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Najaf’s Arab Christian heritage

By Mehiyar Kathem, on 2 July 2021

Prior to the expansion of Islam, the area that Najaf encompasses was one of the world’s most culturally diverse cities. Al Hira, a city and civilisation of late antiquity, was located on the Roman – Sasanian frontier and composed of a majority Arab Christian population. It was a major trading hub and represented a cultural crossroads between al Hijaz, in today’s Saudi Arabia and the wider region. In light of its rich and fascinating history, al Hira’s place in Najaf and more broadly Iraqi society is being studied by a team of researchers from the University of Kufa. 

The Nahrein Network supported project is the first that looks at Hira’s past in relation to Najaf’s society today and its role and position in the public sphere. In recent weeks a research team led by prominent Iraqi historian Professor Khalid al Hussainy has been exploring what al Hira’s history, evidenced also by its archaeology and ruins in the province and its cultural and intellectual legacies, mean in Iraqi society. 

Along with other members of the team, Dr Amal al Bakri – Vice Dean of the Faculty of Archaeology at the University of Kufa – has been visiting Najaf’s various state and societal institutions, including schools, health clinics and police stations, to explore what Najafis understand of al Hira’s past and how they negotiate knowledge of the ancient civilisation. As part of these efforts, the research team has been conducting interviews with people and stakeholders, including local government authorities, the Shia Endowment and religious authorities. Those interviews, the first to be carried out about al Hira and the way society and communities negotiate its history, have yielded new insights about how the civilisation’s past is viewed. 

One of the early findings of this research is that al Hira is widely respected in Najaf and there is widespread reception for its promotion as an integral component of Iraq’s history. Many of the interviewees had known of al Hira’s cultural and intellectual developments, including in poetry and literature and its contribution to the development of Arabic as a language that came to be adopted by Islam. Whilst interviewees had varying degrees of awareness about al Hira, most have at least a basic understanding of its importance and also knowledge of its eventual contribution to the establishment of Kufa as an Islamic capital after the birth and growth of Islam.

 

An informational panel explaining the origins and background to the  name of a primary school, named after al Hira’s Christian king and ruler, Al Nu’man. Najaf, Iraq. June 2021.

 

 

Dr Amal al Bakri standing in front of a police station which is named after al Hira. Najaf, Iraq. June 2021. 

 

 

Dr Amal al Bakri in an archaeological site containing the remnants of a Hiran church. Najaf, Najaf Airport complex. June, 2021

 

The project is also one of the few in Iraq today that is exploring new ways of enriching the field of history which have for decades been characterised by desk-based studies and intellectually stagnant repetition. In this context, one way in which the study of the past could be revitalised in Iraq is by looking at public history. Public history – the study of the past with a view to its relevance and role in society – is a relatively new field in the country and largely under-developed as an approach and field of research. Encouraging Iraqi researchers to engage with society has many benefits, not least in developing stronger linkages between Iraq’s universities and communities, which for decades have remained disconnected and therefore need to be strengthened over the next few years. 

The research conducted by Dr Al Hussainy and Dr Al Bakri and other team members highlights a number of issues that could be explored in the future. The first is that al Hira’s Christian and multi-faith heritage could be better integrated into national learning curricula at different levels of education as there is widespread interest in its promotion. Such education-based approaches could be an effective method of strengthening awareness which is commonly promoted as one of the remedies to Iraq’s heritage challenges.  

In addition, al Hira’s archaeology – which has produced numerous artefacts much of which are now in the Iraq Museum – could be used for the preparation of Najaf’s new archaeology museum, which is currently being established by the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH). The ground-breaking work of Kufa Univesity’s public history research team could lay the foundation for a major permanent exhibition at the museum, and help in the process strengthen public knowledge of Najaf’s pluralistic histories. Indeed, the research team is in communication with SBAH archaeologists to do just that. Again, this is a relatively new development in Iraq as academics have generally not been part of developing museum learning experiences and improving the capacity of museums in such things as interpretation, history-writing and information presentation. That disconnection between Iraqi academics and museums is palpable and could be addressed through such initiatives. 

It is worth noting here that the public history project represents a major change from conventional US-European programmes in the field of heritage, which mostly focus on traditional archaeology and excavations. Such projects have commonly ignored people, public education and societal engagement in their Iraq activities and research interests. The project could in this context offer a number of lessons for conventional archaeology in the country, whether they be led by non-Iraqis or national ones. In particular, the research team has shown the necessity of ensuring that archaeology and history should be made more accessible to wider society and communities, and that public history should be prioritised in all projects in this field. Foreign archaeological excavations – which mostly focus on digging and working with material structures – would do well to learn from such projects and incorporate public engagement and education activities in their future programmes. The same would also be true for Iraqi-led excavations, though for various reasons those are more limited in number in Iraq today. 

Importantly, the work produced by the research team showcases the need to strengthen safeguarding mechanisms regarding the archaeology of al Hira, which remain in a precarious state. Indeed, the project’s public engagement activities – particularly visits to stakeholders in the province – could potentially assist heritage authorities and government to implement more effective protection measures. As mentioned, the idea of establishing a museum hall in Najaf’s archaeology museum about al Hira’s past and role in Iraqi society could be an important step in supporting efforts to prepare a sustainable plan for the protection and celebration of this history. 

 

A gravestone with the symbol of a cross, Al Manadirah cemetery, Najaf, Iraq. June, 2021. 

 

 

A section of a Hiran Church in Najaf Airport complex,  Najaf, Iraq. June 2021. 

 

The blog piece was written by Dr Mehiyar Kathem.

