablish their domination over Basra, Kuwait, and the surrounding region.

During World War I, Basra was the first Ottoman city to fall to a BritishIndian occupation, on 23 November 1914, and a military governor was appointed. Britain was planning to keep Basra under permanent jurisdiction, perhaps linking it to the Indian administrative unit, but international events worked against this. Although Britain was granted a mandate over Iraq by the League of Nations in 1920, they recognized Faisal I ibn Hussein as king in 1922 and dissolved the mandate in 1932, when Iraq was admitted to the League of Nations.

One of the factors that led to the IranIraq War was control of the Shatt al-Arab, the major waterway connecting the Gulf with Iraq's port of Basra and Iran's ports of Khorramshahr and Abadan. This had been the very issue between the Ottomans and Persia (now Iran) before World War I. Because of its location, then, Basra became central to the struggle, and the surrounding countryside suffered ecological damage, which was made worse by the destruction wrought by the Coalition forces during the Gulf Crisis of 19901991.

see also baghdad; dates; faisal i ibn hussein; gulf crisis (19901991); iraniraq war (19801988); iraq; mamluks; ottoman empire; persian gulf; petroleum, oil, and natural gas; shatt al-arab; tigris and euphrates rivers.


Altimimi, Hamid. Basra: Under British Occupation, 19141921. London, 1973.

Atiyyah, Ghassan. Iraq, 19081921: A Socio-Political Study. Beirut: Arab Institute for Research, 1973.

Cordesman, Anthony H., and Wagner, Abraham R. The Lessons of Modern War: The IranIraq War. London: Mansell; Boulder, CO: Westview, 1990.

Harris, George L. Iraq: Its People, Its Society, Its Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1958.

Longrigg, S. H. Iraq, 1900 to 1950: A Political, Social, and Economic History. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1953.

Nazar al-Khalaf


views updated May 08 2018


BASRA , port in southern Iraq, on the Shaṭṭ al-Arab, the outlet into the Persian Gulf of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. Jews settled there under the *Umayyad regime and one of the nine canals near the town is called Nahr al-Yahūd ("River of the Jews"). Jews also settled in Ubulla, then the port of the town of Basra and now the site of Basra. Toward the end of the Umayyad caliphate, Māsarjawayh, a Jewish physician from Basra, gained fame for his Arabic translations of Greek medical books. In the first generation of *Abbasid rule, the court astrologer was the Jew Misha b. Abra, called Māshāallah. Besides many artisans and merchants, the Basra Jewish community comprised many religious scholars, including Simeon Kayyara of Ṣabkha (suburb of Basra), who wrote Halakhot Gedolot about 825 c.e. The sages of Basra were in close contact with the academy of *Sura, to which the community sent an annual contribution of 300 dinars. In the tenth century, when the academy closed, the last Gaon, Joseph b. Jacob, settled in Basra. But until about 1150 the Jews of Basra continued to direct their questions on religious matters to the heads of the yeshivah in Baghdad, and especially to *Sherira Gaon and his son *Hai Gaon. From these questions, it appears that the Jews of Basra had close commercial ties with the Jews of Baghdad. Both a Rabbanite and a *Karaite community existed in Basra. A Karaite, Israel b. Simḥah b. Saadiah b. Ephraim, dedicated a *Ben-Asher version of the Bible to the Karaite community of Jerusalem. In the 11th century, Basra was gradually abandoned as a result of civil wars in Mesopotamia; and many of its Jews emigrated. Solomon b. Judah (d. 1051), head of the Jerusalem yeshivah, mentions religious scholars and physicians from Basra in Palestine and Egypt.

However, throughout the Middle Ages there remained an important community in Basra. *Benjamin of Tudela (c. 1170) reports that approximately 10,000 Jews, including many wealthy men and religious scholars, lived in the town. He also mentions the grave north of the town, believed to be that of *Ezra and also venerated by the Muslims. According to an early 13th century letter by Daniel b. Eleazar b. Nethanel Ḥibat Allah, head of the Baghdad yeshivah, there was also a synagogue in the town named for Ezra. When the *Mongols conquered Iraq in the mid-13th century, Basra surrendered and was not severely damaged. However, when Tamerlane conquered Mesopotamia in 1393, many Jews were killed and all the synagogues in the town were destroyed. Nevertheless, a small community continued to exist.

