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.