 

References: 

The ʿibād Of Al-Ḥīra: An Arab Christian Community In Late Antique Iraq in: The Qurʾān in Context (brill.com)

Late Antique Iran and the Arabs: The Case of al-Hira in: Journal of Persianate Studies Volume 6 Issue 1-2 (2013) (brill.com)

Al-Hira and Its Histories 

Changed practices in Iraq’s heritage related academic networks

By Mehiyar Kathem, on 30 June 2021

Written by Dr Mehiyar Kathem and Dr Jaafar Jotheri

It is not always easy to notice changing practices within the field one works in. Indeed, one must have relative distance – to notice and observe how things evolve over time – but also an in-depth knowledge of the field. By the end of the year, it would have been four years since the Nahrein Network started its work and one can now discern several transformations in Iraq during this period. This piece is written with a view to highlighting how the Nahrein Network, through its work in Iraq, has contributed to strengthening capacity amongst Iraqi academics and the universities it works with, focusing in particular on its heritage related activities.

Iraq, and in particular, Iraq’s academics – the Nahrein Network’s main partner in the country – are thirsty for international engagement, particularly with UK-based universities. As an essential component of civil society – and wider society for that matter – Iraq’s universities and academics are increasingly becoming engaged in Iraq’s intellectual, educational and cultural recovery. Observing those changing practices is not an easy task, particularly when much of Iraq continues to be framed as a crisis prone country. Understanding those changes however and exploring how things have evolved over the past few years is essential if we are to collectively work towards strengthening Iraq’s academic and heritage institutions. 

We all know that the challenges in Iraq are immense. Perhaps in every single field Iraq finds itself reeling from decades of conflict, instability and ineffective working practices. The lack of institutional reforms, resource scarcity, brain-drain, isolation and weak incentive-structures for improving the quantity and quality of research in the country continue to debilitate Iraq and its intellectual and academic fields. What I am interested in however are incremental changes and improved practices, which I explore below.

With an understanding of those aforementioned challenges, and in a situation where Iraq’s heritage has faced and continues to endure major crises as a result of the Islamic State and the lingering impact of conflict, the Nahrein Network was designed to support Iraq at a time when it was just coming out of war. 

In 2017, Nahrein Network director, Professor Eleanor Robson, initiated the project to directly enable and support Iraqis themselves to lead and contribute to the country’s post-conflict cultural and heritage recovery. Nearly four years since then, it continues to be one of the few initiatives providing support to Iraq in this field and the largest focusing on heritage related research and support to academics in this specialisation. 

Incremental changes – often not picked up or analysed –  have for the Nahrein Network been clearly visible, with tangible benefits noticeable in the field of heritage and academia. The bulk of those benefits that have accrued from the support offered by the Nahrein Network have been within Iraqi-led projects and research teams from Iraqi universities. The Nahrein Network’s small projects in particular – led by Iraqi academics themselves – are testimony to those changing practices in the field of Iraq’s higher education and more broadly in the field of heritage. Importantly, project leaders have used the opportunity to work on heritage-related projects to engage with society in ways that didn’t exist before. Funding for academics to work in the field of heritage have at least since the early 1990s been scarce and most financial support since 2003 for research in the field of heritage has come from outside Iraq. 

Academic research in Iraq has largely been dominated by conventional approaches that have for decades remained unchanged. Understanding the limitations of those common research methodologies – which mostly rely on desk-based research and its monotonous reproduction – project leaders supported by the Nahrein Network have instead adopted new approaches that engage with wider society, using more people-oriented methods such as interviews and ethnography. Indeed, interview-based research – adopted by many project leaders – has offered researchers fresh and new data about society. The use of such methods is a relatively new thing in Iraq, with most researchers in Iraq’s universities suffering from poor training and an absence of knowledge about the type of diverse and context appropriate methodologies they could potentially utilise in their work. 

Sanctions of the 1990s and conflict from 2003 have isolated Iraqi academics, producing a vicious cycle of poor academic attainment and little innovation and creativity in writing and research. Indeed, something as relatively basic as the adoption of new research methodologies to better understand such things as Iraqi society and cultural heritage – is a major development in a field that continues to suffer from weak academic standards and poor research production. For example, interviews with target audiences, including communities, is something that is neglected in Iraq’s higher education system. It is one of the reasons why academics in Iraq have produced little research about Iraqi society itself. They often rely on literature and research from the 1950s and 1960s, or commonly the adoption of abstract concepts and ideas taken from faraway places. In a context of the field of heritage, which is essentially about people, such antiquated research methods are devastating over the medium to long term, particularly when efforts are geared to strengthening the heritage and archaeology sectors in Iraq and learning about how they could be more responsive to people’s needs. 

With an understanding of those limitations, the Nahrein Network’s projects in the country, which focus on research with an impact on society, have encouraged researchers to produce new data and information by focusing on people, communities and heritage. In particular, the Nahrein Network’s small – grants have been effective in supporting Iraqi academics and improving academic standards. Such projects are led and managed by Iraqi academics themselves and their projects are the ones that are defined and prepared by researchers living and working in the country. They have a high degree of local ownership, which is essential for realising good results and outputs. 

At times, non-Iraqi facilitators or trainers have been invited by Iraqi teams, offering such things as training in data-collection, methodologies and field research. Funding for research in Iraq, particularly for social sciences and humanities, is highly circumscribed, though resource-scarcity characterises most of Iraq’s higher education. In this context, small-grants can go a long way, and for this reason the Nahrein Network’s projects are mostly made up of small projects. There is much to learn here – too long for this blog – about why small projects are generally more effective than larger ones in Iraq. 

The exercise of devising and managing a small project is itself a learning process that most Iraqi academics are not accustomed to. In this context, the Nahrein Network has provided an important stream of support – financial but also other forms of assistance – to strengthen the capacity of Iraqi research and in the process for researchers to learn essential career but also project related skills. Those funded projects, which are related to heritage in its various dimensions, are about people and have compelled researchers to leave the comfort of their universities to better understand the social and cultural environments that they are seeking to research and shed light on. 