The community regained its importance during the 18th century. Its wealth increased; rich landowners in the community liberally distributed alms and even sent contributions to Ereẓ Israel. The liturgical poem Megillat Paras ("Persian Scroll") by the emissary from Hebron, Jacob Elyashar, describes the siege of Basra by the Persians and the town's deliverance in 1775, when the Jewish minister of finance, Jacob b. Aaron, who had been captured, was released. Afterward, Nisan 2nd – the day on which the siege was lifted – was celebrated in Basra as the "Day of the Miracle." Jews played such a vital role in the commercial life of Basra that in 1793 the representative of the East India Company was forced to live in Kuwait for nearly two years, because he had quarreled with the Jewish merchants. In 1824 David d'Beth Hillel reported 300 Jewish households belonging to merchants and artisans in Basra and a Jewish finance minister. During the persecutions of Jews which took place under the rule of Daʾūd Pasha in the early 19th century, several wealthy members of the Basra community emigrated to India. The traveler, Benjamin ii, mentions that in 1848, he found about 300 Jewish families in Basra. But in 1860 Jehiel Fischel, an emissary of the rabbis of Safed, reports 40 Jewish families in the town out of a population of 12,000. After the British occupation in 1914, the number of Jews increased from 1,500 to 9,921 in 1947, when Jews constituted 9.8% of the total population. Most of the Jews were traders and many worked in the administration service of the railroads, the airport, and the seaport. The legal status of the community was regulated by a 1931 law, according to which a president and a chief rabbi were assigned to head it. A boys' school was founded by the Alliance Israélite Universelle in 1903, and later became a high school. In 1950 it had 450 pupils. In 1913 an Alliance Israélite Universelle girls' school was founded, and attended in 1930 by 303 pupils. All schools were under the supervision of the community committee. In the 1930s, a theosophical group was formed and headed by the Jew Kadduri Elijah 'Aani (who went to Palestine in 1945 and died in Jerusalem). The community excommunicated this group, and its Jewish members were forced to establish their own synagogue, cemetery, and slaughter-house. A Zionist association, formed in Basra in 1921, was not allowed freedom of action.

[Eliyahu Ashtor]

Modern Period

In May 1941, under the pro-Nazi regime of Rashīd ʿĀlī al-Kailānī, Jewish shops were looted by an incited mob. In 1942 the newly founded Zionist movement of Basra trained Jewish youngsters to use arms in anticipation of further attacks and organized groups for *aliyah. After a few years of relative calm, the Jews were again in danger. In 1948, with the declaration of the State of Israel, a military regime was declared in Iraq and many Jews were arrested and accused of cooperating with Israel. In September 1948, Shafiq Adas, a Jewish millionaire, was accused of selling arms to Israel via Italy. In fact he dealt with scrap metal left behind by the British forces. He was sentenced to death and fined l5 million; he was then hanged in front of his home in Basra. As the wave of arrests continued, thousands of Jews tried to leave Iraq and reach Israel using clandestine routes. Most of them arrived in Basra, and in 1949–50, the city served as a center for the flight of Jews to Iran, on their way to Israel, with the Jewish population rising to 13,000. Thousands were helped by smugglers to cross the Shatt al-ʿArab to the Iranian shore. Under ʿAbd al-Karīm Qāsim's military regime (1958–63), the Jews were given some freedom and civil rights, but after the Baʿathist counterrevolution, they were again persecuted. In 1969, many of Basra's Jews were arrested and transferred to *Baghdad. Nine of them were hanged. In 1968 fewer than 300 Jews were living in Basra. After American and British forces entered Iraq in 2003 and put an end to Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, the few remaining Jews in Basra and Baghdad emigrated to Israel, with the help of Jewish organizations.

[David M. Sagiv (2nd ed.)]


Sassoon, in: jqr, 17 (1926/27), 407–69; A. Ben-Yaacov, Yehudei Bavel (1965), index (Bibliography: 388–415); S. Landshut, Jewish Communities in the Muslim Countries of the Middle East (1950), 44–45, passim; Y.F. Kestelman, Masʿot Sheli'aḥ Ẓefat be-Arẓot ha-Mizraḥ (1942), 56–58; H.J. Cohen, Ha-Pe'ilut ha-Ẓiyyonit be-Irak (1969), index. add. bibliography: H.J. Cohen, Ha-Yehudim be-Arẓot ha-Mizraḥ ha-Tikhon be-Yameinu (1972); M. Sawdayee, All Waiting to be Hanged (1974); N. Rejwan, The Jews of Iraq (1985), index; Y. Meir, Hitpatḥut Ḥevratit-Tarbutit shel Yehudei Irak me-az 1830 ve-ad Yameinu (1989); M. Ben-Porat, Le-Bagdad ve-Ḥazarah (1996); N. Kazzaz, Sofah shel Golah (2002), index; D.M. Sagiv, Yahadut be-Mifgash ha-Naharayim (2004).


views updated May 21 2018

Basra (Al-Basrah) City and chief port on Shatt al-Arab channel, s Iraq; capital of Basra province. An ancient centre of Arabic learning, it was captured by the Turks in 1668. In the early 20th century, large oilfields were discovered nearby, resulting in Basra's revival as a commercial and industrial centre. It suffered serious damage during the Iran-Iraq and Gulf Wars. Industries: oil refining, flour, wool. Pop. (1996 est.) 669,900.