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The Nahrein Network


Fostering the sustainable development of heritage in post-conflict iraq and its neighbours


The Impact of Climate Changes on Iraqi Heritage in the Southern Desert and Marshland

By Zainab Mahdi, on 12 January 2022

Dr Jaafar Jotheri, Co-Director of the Nahrein Network, presented a workshop on December 11th, 2021, titled: ‘The impact of climate change on Iraqi heritage’.

The workshop hosted five main speakers and more than 60 attendees, including academics, officials from the SBAH, university students, members of local communities, and social and environmental activists.

The discussion presented a valuable opportunity to advance our knowledge of the extent and complexity of climate change impacts on Iraqi heritage. In addition, it provided insight as to the degree of awareness amongst stakeholders and the community. In this context, Dr Jotheri addressed critical questions related to the topics, followed by a broad open discussion amongst the participants. The questions were:

  •   What are the features of climate change impact on the Southern desert?
  •   What are the features of climate change impact on the marshes?
  •   How should we adapt to the impact on the desert?
  •   How should we adapt to the impact on the marshlands?
  •   Are there Iraqi studies concerning these issues?
  •   Does the Iraqi government have a clear plan to solve these issues?
  •   Do any NGOs fulfil roles in this field?
  •   What is the impact of climate change on the archaeological sites in the desert?
  •   What is the impact of climate change on the archaeological sites in the marshes?
  •   What is the impact of climate change on the heritage?
  •   How has climate change been reflected in society and its activities (like artistic activities) in Iraq?
  •   What is the role of individuals and communities to mitigate the effects of climate change?


Dr Nawrast S. Abdalwahab provided a brief review of the most critical climate indicators on heritage and their associated risks, with diverse physical, social, and cultural impacts. In addition, she explained the complex nature of climate change impact on legacy and the ongoing Iraqi efforts toward achieving Climate Action, the 13th Sustainable Development Goal, which is considered one of the most challenging SDGs in Iraq.

Dr Sofia Jabbar Jassim introduced a brief description of the impact of climate change in the southern desert and its consequences on wildlife, such as the disappearance of hundreds of plants and changing migratory paths of birds. In addition, increasing  construction and farming’s effect as it expands into rangeland and affects natural plants, and the inequitable irrigation using groundwater resources. Furthermore, Dr Sofia outlined how certain desert cities like Alsalman and Bisaya vanish with their communities.

Dr Raheem Hameed Al-Abdan discussed the role of desertification in the loss of geomorphological features in the Iraqi desert, such as valleys, lakes and grassland. This deterioration in the environment directly impacts the Bedouin, who are not moving to the desert this year due to lack of rain. Overall, the Iraqi desert is losing its animal resources due to climate change.

Dr Rajwan Faisal discussed the disappearance of the historic Haj road, the ‘Zubeida Road’, and its Abbasid artefacts, and the migration of the original camel herders into the floodplain sites, causing increased friction and dispute.

Dr Ali Abdulkabeer Ali provided a brief overview of the Arab marshes’ unique way of life and the demographic changes for these communities resulting from the threat to their livelihood in their region.

Discussion and engagement by workshop attendees:

 The participants shared their most significant research outcomes on the topics. Some shared their memories of the area before the recent extensive impact of climate change, while others told stories and gave eyewitness accounts.

–         Dr Rasha Abdulwahab, Archaeologist at the Maintenance and Restoration Department, Samara University, shared her own experiences while explaining the impact on the artefacts and archaeological sites, specifically the role winds play in the deterioration of the facades of structures and building surfaces due to erosion.

–         Dr Qusay Fadel, Climatologist at Almuthana University, raised questions on climate adaptation and water management.

–         Dr Omar Jassam, Archaeologist in the Cultural Heritage Management Department at the University of Mosul, provided insight into the natural and cultural heritage of Mosul city. He discussed the value of Mosul’s Forest and the Tigris River, and their symbolic value to the people. He drew attention to the recent disforestation due to new construction projects.

–         Dr Khalil Aljubory, from the University of Tikrit, shared a story from his childhood, where one of his primary school teachers was from the desert, and kept a ledger of complaints against the farmers who used to extend their farming area, encroaching on grazing land. He emphasised that this type of dispute between the shepherds and the farmers has been ongoing since the 1980s. He was also an eyewitness to the levelling of the historic Ottoman ditches (or trenches), which were one metre deep and now been covered.

–         Dr Sabbar Alzubaidy, a member of a popular community for heritage protection in Najaf, provided eyewitness stories of the southern desert, specifically the deserts of Najaf and Almuthana. These stories were related to the Bedouin heritage and the impacts of wars, specifically the impact of often unexploded cluster bombs and mines in the desert.