Several projects stand out in this regard. A project led by Dr Zainab Alwaeli, a researcher from Al Mustansiriyah University, and composed of researchers from Iraq’s diverse backgrounds as well as cultural and religious group representatives, is focused on Baghdad’s cultural pluralism. After a period of research training – which itself has been an important aspect of researchers’ own skills development – team members are exploring how heritage practices, particularly within and between Baghdad’s cultural groups, have evolved over the past few years. For example, interviews were conducted with Iraq’s Mandaean representatives to better explore the life-situations of that community. Similarly to other non-majority cultural and religious groups, Iraq’s Mandaean population has dwindled in number in the face of Iraq’s post-2003 state collapse. Exploring those dynamics as they evolve is critically important during this period of change.  

One of the things that the research team has realised is that the voices and perspectives of those communities haven’t been properly researched and written about. One of the goals of this research project is to understand their positionality within a society undergoing change and how the past few years have affected how they view themselves and wider society. Instead of framing community members from non-majority groups as victims, the research team has been exploring their cultural and religious practices and engagement in society. 

Members of Baghdad’s Mandaean community by the banks of the Tigris. Baghdad, Iraq. June 2021.

 

A member of Baghdad’s Mandaean community performing an ablution by the banks of the Tigris, Baghdad, Iraq. June 2021.

Another major development that the Nahrein Network has encouraged and supported is the preparation of multidisciplinary research teams. Architects working with historians as well as with archaeologists, for example, isn’t a common phenomenon in Iraq and the Nahrein Network has encouraged multi-disciplinary teams to group together to research the particular subjects that they are concerned with. This has meant that researchers within each team – in most cases from different universities – are engaged within the confines of their projects to work together to produce and share knowledge. Support for team-based research in the field of heritage is not common in Iraq, and there are clear benefits particularly in terms of strengthening interdisciplinary skills and knowledge transfer between academics and universities. 

Another notable project sheds light on the dearth of up-to-date research about some parts of Iraq. A collaborative research project led by Al-Qadisiyah University looking at Southern Iraq’s Bedouin communities is the first such study since the 1960s to better understand the life-situations and intangible heritage of nomadic groups. Those nomadic groups, who traverse the desert and alluvial plain situated west of the Euphrates in Najaf, DhiQar and Muthanna provinces, have produced new data about neglected segments of Iraqi society. Research and findings to date have highlighted issues that could possibly also be used for policy and new support oriented national and international programmes.

With a view to developing a new university module, focusing on the intangible heritage of Bedouin communities, over sixty interviews were conducted with those hard to access groups. Women as well as men were interviewed by Iraqi researchers trained in ethnographic research techniques. Indeed, interviewees said this was the first such effort that asked about them, highlighting issues of neglect and deprivation. Whilst the project is still being implemented, an interesting aspect of this research has highlighted how those communities and individuals have been able to negotiate such things as urbanity and climate change – which affects the grazing of their livestock, and the ways they have coped with change at a time when Iraq itself is undergoing rapid political and social transformation. In the face of change, Iraq’s Bedouin communities are also dwindling in number, which is affecting their way of life. In this situation, the project could be seen as a strategic intervention at a time when Iraq’s Beduoin communities and their practices and traditions may altogether disappear from Iraq. 

The new and innovative research produced by the project will become integrated into Iraq’s heritage curriculums, forming a key part of higher-education learning materials. These new developments are significant in Iraq, especially as the field of heritage in Iraq has been mostly dominated by conventional notions of archaeological research and practices that have largely remained unchanged for over fifty years, if not longer. Current plans by Nahrein Network Co-Director Dr Jaafar Jotheri, Vice-Dean of the College of Archaeology in Al-Qadisiyah University, to develop a new masters degree in heritage – the first in Iraq – is a direct outcome of this learning experience and the urgencies of ensuring that heritage is oriented to people and their needs.

Taken together, the Nahrein Network’s activities in Iraq are having a positive impact on the country’s heritage sector and academic fields. Change is incremental, at times slow and difficult, but increasingly visible in Iraq. The good news that the Nahrein Network will continue to work and partner with Iraqi colleagues for the next ten years means that those resources and efforts invested in the country thus far can be built on, strengthened and rolled out across the country. 

 

 

 A member of a nomadic group in DhiQar, Iraq. June 2021.

 

 

Nahrein Network meets with Iraq’s Minister of Culture in Baghdad

By Mehiyar Kathem, on 24 May 2021

On 16 May, the Nahrein Network, represented by Dr Mehiyar Kathem, met with Iraq’s Minister of Culture, Dr Hassan Nadhem. The Nahrein Network’s activities in Iraq were presented and its 10-year plan, available on the Nahrein Network website, was discussed.

Dr Kathem spoke about the need for greater co-ordination and strengthening Iraq’s heritage education and intellectual infrastructure.

Funded activities supported by the Nahrein Network were discussed, including plans for future collaboration. Other key points of discussion included the need for improving the role of UK and Iraqi universities in the field of archaeology and heritage.

Dr Nadhem welcomed the Nahrein Network’s work to date, which formally commenced in 2017 and requested support for strengthening the capacity of Iraqi archaeologists in the protection, promotion and celebration of Iraq’s rich cultural heritage.

For regular updates on the Nahrein Network, see @nahreinnetwork on twitter and facebook

Nahrein Research Grants Awards Principal Investigators meet in Baghdad

By o.borlea, on 5 May 2021

Dr Mehiyar Kathem

 

On 3rd May, the Nahrein Network organised a meeting in Baghdad with several project partners from Baghdad, Diyala, Anbar, Salahadeen, Nassiryah and Najaf.

