Famous Iraqi building to become a museum

Rich history as prison for British soldiers, military base and mill.

NAJAF, Iraq // It served as an Ottoman headquarters, a prison, an ice factory and a mill before falling into neglect.

But now Najaf's historic and much loved Khan Al Shilan is getting a new lease on life - as a museum.

Local authorities in Najaf plan convert the structure by the end of the year. It will feature antiquities and archaeological pieces, as well as statues of rebels and some of the actual weapons they used in a 1920 Iraqi uprising against the British, during which captured soldiers were held at Khan Al Shilan.

In addition to its long history, Khan Al Shilan is significant due to the remains of drawings and dates left by the captive British soldiers, which are still visible on its walls.

According to Hassan Al Hakim, a history professor at Kufa University, Khan Al Shilan was originally intended to be a rest house for pilgrims visiting Najaf, which is home to the shrine of Imam Ali, one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam, and visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year.

But it was used as an Ottoman military headquarters before the defeat of the empire in the first World War and then as a local government administrative building.

When the British occupied Iraq, they dispatched forces from Baghdad who took control of Najaf, and Khan Al Shilan.

But when Iraqis launched their 1920 uprising, Khan Al Shilan temporarily reverted to local control and was used as a prison to hold British troops captured in several battles.

In 1933, the first electrical generator in the city was installed at Khan Al Shilan, providing power for the old city and the Imam Ali shrine, Prof Hakim said.

Khan Al Shilan was later used as a site to grind wheat and then as an ice factory, he said. It was rented out in the late 1990s and parts of it were destroyed, while others were used for rubbish disposal. Khan Al Shilan measures about 1,500 square metres and features three cellars. Its walls and entrance are decorated with Islamic designs.

Ahmed Kaabi, a 50-year-old who lives near Khan Al Shilan, said that "our memories are linked to it and we consider this place one of the symbols of Najaf."

The plan "to turn the Khan into a museum is a good project, despite the delay, because this place is very dear to us", Mr Kaabi said.

After more than half a century of neglect, "this building tells a lot of the history of Najaf," said Hamza Al Khalidi, the director of Khan Al Shilan. It is of "major importance with respect to the heritage of Najaf".

Najaf, the centre of Shiite religious scholarship worldwide, holds archaeological sites dating from a number of different periods.

But like many such sites in Iraq, not all are well cared-for, including the remains of the celebrated ancient Christian city of Hira, which lie neglected and mouldering a stone's throw from the Najaf airport because funds for excavation have dried up.