–         Dr Wissam Raje, a landscape specialist, referred to the vast numbers of landmines in the desert and Basra and the importance of removing them.

–         Dr Waffa Almamory, a researcher in the maintenance of archaeological premises, highlighted the consequences of environmental impact on buildings. She also recommended recognition of the damage as the first step toward the process of maintaining the conditions of the buildings.

–         Mr Ahmed Hashoush, a geologist in water resource management, shared his memories of Lagash (his birthplace) and the effects of climate change, specifically the current distribution of salty soils due to high levels of evaporation.

–         Dr Raheem brought up the effects of rising sea levels and marine incursion at Shatt Al Arab and probably on the marshes.

–         Dr Naeem Alzubaydi, an archaeologist at the University of Almuthana, shared a story of flooding as a result of the heavy rainfall of 2019 and discussed how this water is lost in the absence of rainwater harvesting projects in the desert. He also emphasised the cultural disconnectedness between the old and new generations due to the loss of many social traditions.


The open dialogue in this workshop significantly raised the likelihood of rapid deterioration and degeneration of the Iraqi heritage due to climate change, with clear awareness of these impacts among academic and community members, accompanied by the lack of, or failure to appreciate, this amongst governmental departments and NGOs.

Unique environmental, social, cultural, and economic risks were also highlighted in the lively debates. For instance:

  • The decline of Bedouin communities and their heritage due to the deterioration of the desert.
  • The loss of animal resources due to water shortage in the desert and the migration of the Bedouin.
  • The loss and disappearance of archaeological sites in the desert and marshes due to the impact of climate change, with no apparent government or international plan for adaptation.
  • The loss of diverse cultural heritages in the desert and marshes, especially those related to nature.
  • The loss of natural, valued cultural heritages due to the expansion of building without conservation plans or protective actions.


  • Holding and supporting many workshops, symposiums, and conferences to further discuss the impacts of climate change on heritage.
  • Making approaches to the government, represented by the ministries and local governments, to fulfil their roles of climate change adaptation and activate environmental and pastoral codes.
  • Providing suggestions to all stakeholders for an adaptation  for climate change projects and researches.
  • Supporting and encouraging environmental and social activists.
  • Improving and adding new educational materials on climate change knowledge and adaptation to all levels of education.

Decolonising the Excavation Licence in Iraq

By Zainab Mahdi, on 8 December 2021

Written by Dr Jaafar Jotheri

The heritage law in Iraq was written in 1936 and then rewritten in 2002, but in these two versions, the Iraqi heritage authority was incapable of issuing a heritage law that can serve the nation’s needs. In 1936 Iraq was still a young independent state with little experience managing its heritage sector; fast forward to 2002, with Iraq under international sanctions, heritage was not foremost among the state’s priorities. After that, Iraq endured the civil war and the ISIS invasion. In the last few years, the Iraqi academics and the heritage authority have held several meetings to reform and explore a new version of the excavation licence.

As a result of these meetings, several proposals were suggested to the excavation licence such as:

  1. Selecting sites for excavation based on Iraqi opinion and considerations: Iraqi academics and heritage authorities should maintain a list of the sites that excavations are allowed in. This list should be prepared by Iraqis based on their priorities such as critical condition of the site or knowledge. Currently, Iraqis have little contribution in selecting sites for survey or excavation.
  2. Involving the local Iraqi experts in excavations: Iraqi academics and members of heritage authority should be fully involved in all the steps and in each phase of the excavation process. At present, there is limited or no involvement of Iraqis in excavation work. Some investigators from the heritage authority might take part  but they are likely to be inexperienced and  are not experts.
  3. Training Iraqi staff and students: Students from Iraqi universities and members of the Iraqi heritage authority should receive proper training in each excavation phase. Currently, there is no stipulation in place to train Iraqis.
  4. Using advanced techniques in surveying and excavation: Excavation teams should conduct some environmental, geoarchaeological, bioarchaeological and geophysical work on site and train Iraqis in the process. Outdated excavations methods should not be applied anymore; for example, some teams are using cheaper, outdated methods and ignoring new technologies.
  5. Utilise social media for projects: To increase the engagement of the local people with the projects, the excavation teams should make use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, website etc) to share news, events, progress – basically anything related to the project or the team.
  6. Conservation after excavations: After each phase of excavation, sites should be preserved, and conservation should be applied for the structures that have been dug and subjected to weathering and erosion. As it stands, there are no obligations on the excavation team to preserve the sites. It is not unusual for buildings and artefacts to be left abandoned and/or subjected to destruction.
  7. Hosting conferences and exhibitions in Iraq: After or during each excavation phase, the team should host conferences and workshops, and publicise their work, findings, and results. Presently, most excavation teams keep the results confidential.
  8. Publishing results in Arabic in Iraqi journals: At the present, teams are publishing results in international journals which Iraqis have limited access to and leaving Iraqis with few or no idea about the sites. Instead, some results of each phase of excavations or the new findings, artefacts and objects should be published in Arabic in the local Iraqi journals.
  9. Developing Iraqi museums: The excavation team should also contribute to helping Iraqi museums to have the required space and capacity to restore the artefacts properly and present them to the public. The situation currently is unfortunate as Iraqi museums are facing a lack of space to store the artefacts and discovering more artefacts are exasperating the problem of storage – and possibly subjecting them to damage or destruction.
  10. Cooperation with other excavation teams: To better understand the whole picture and narrative, the excavation teams that working in the same region, province, or occupation periods should have a way of cooperation and their plans should be integrated. Now, each team works separately without any coordination.