Principal Investigators and researchers of funded projects spoke about their respective activities and work to date.

The meeting was organised by Nahrein Network Co-Director, Dr Jaafar Jotheri and Deputy Director, Dr Mehiyar Kathem. The meeting was also attended by Management Committee members Dr Ula Merie and Dr Dhirgham Aloybaydi.

The meeting provided an opportunity for project leaders to exchange information and share good practices especially with a view to the future development of the Nahrein Network. Activities are diverse in scope and concentrate on Iraq’s tangible and intangible heritage.

Representatives from the following projects were in attendance:

The projects listed above are headed by Iraqi academics and some will be implemented in partnership with Iraq’s national heritage institution, the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), which is part of the Ministry of Culture.

For further information and regular updates, follow the Nahrein Network on twitter (@nahreinnetwork) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/nahreinnetwork).

Cultural Heritage in Najaf and London: Visiting Scholarship Report

By Nahrein Network, on 13 October 2020

Dr. Ali Naji Attiyah, University of Kufa, Iraq

I was hosted by Dr. Edward Denison from UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture, from 10 February to 23 April 2020, on a BISI-Nahrein Network Visiting Scholarship. My main goal was to write an article on the importance of linking both types of heritage, tangible and intangible, in increasing people’s awareness of the role of heritage in their lives.

Seminar at UCL

Eleanor Robson, Sadiq Khalil and Ali Naji at UCL IAS on 13 February 2020

Eleanor Robson, Sadiq Khalil and Ali Naji at UCL IAS on 13 February 2020

The Embassy of Iraq and Nahrein Network-University College London organized a symposium on the sustainable development of cultural heritage and archaeology on 13 February 2020, chaired by Professor Eleanor Robson. First, Dr. Sadiq Khalil presented a paper on heritage management in Iraq. Then I gave a paper on the role of cultural heritage in Najaf.

The attendees were professors with different disciplines such as history, archeology, architecture, and environment, in addition to other attendees who were interested in Iraq’s heritage.

The seminar was in the first week of the scholarship and it was a good opportunity to meet other specialists in heritage with different disciplines. Moreover, in the discussion after the seminar, the attendees responded very positively to my paper, finding that relating both types of heritage, tangible and intangible, is an attractive strategy to get a more holistic view of the importance of heritage.

Ph.D. Research Projects 2020 Conference at Bartlett School of Architecture

Bartlett Faculty's exhibition space UCL

The exhibition space of the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

My host institute was the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL and the host professor was Dr. Edward Denison, who has an interest in heritage. On 18 February 2020, the Bartlett ran an interdisciplinary conference and exhibition, featuring the work of students from across the faculty who are developing or concluding their doctoral research.

The conference and the exhibition aim to encourage discussions between students, staff, invited guests and critics, and the public. I attended the conference and exhibition to listen to the research ideas in architecture and those trends related to cultural heritage.

One presentation was particularly relevant to my work, by Amr El-Husseiny, whose PhD title is: “The Boundaries of Heritage: A Socio-Political Approach to Heritage Spaces in the Egyptian Context”.

Heritage Workshop at Barcelona

The participants of the conference on heritage for peace, Barcelona, 5 March 2020

The participants of the conference on heritage for peace, Barcelona, 5 March 2020

A workshop was organized by Heritage for Peace, together with the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH) and Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), 4–5 March 2020. The workshop was on the empowerment of civil society for the protection of cultural heritage in conflict areas and was held in Barcelona, Spain.

The event was attended by many representatives of civil society NGOs from Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq, as well as members of State Boards of Antiquities, who had the opportunity to present their work and discuss their needs, as well as experts from the University of Oxford, Blue Shield, Syrian Heritage Archive Project, University College London, and others. I gave a presentation titled “Holistic View of Cultural Heritage in Historic Centre of Najaf City”, in which I tried to describe the role of local communities represented by NGOs in the protection of cultural heritage.

The event concluded with the launch of the Arab Network of Civil Society to Safeguard Cultural Heritage, ANSCH. I am delighted to be one of the founders of this network, which has the following objectives:

  • To create a network of civil society organizations.
  • To identify and define the heritage protection projects needed in Arab countries.
  • To enhance the visibility of civil society organizations and their work.
  • To empower local communities’ participation in the management of cultural heritage.
  • To foster inclusive social development.
  • To foster inclusive economic development.
  • To promote the protection of the environment.

The website https://ansch.heritageforpeace.org/ will be a platform to exchange ideas between peers from countries that have a similar unsettled situation.

Meeting with ICOMOS-UK

On 12 March 2020 I held a Skype meeting with Clara Arokiasamy, the Chair of the ICOMOS-UK’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee, which she founded in 2012. The main points discussed were establishing ICOMOS-Iraq and the relationship between tangible and intangible heritage.

Webinar at the University of Oxford

On 17 March 2020 I gave a webinar for the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project, based at the Universities of Oxford, Leicester, and Durham. I described the role of intangible cultural heritage in the revival of tangible heritage, using historic City of Najaf as a case study. The discussion with experts following the webinar was very fruitful.

Research visits

Dr Ali Naji in Letchworth Garden City, March 2020

Dr Ali Naji in Letchworth Garden City, March 2020

On 21 March 2020, I visited Letchworth, the world’s first Garden City, with Yasmin Shariff, the Director of Dennis Sharp Architects. Letchworth was created as a solution to the squalor and poverty of urban life in Britain in the late 19th century. The garden city movement is a method of urban planning in which self-contained communities are surrounded by “green belts”, containing proportionate areas of residences, industry, and agriculture. It shows how the life of local communities can be modernized while keeping their cultures and traditional way of life.

