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Ceramic Craft in the Babylon Province

By Zainab, on 30 November 2023

Written by Ammar Al-Taee

Ceramic is one of the oldest crafts in Mesopotamia, having its roots in the depths of prehistory, and it represents the extent of human profound harmony with earth, a versatile material that was formed by man for many uses. Ceramic was known in the Sumerian language as bakhar, synonymous of the Akkadian pakḫāru, which became fakhar in modern Iraqi accent. 

Four methods to produce ceramic have been listed so far in Iraq.

In the beginning, ceramists shaped clay using fingers to form the sides of the pots. In a second period, they used a different method, manufacturing separately the base, the sides, and neck of the pot, and then connecting them together.

The inhabitants of Mesopotamia used a third method for making pottery, proceeding by placing clay rolls in spirals one on top of another, until reaching the required height. These spirals were then further hydrated and pressed to obtain the desired shape. This method is still widely used in Iraq, especially in the local bread oven industry.

The fourth method implies the use of a wheel. Clay dough is placed on a disc turned by a wheel put in action by the artisan with his foot. The artisan uses then his hands to form the shape of the pottery. This method is the best one to produce pottery, in terms of speed and quality. The first traces of the pottery wheel were found in the city of Uruk, in the south of Mesopotamia:  a seal dating back to the fourth millennium BC contains scenes representing the fabrication of pottery. According to the cuneiform written texts, the owners of this profession used to operate in workshops in the cities.

At present, ceramists became very rare. The craft of pottery production, like other crafts traditional and techniques of the ancient cities of Mesopotamia, is in rapid decline.

The ceramist Aqeel Al-Kawaz in Borsippa, photo by Ahmed Hashim

Aqeel Al-Kawaz, a professional ceramist from Borsippa in the Babil province makes pottery for various uses in different shapes and colors. The clay he uses comes from different provinces in Iraq such as Kirkuk, Diyala, Najaf, Samawah and, of course, Babil. The reason for the variety of clay he uses is for artistic purposes, as some pottery pieces are preferably made from the soil of certain provinces. 

Some of the pottery that Aqeel is currently producing, is used to preserve food and water, but he focuses on the most requested pottery in the Iraqi market: ceramic drums. He also produces a kind of small coloured jug that symbolizes female and male kids. These are symbolically used in commemoration of the birth of the Prophet Zakariya, to keep evil away from children. 

The clay is prepared in advance, collected in tubs during the summer. He sometimes adds cow bones in the basins to increase the quality of the clay. Based on his experience, Aqeel believes that bones help to spread a type of bacteria, which makes the clay smoother and better workable. 

Although the craft of making pottery seems very easy to those who see Aqeel making an object in a few minutes and with a few swift movements, reaching this skill is difficult and requires long training and endless patience.

Ceramic drums, photo by Ammar Al-Taee

Nowadays Aqeel works alone in his modest workshop and fights to preserve the craft, as he is the only member of a family of artisans who kept the craft alive. Before I left his workshop together with Zainab, Nahrein Network’s media officer, he told us “I’m the last pottery maker in the Babil province, and my children refuse to work and even to learn this craft”. He is not optimistic about the future of the pottery profession, not only in the Babil province, but in all of Iraq.

Finally, one of the worst challenges the pottery craft is called to face, is that it is considered a symbol of poverty and primitiveness.

For all these reasons, there’s an urgent need to create training and education both to increase the numbers of professional artisans, to revive the countless crafts and skills necessary to maintain precious elements of the local heritage, and to sustain the still operating artisans with governmental support.

These actions together will also help to contain the threat represented by the introduction on the market of foreign pottery, which is sold at a much cheaper price. 

Pottery is an environmentally friendly material, it is easily renewable, opposite to plastic or metal cans that cause great pollution at global level. Drinking water from- or cooking with pottery is healthy and recommended. Moreover, pottery is a natural water-cooling tool used in the countryside in Iraq to reduce the impact of the summer heat, helping to overcome power outages occurring for many hours every day. 

Ceramist Aqeel Al-Kawaz in his Borsippa workshop, photo by Ahmed Hashim

Preserving traditional crafts in Iraq is a challenging effort that requires continuous support to create an environment that guarantees financial and social stability for artisans. Therefore, to ensure the survival of these memories and crafts, it is necessary to disseminate community awareness on the importance of preserving this heritage and increasing the numbers of pottery craftsmen. 

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