Jaafar Jotheri holds a PhD Geoarchaeology from Durham University. He has over 15 years of experience in conducting archaeological excavations and surveys about the landscape of ancient Iraq and the ancient paths that rivers and canals that followed in the past. He has published more than 15 articles in some of the world’s most prestigious journals.

He is currently an Assistant Professor and Vice-Dean in the Faculty of Archeology, University of Al-Qadissiyah, Iraq where he teaches and supervises both undergraduate and postgraduate students.

He has been involved in many international archaeological and heritage projects carried out in Iraq, with partners including Manchester University, Durham University,  Sapienza University of Rome, and Tokushima University. He has been awarded research funding from international organizations such as the British Institute for the Study of Iraq (London), the Academic Research Institute in Iraq (USA), and the British Academy, as well as the Nahrein Network.

Ethics In International Cultural Heritage Interventions. What We Can Learn from Humanitarian Principles.

By Mehiyar Kathem, on 1 December 2021

Written by René Teijgeler and Mehiyar Kathem. 

Since the devastation wrought on cultural heritage in Syria, Iraq and many other countries, international donors have ploughed hundreds of millions on cultural heritage related projects in crisis affected contexts throughout the Middle East, Asia and Africa. As an outcome, cultural heritage is fast becoming appreciated by governments and funding agencies as an integral component of international assistance programmes.

Yet, in light of its growing importance, international responses to cultural heritage in situations of violent conflict and instability have not seen a commensurate discussion about ethics and principles of interventions. Considering the emerging field of heritage related international assistance and the projects that it offers support to, established humanitarian and development principles need to be considered and integrated into the work of donors, state agencies, cultural operators, contractors and a growing array of cultural heritage actors.

Whether in the form of disaster, long-term conservation or emergency activities, support to cultural heritage can assist societies to recover. In the UK for example, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport allocated over £30m to the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund to support cultural heritage in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, amongst other countries. The British Museum alone received £3.2 million for what it said to be post-ISIS emergency support in Iraq, focusing on excavations and training. Since 2017, UNESCO in Iraq has secured over $100m for the ‘Revive the Spirit of Mosul’ initiative, with the European Union and the US similarly offering large amounts for cultural heritage. In Iraq alone, over $500m in recent years has been or is in the process of being spent based on cultural heritage, with the US, the United Arab Emirates, the European Union and its Member States leading in funding projects.

Cultural heritage programmes are also being funded through the private sector. The newly established private donor organisation for cultural emergencies and conservation, ALIPH, which is supported by France, China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and other countries, has similarly spent tens of millions on Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other countries affected by conflict and instability. Cultural operators that are involved in direct implementation such as the World Monuments Fund and the US-government institution, the Smithsonian, have also secured similar amounts for cultural projects from private funders.

While there have been no detailed studies of these interventions and their size and impact, particularly on beneficiaries and communities, a common factor amongst donors and operators however is that none of this work has been guided by a code of conduct and charter of principles. Some institutions do of course have a code of ethics but these are not as relevant or applicable when projects are implemented outside their home countries.

Rather than viewing cultural heritage as a separate field of activity to peacebuilding and humanitarianism, donors and international operators need to urgently focus on learning about the full impact of their interventions on societies that they work in and hold their work to the highest degree of accountability, not least by the minimum standards of their home countries. This is particularly relevant in a situation of degraded civil societies and weak state institutions whose capacity and power for engaging in the design and implementation of foreign funded projects are highly circumscribed.