To increase my knowledge of tangible heritage and how it can be used to improve the lives of people, I visited three cities: London, Cambridge, and Liverpool. Apart from London’s four world heritage sites, there are many places inside Zone 1 that maintain their cultural characteristics such as buildings facades and streets. The same thing can be seen in Cambridge, where the buildings and streets are the same for hundreds of years, while six areas in the historic centre and docklands of the maritime mercantile city of Liverpool bear witness to the development of one of the world’s major trading centres in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I learned that in order to keep the cultural heritage in any city, which is still full of human activities, it is necessary to give priority to infrastructure. For example, London, a city of about 18 million people, needs an effective public transport system for daily travel to take pressure off car use. The University of Cambridge is a good example of the use of heritage buildings in new functions, encouraging people and authorities to be aware of the conservation of those monuments. The world heritage site in Liverpool represented by the docks was used for tourism and it was the identity of the city at the same time. Recently, its heritage value was threatened because of the new development project (Liverpool Waters) in the harbour. This is a good example of the sensitivity of the over-commercial use of heritage sites.

While in London I also visited the British Museum, the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Sir John Soane’s Museum, as well as the History Museum of Catalonia when in Barcelona. While all very different in their aims, they share the idea of inter-generational communication of heritage.

Chapter in Handbook of Sustainable Heritage

As an outcome of this Visiting Scholarship, with UCL archaeologist Dr. Caroline Sandes I will co-author a chapter of the new Handbook on Sustainable Heritage, to be published by Routledge and CRC Press. Titled “Najaf, Iraq: developing a sustainable approach to threatened heritage”, it will examine the problem of threatened heritage in Najaf and how a more holistic approach, particularly involving the city’s intangible cultural heritage, will help to work towards a more sustainable conservation program that will encourage and involve local inhabitants to protect Najaf’s important heritage.

Dr Ali Naji in Liverpool, March 2020

Dr Ali Naji in Liverpool, March 2020

Overcoming structural barriers in digital learning

By Nahrein Network, on 28 July 2020

In this post, UCL Laidlaw Scholar, Fareeha Masood, writes about her recently completed research project, “Whose Middle Eastern Heritage? A demographic study of Oracc’s users worldwide”.

The Nahrein Network’s collaboration with Oracc and UCL’s Research Software Development Group aims to improve inclusivity in the study of cuneiform. Cuneiform texts preserve the earliest languages known to humanity. Yet today, for those living in the Middle Eastern lands where these texts were first produced, there are disproportionately high barriers to studying cuneiform in the Arabic language. Overcoming the loss of such rich literary heritage is part of the Nahrein Network’s sustainable development aims, and the adaption of open-access resources provides real prospects to re-centre the production of cuneiform research.

Oracc.org hosts a growing cuneiform corpus: an open platform for researchers to collaborate and publish projects on the traces of life left from Ancient Mesopotamia. Digitisation has come a long way in improving access to these tablets, which have become dispersed across the world through a haphazard history of excavation and plunder. As with much of the digital world however, the centre of gravity is shifted towards the European and American sphere, pulling Middle Eastern heritage along with it. In the last few weeks, I have undertaken research to assess the needs of Arabic-speaking audiences in the Middle East to access online resources, and specifically, Oracc.

Through a combination of Oracc’s Google Analytics data and a survey circulated across the Nahrein Network, I built up a detailed picture of the target demographic. Questions addressed included: how Middle Eastern users currently use the site, what technology do they access it through, what channels are used to reach the site, and what content and features are they interested in. The notification of a new survey response was always a welcome sound, promising insights into the real experiences of researchers behind the numbers on the screen.

Findings revealed similar research interests between Middle Eastern users and their counterparts around the world, although the former are slightly more interested in archaeology. The biggest divergences between the two groups came from the devices and software being used to access Oracc. A higher proportion of Middle Eastern users reached the site through social referral. Non-expert users found it difficult to engage with the site interface across all demographics, preventing the growth of widespread interest.

The future of scholarship relies on widespread access, and so I have put forward recommendations to develop the site for new, as well as existing, audiences. Solutions addressing immediate usability and marketing, such as mobile-friendly interfaces and a more diverse social media presence, are all under consideration. Most importantly, a longer-term, sustainable outlook is developing around content creation from the Middle East, which will spur engagement to organically grow from the region. All suggestions are driven by a shared, clear vision: improving the offerings for Middle Eastern audiences to explore their heritage.

Having newly joined the teams behind Oracc to complete this research, my personal takeaway has been the core values held by the people behind the site. Working during the pandemic has had its solitary moments, but meetings with UCL’s RSDG, Oracc Steering Committee, and of course, my supervisor, were infectious with the drive to be doing more. Decisions are research-heavy, solutions are ambitious, and integrity runs throughout project aims. Perhaps my most important finding, therefore, is that the future of cuneiform resources are in safe hands. The inheritors of the world’s first written culture can expect big things from this space.

Cultural Heritage, Statebuilding and the Future of Iraq

By Mehiyar Kathem, on 23 June 2020

The Nahrein Network – Chatham House partnership, established in 2019, addresses the neglected role of cultural heritage in statebuilding and international policy. Although in recent years development agencies as well as private foundations have recognised the significance of cultural heritage in countries affected by conflict and political instability, those growing interests have not been translated into effective policy or improved academic research. This partnership attempts to overcome that dearth of research in this regard and highlights the need for more holistic approaches to cultural heritage in Iraq.

The Nahrein Network’s partnership with Chatham House explores the connections between cultural heritage and statebuilding in Iraq. In Iraq’s contested statebuilding process, cultural heritage has been heavily shaped by the country’s changing politics. In recent years, new structures of power and systems for organising politics have transformed Iraq’s cultural heritage in ways that have yet to be fully understood or studied.

State institutions and other structures of power, including the ways in which resources are distributed, have also shaped national and community cultural heritage. Exploring the connections between cultural heritage, politics and statebuilding can help us better understand how the past is used today. These analytical directions, taking into account political-economic structures and resource-distribution, can shed light on why particular components of Iraq’s cultural heritage are prioritised and afforded protection and financial support, whilst other aspects suffer from neglect and even destruction.

Tangible cultural heritage, including historic city centres and buildings, archaeological sites, places of worship as well as intangible cultures, such as crafts and cultural practices, have been altered by decades of conflict and changing politics. The relationship between politics and cultural heritage was most glaringly highlighted by the destruction visited on Iraq’s built heritage in Nineveh, Anbar, Kirkuk, Salahaddeen and Diyala and other Iraqi provinces by the Islamic State and the war to oust them from the country. The deliberate destruction of material cultural heritage is a glaring manifestation of political contestation in Iraq. There are other forms of cultural destruction however, whether deliberate or otherwise. Those include looting and the effects of social-economic development, urban sprawl, construction and agriculture. Ill-conceived conservation interventions have also detrimentally affected Iraq’s tangible cultural heritage.

In Iraq, cultural heritage has historically been central to the operation of politics. Specifically, the construction of singular narratives – most notably witnessed when key cultural sites are folded into competing political elite projects – also highlights cultural heritage as an integral component of statebuilding. In recent years, the fragmentation and fracture of Iraq’s national heritage institutions, overlapping power structures and laws, and the absence of long-term goals and strategies, are also some of the many outcomes of Iraq’s divided politics.

How tangible and intangible cultures are used, instrumentalised or destroyed can tell us much about politics, actor-motivations and provide evidence-based analyses about Iraq’s statebuilding processes that have conventionally been studied through other domains of practice and research. Significantly, an exploration of these dynamics can shed might light on the future of Iraq’s cultural resources and what the Government of Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, as well as international development agencies, NGOs, universities and academics can do to strengthen Iraq’s cultural heritage.

The Nahrein Network – Chatham House partnership is working to map key state, quasi-state and nonstate heritage related institutions in Iraq and the impact the country’s political system has had on its cultural heritage. Exploring the type of relationships institutions forge in relation to cultural heritage is a key component of this research. Other features of the report will explore lessons learnt over the past few years, case-studies and challenges pertaining to Iraqi and international initiatives in the field of cultural heritage. An evidence-based and policy-oriented research paper will be finalised in 2021.

Future events include roundtable discussions and other meetings planned from July 2020 and a series of one-to-one and group interviews. Webinars will also be organised.

We invite all those concerned about the future of Iraq’s cultural heritage, its protection and potential contribution to peace, stability and social cohesion to participate in these activities.

For further information, and to participate in these discussions, email us on nahrein@ucl.ac.uk

 

How Iraqi academics are overcoming a legacy of intellectual isolation  

By o.borlea, on 12 June 2020

Mehiyar Kathem

In recent months, hundreds of online academic webinars have been organised from Iraq as an outcome of the situation arising from COVID-19Across a wide range of topics and fields of research and discussion – from arts and heritage and archaeology to medicine and engineering – this new trend in Iraqi academia is helping Iraqi academics overcome decades of academic and intellectual isolation.  

Online meetings or webinars, including symposiums, lectures and conferences, are not only about academic conversations. They are ultimately focused on using more creatively and constructively online platforms such as Zoom, Free Conference Call and Google Hangouts for cultural exchange. Overcoming physical barriers, not least in terms of geography and problems of inaccessibility, online intellectual exchange has produced lively debates about the ways in which Iraqi academics can contribute to the development of their country and help breakdown in the process decades of isolation.  

Significantly, as seen from the images (link provided below) of these seminars and lectures, there has been an overwhelming focus on humanities and social sciences. This represents a major positive development as Iraqi researchers and academics recognise that these new forms of communication can provide an important alternative to physical meetings. In this context, online platforms have made it much easier to instigate and engage in conversations with academics and researchers, which have seen the participation of thousands of Iraqi academics as speakers and attendees. 

Online meetings have been a way in which Iraqis who have returned to the country after completing their education in the US and Europe and other parts of the world can continue to engage in international academic debates and ensure their connections to those countries and their colleagues are not severed. In the UK, these exchanges have included participants and speakers from University College London, the University of Greenwich, Lancaster University and Oxford University, to name just a handful. Another positive development is that webinars have seen a rapid growth in the number of femaleled lectures and have also provided a space for addressing gender balance in terms of participants.  

There are several factors as to why this is happening now. The first is to do with financial costs.  Inviting foreign academics to Iraq has been prohibitively expensive and Iraqi academics also find it difficult for cost reasons to visit other countries. Iraq’s security situation continues to be a key challenge for UK and other academics to visit the country. COVID-19 has also made it difficult to visit Iraq. Visa issues have been another obstacle.  

Webinars have provided an opportunity for academic exchange between Iraqi universities, who have otherwise found it difficult to communicate with each other. As seen from webinar invitations, there has also been significant exchange between Iraqi academics and their counterparts in the Middle East, including Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and many other countries. This marks a major change from years of Iraq’s isolation and cut-off from the region and this exchange is also helping Iraqis communicate with Gulf neighbours and universities in ways that have been not possible since the 1980s. This has importantly been a way to break down barriers resulting from conflict of the past three decades in the region.  

In this spirit, and acknowledging the challenges faced by Iraqi academia in recent years, online academic and cultural exchange have been widely encouraged by the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and university leadersMuch of these webinars have however been organised by individual academics and university departments, telling of some positive change within the university system in Iraq.  

A significant number of these initiatives have been led by Nahrein Network’s partners in Iraq, including Mosul University, Kufa University and University of Al-QadisiyahMustansiryah University and DhiQar UniversityWithin a matter of a few months, and since the Nahrein Network started its work in late 2017, we have witnessed a remarkable increase in academic and intellectual activity in the country.  