Considering the significance of cultural heritage as an indispensable element in people’s lives, identities and histories, donors and cultural operators need to review how their interventions affect the countries and societies in which they work. For example, generalised trauma is a key characteristic of conflict affected societies, meaning that interventions in the field of cultural heritage need to be particularly cognizant about the way projects are designed, who they work with and how activities unfold once they are funded. These issues are far from being translated into actionable practices, frameworks and approaches let alone seriously discussed.

As such, interventions in the cultural heritage of other countries need to be openly discussed and issues pertaining to it elevated to the highest echelons of policy thinking, planning and practice.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. A good start would be to integrate and where possible adopt existing humanitarian principles to heritage related work. By learning from the Sphere Handbook’s Humanitarian Charter, for example as well as ethical principles more generally, we could apply much of what we have learnt over the past few decades to the field of cultural heritage assistance.

At the heart of what could be a new cultural heritage relevant ethics is the established humanitarian principle of ‘Do No Harm’. Assistance and other forms of interventions in the field of cultural heritage should not exacerbate conflict or social tensions and put partners and communities in harm’s way, either when projects are implemented or after they have been completed. In this context, interventions should be sensitive to conflict dynamics and their legacies, which continue well after countries have been labelled ‘post-conflict’ by foreign funding agencies.

Four core principles taken from the world of humanitarianism could make a good starting point in these discussions.



One of the key humanitarian principles of interventions is humanity. To address human suffering, to help those in need, is a moral obligation. The principle of humanity is frequently taken for granted, however. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a political commitment to end the worst forms of violence and persecution, goes a step further and was accepted by the UN in 2005 and has been used as a pretext for armed international interventions. It was expanded to the protection of World Heritage later and today the UN and UNESCO are meant to apply this moral code to cultural heritage.

‘To do good’ or ‘to do something’ is in many cases thought of as enough, especially with charity and volunteer organisations. To organize and support heritage colleagues and address cultural collapse in a crisis, however, needs a professional approach. How aid and projects are designed and for whom are key questions in this regard. Participatory approaches are required to be integrated and made a point of discussion. After all: ‘Whatever you do for me without me, you do against me’(Gandhi).



Neutrality is about offering assistance without taking sides. Violent conflict ruptures society and creates divisions. Many people withdraw from society or escape, leading to cycles of long-term damage. Dynamics of conflict should be considered by heritage related assistance and cultural operators. They are often not even spoken about or integrated into programmes.

Whilst there might be a need to support groups, especially the weak and vulnerable and those that have been deliberately targeted or affected by conflict, it is also important to note that fractures in society are an outcome of war itself and at times discriminatory state policies. Social analyses or assessments of interventions are missing and there is a fear that large amounts of foreign funding could exacerbate and reproduce existing problems.

A common responsibility to all affected by conflict, rather than those donor agencies deemed to be closer to their interests, should be of paramount importance. Pertinently, it is a duty on all donors and cultural operators to ask why they are selecting one section of society over another. Projects are an opportunity for self-reflection on such things as intentionality, which shapes the design and delivery of programmes.



Impartiality – to provide aid and deliver projects without discrimination – is a difficult obligation. It is, however, central to the development of cultural heritage ethical principles. In the light of other guiding principles that identify drivers and connectors in a violent conflict, impartiality has its limitations. It requires interventions to be cognizant of not only the context in question, but importantly donors and implementing parties’ own positionality and power.

Arguably, no one is impartial, and we all have views about how society should be governed. The main question here, however, is mostly one about power and the type of relationships forged in projects. These factors have generally been ignored, or altogether dismissed in cultural heritage work, with the focus of discussions about other people’s contexts rather than those of the donor country’s interests and politics.

As a corollary, all forms of heritage – tangible or otherwise – need to be respected and treated equally in emergency and recovery programmes as they are all significant to society. Cultural heritage is a resource for everyone.  Interventions in the field of cultural heritage have shown however that projects are generally focused on what is primarily of direct relevance to donor interests. This has remained unchanged, even in situations of emergency and collapse. In Iraq and Syria, for example, cultural heritage interventions both now and in the past have preferred to focus on pre-Islamic tangible heritage and have as such mostly ignored Islamic heritage and other fields such as modern architecture and other important parts of the identities of people. Interventions that focus on one part of history over others – not least in a country as diverse as Iraq – are more likely to be viewed in those countries as oriented to foreign interests than local priorities.

Archaeology in Iraq, for example, is still underpinned by colonial-era practices. Indeed US-European archaeologists and related agencies have not changed  their approaches which are oriented primarily to knowledge extraction. Everything else that is championed today, such as issues of sustainability, conservation, community, and education, are peripheral or merely used to look relevant. Indeed, the scale of the challenges are huge for archaeology, especially when many archaeologists think that their interventions exist in fields that are separate to issues concerning conflict, development, politics and society.