 The Nahrein Network has actively participated and supported these positive developments. In 2019, the Nahrein Network implemented three workshops funded by the British Academy to support Iraqi academics improve the quantity and quality of research production in the country. Academics from London School of Economics, University College London and the University of Glasgow, were able to visit and implement the Iraq Publishing Workshops in Kufa University, Mustansiryah University and Sulaimani Polytechnic University. Whilst webinars are not perfect substitutes for tangible presence, they should be widely encouraged as important alternatives 

 Recently, the Nahrein Network issued a grant to Bristol University to work closely with Mosul University and Kufa University to develop Open Educational Resources (OER) as a way to improve awareness of Iraq’s cultural heritage (see further https://www.ucl.ac.uk/nahrein/research-grant-awards/large-research-grants-awarded). An introductory online meeting was recently held which saw the participation of numerous academics from both universities. The former Minister of Higher Education also participated in these debates. 

In an online meeting in early June, Nahrein Network – British Institute for the Study of Iraq Visiting Scholar, Dr Ali Naji, also led a discussion about peace and  the role of heritage in Iraq. Dr Ali Naji recently completed a scholarship at University College London and is now also working on a grant to document historic buildings and heritage in the old town of Kufa (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/nahrein/research-grant-awards/small-research-grants-awarded)This particular discussion saw the participation of Dr Hassan Nadhem, UNESCO Chair for Inter-Religious Dialogue, who has recently assumed the position of Minister of Culture in Iraq. To listen to this discussion, which is in large part in Arabic, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXP9FJ7upJ4&feature=youtu.be 

There have been many other Nahrein Network friends and colleagues who have actively participated in Iraqi organised seminars. To view some of the topics discussed in the past few monthsI’ve prepared, with the support of Nahrein Network – British Institute for the Study of Iraq Visiting Scholar, Dr Dhiaa Kareem of Kufa University, some of these invitations and images. It provides a snapshot of the topics covered in Iraqi webinars. You can view them here to get a better picture of the type of discussions happening in Iraq todayhttps://www.dropbox.com/sh/q6mtb7uel85z87o/AABDM5fVjEzj-b42GaBqV0v5a?dl=0 

Online platforms, in Arabic and English, have been a central way for Iraqi academics to decide on topics that concern them most and have as an outcome provided significant agency to Iraqi universities and researchers. There is as an outcome of these recent activities obviously a ‘democratisation’ of learning that is taking place as knowledge and cultural exchange is made more accessible to people directly from their homes.     

Development is about gradual change and sometimes shifts, as we are seeing in recent months. These hundreds of webinars and online conferences and lectures that have taken place in a short period of time are not only about academic exchange but represent a thirst for engagement in a country that has suffered from many decades of conflict and political instability.  Taken together, they also represent an expression for moving beyond the challenges of the past few years.  

There is much to be done to support academics, universities and researchers who are now increasingly becoming an integral part of the country’s national development. We all can be part of this change.   

Cultural heritage and reconstruction — a view from Mosul University

By Nahrein Network, on 7 January 2020

Panellists at the Chatham House round-table on cultural heritage in Iraq

Panellists at the Chatham House round-table on the role of cultural heritage in the reconstruction of Iraq, 2 October 2019

On 3 October 2019, The Nahrein Network organised a round-table discussion on the role of cultural heritage in state-building, as part of Chatham House Iraq Initiative’s conference, Iraq in Transition.

Professor Kossay al Ahmedy, Chancellor of the University of Mosul, gave a local perspective.

I will speak about the University of Mosul.

DAESH’s occupation of Mosul has been hugely detrimental. Nineveh, capital of the ancient Assyrian state, saw a great deal of damage and destruction. 83% of the Old City of Mosul was destroyed, including its most iconic and historic sites.

DAESH undermined and attacked culture.

One of the most important cultural sites is the University of Mosul. Large parts of it were also destroyed – we had 70% destruction and over 300 buildings damaged and destroyed.

The electricity network of the university was 80% destroyed. 50% of the water network, 50% of the road network were also destroyed.

217 university vehicles disappeared from the university.

The central library lost 1 million books.

Now, the question is, why did ISIS target and destroy Mosul University so severely?

We have 48,000 students enrolled. 8,091 staff and 24 huge faculties. 125 scientific institutions and 7 research centres.

Mosul University is like a city within a city.

It’s a learning and education zone. That is why it was targeted – the intellectual class was attacked and undermined, including culture.

With international friends we are working to rebuild Mosul University. The university is not about formal education only. Its role is to rebuild ideas. We have achieved a military victory but not yet a victory in thoughts and ideas. The university is key to rebuilding this.

The university is a key institution, able to rebuild the city and to rebuild the intellectual life of the city.

People lost hope. Most historical landmarks have been lost – destroyed. How can we revive hope for the people, especially the youth?

How to access the youth is key. Key question: Do youth watch and observe media – no! They don’t, they only focus on social media. Our university publishes a monthly newspaper. Most youth do not read newspapers, therefore we need to focus on social media.

We have 16 workers in the media department, and we set up tens of websites and social media sites – to transfer knowledge, using the language they understand.

Key to our work is to use media and knowledge to rebuild youth and their understanding of the situation in Mosul.

Now I am always smiling. My smile is a message – that we can rebuild Iraq and rebuild Mosul and build our culture and society who share our ideas.

We need international assistance. The challenges are immense and therefore we need to work together. We all have a responsibility to rebuild so that we can prevent this catastrophe from happening again.

 

This summary of Professor Al-Ahmedy’s words was compiled by Dr Mehiyar Kathem.

This event is part of a project funded by a UCL Public Policy Expert Engagement grant.

Cultural heritage and state-building — an international view

By Nahrein Network, on 7 January 2020

Panellists at the Chatham House round-table on cultural heritage in Iraq

Panellists at the Chatham House round-table on the role of cultural heritage in the reconstruction of Iraq, 2 October 2019

On 3 October 2019, The Nahrein Network organised a round-table discussion on the role of cultural heritage in state-building, as part of Chatham House Iraq Initiative’s conference, Iraq in Transition.

Ms Alice Walpole, Deputy head of mission for the United Nations Assistance Mission to Iraq, spoke about the role of international organisations in supporting heritage for state-building.

In September 2016, while I was working in Mali, the International Criminal Court in The Hague handed out its first ever sentence for cultural crimes. An Al Qaeda commander was convicted of involvement in the destruction of nine mausolea and a mosque in Timbuktu. This case gave rise to renewed international debate on the significance of culture in conflict. Why do parties to conflict target cultural heritage, and should an attack on a cultural artefact – building, manuscript, statue – constitute a war crime?

Throughout history, culture, ethnicity, religion or language have been leveraged to promote, intensify or justify conflict. Our cultural heritage describes who we are; it sets us within our historical context; it links us to our ancestors and will, in due course, link us to our descendants. An assault on our cultural heritage, then, is an attempt to deny our very identity. Da’esh’s physical destruction in Iraq and Syria of archaeological sites, places of worship, schools, cultural centres such as theatres and museums, and historical artefacts are a recent violent example of that urge to erase history; the desire to obliterate all narrative that runs counter to their world view; to deny human rights and freedom of expression with the imposition of a restrictive ideology.

An imposition against which many have fought back over the centuries. Our cultures make us proud. And protective. I suspect it was that proud and protective impulse that compelled my friend Father Najeeb, now Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul and Akra, and others to load the priceless library from a Dominican monastery into vehicles, and remove them, at considerable personal danger, from Mosul to a safe house in Erbil in the face of advancing Da’esh forces. The library comprises a unique collection of ancient manuscripts dating back to the 9th century, and printed books from as early as 1515; in addition to Christian texts, there are works on geography, history and mathematics, as well as Islamic, Jewish and Yazidi literature.  We start to understand the value placed on cultural heritage when we learn what risks our fellow citizens will take to protect it.

Those of us in a position to be able to support the rehabilitation of cultural heritage post-conflict, are eager to tap into that popular pride and affection. Because while culture can be exploited to cause conflict, in the aftermath of conflict, it can also play a vital role in reconciliation and inter-communal understanding. In fact, many of us believe that culture sits at the heart of all sustainable recovery and rehabilitation of societies.

Disputes over political access, land rights and the distribution of wealth and resources often remain unresolved in post-conflict environments and then serve to exacerbate future community tensions. But culture – the product of historical interactions between individuals and communities, representing shared understandings of the world – can serve as an entry point to a resolution of these disputes by reminding all parties of their religious, literary, linguistic or philosophical links to each other; or even simple commonalities such as a shared traditional dress, cuisine or dance.

This is culture as a unifying power. It is the reason the United Nations believes that the work of UNESCO is integral to the comprehensive, complex UN-supported rehabilitation programme currently underway in Iraq’s governorates liberated from ISIL.

Today, the United Nations in Iraq is seeking to promote a counter-narrative to Da’esh. A narrative of peaceful co-existence, reconciliation, respect for diversity and creativity. At the heart of this is the project ‘Reviving the Spirit of Mosul’, constructed around three pillars: rebuilding historical, cultural and religious infrastructure; strengthening education and returning children to school; reviving the cultural life of the Old City. It is important to note that the project goes beyond physical infrastructure – the EU has just approved a 20m euro project for urban rehabilitation in Mosul’s Old City, targeting youth and other returnees to provide them with skills and job opportunities. A similar project will be rolled out in Basra, again with a focus on urban regeneration. It will be important, in the longer term, that the Iraqi state takes full ownership of these projects, along with a strategy to protect, maintain and promote access to Iraq’s rich cultural heritage in all its forms for future generations.

I have long viewed culture as a driver for reconciliation. In 2009, I was appointed British Consul General in Basra, on the heels of the departing British Army. One of the items I inherited from them was an assessment, by the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, British Army Royal Engineers and British Museum, that Saddam Hussein’s former Lakeside Palace in Basra would make an ideal new antiquities museum for Basra and southern Iraq.

Accordingly, in 2010, a small group of us, including a renowned Iraqi archaeologist, a former British Ambassador to Iraq and former Iraqi ambassador to Britain and a senior curator at the British Museum, formed the Friends of Basrah Museum to help bring this idea to life. BP made a very generous donation to get the project off the ground and other donors, including international companies active in southern Iraq, chipped in.

After much consultation between Baghdad, Basra and London, a constructive dialogue with the Basra Provincial Council, and sustained, resourceful and dedicated activity led by the Museum Director Qahtan al-Abeed, the first gallery of the Basra Museum opened in September 2016 and three more galleries (displaying some 2000 Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian artefacts) in March 2019.

Strikingly, since the museum’s opening, some 600 historical artefacts have been handed over by private citizens to the Basra Museum. Six hundred historical artefacts that families kept safe during times of war and instability. And which they are now eager to share with the wider community.

It’s this human dimension that is key if Iraq is to repair and sustain its cultural heritage. When I was in Erbil recently, I called on Father Najeeb. In the front room of his home, a young woman was repairing a damaged historical manuscript. I could see from her dress that she was Christian. The manuscript was an Islamic hadith. I commented that she was working on a Muslim text. Of course, she said; I am an Iraqi, and this document is part of my Iraqi heritage.

This event is part of a project funded by a UCL Public Policy Expert Engagement grant.