Interventions have increasingly become politicized over the last decades. Some large international projects have little if any sense of impartiality as they are designed to support particular sections of society, creating in their wake deep fissures and inequalities. For example, USAID has spent over $373 million for Christian groups in Iraq alone, favouring groups that suited its own political agenda. In what is an ethnically and religiously mixed society, the repercussions of these huge programmes targeting conflict affected communities over others have yet to be fully understood. Favouring one group over another is, in fact, the very opposite of neutrality and does little for social cohesion and for building long-term peace.



Although cultural heritage assistance is mostly derived from government or private donors, there should be always an adherence to principles of independence. Whilst this is problematic given that donors themselves have their own agendas in relation to cultural heritage, principles pertaining to independence should influence, as much as possible, how projects are designed and implemented.

A code of conduct that champions independence would ensure that both donors and grantees also factor their role in other people’s cultures and countries. Significantly, the principle of independence, long cherished in humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross, could offer an important entry point into building good, trust-based relations in cultural recovery and support to communities.

Notwithstanding the fact that international development departments reflect foreign policy of the donor country, independence could constitute not only ideal constructs but working practices that shape programmes and the relationship they have to other countries. It could be central to the success of programmes as they rapidly move from conventional state-to-state cultural diplomacy to more assertive and interventionary heritage programmes that are implemented in-country, especially in contexts where state institutions are themselves weak and society is undergoing multiple, concurrent crises.

Donors and other cultural heritage actors need to appreciate that cultural heritage is also a sovereignty issue. New cultural heritage assistance programmes should not normalise unfettered interventions that violate the sovereignty of other countries. Cultural heritage should not be a new tool in reshaping other people’s countries such as fostering neo-liberal capitalism and liberal democracy. It is all too often the case however that cultural heritage has been exploited as a trojan horse – often under the banner of emergency assistance – to shape society in ways conducive to political interests.


Towards a Code of Conduct for Cultural Heritage 

There are other principles, taken from international development, that should similarly be integral to the preparation of a code of conduct in cultural heritage projects. These are also listed in the Sphere Handbook (2018) and include respect of local cultures and customs, building local capacity, the need to involve beneficiaries in project management, work to reduce future vulnerabilities, meeting basic needs, ensure accountability to both donors and recipients of aid, and finally recognise disaster victims as dignified human beings, not hopeless objects. Other key principles that should be appreciated are about the use of data and knowledge from other countries’ cultural heritage and our collective responsibility regarding looting of cultural artefacts. These are just a handful and there are many others that need to be considered.

To most funding and implementation agencies in the field of heritage these principles are not new. Nevertheless, acceptance does not mean they are part of implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Unfortunately, these additional principles are frequently rendered marginal to international assistance programmes in this field.

As cultural heritage is an integral part of the lives of people, interventions should be scrutinised and held to the highest levels of accountability. Worryingly, neither accountability nor ethical principles characterize what has become a boom period of huge windfalls for cultural organisations, which are mostly contracted to undertake work in other countries. Similarly, huge overhead expenses have been secured for home country implementing institutions, providing little if any incentive for changing practices and the status quo.

Taken together, a code of conduct would also assist in ensuring transparency and openness. Huge government and private funding have translated into competition for funding rather than co-operation. Combined with a situation of weak outputs and the need to support long-term cultural sustainability, participation, partnerships and the priorities of crisis affected countries, the sector is characterised by dysfunctionalism and a rush to extract resources in the name of helping others. This became especially clear during the Corona pandemic.

New funding in the past few years has been designed for emergencies but in fact most cultural organisations that donors are working with have carried on as normal and their programmes have little changed practices regarding addressing cultural crises. By centering ethics at the heart of cultural heritage, projects are more likely to be sensitive to the crises that they claim to be addressing.

This is just the start of what will be a long journey. Leading by example should be a priority and necessitate a review of cultural heritage interventions, the role of donors and implementing organisations. It is now time to open the discussion about ethics and humanitarian-based principles regarding the work being done in countries affected by conflict and other disasters.


René Teijgeler

René is an independent conservation and heritage expert, based in Holland. As a conservator he worked at the National Library of the Netherlands and designed risk management plans for different heritage institutions home and abroad, and has worked in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, amongst other countries. His website is http://www.cultureindevelopment.nl/About_Culture_in_Development/Rene_Teijgeler


Mehiyar Kathem

Mehiyar is Deputy Director of the University College London’s Nahrein Network


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.



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 

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