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The Nahrein Network


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


Archive for December, 2023

Interview with Niyan Ibrahim Recipient of the 2022 Graduate Studentship

By Zainab, on 7 December 2023

Meet Niyan Hussein Ibrahim, the first recipient of the UCL-Nahrein Network Graduate Studentship. Niyan recently completed an MSc in Sustainable Heritage at The Bartlett Institute for Sustainable Heritage and has secured a PhD place in the same department, fully funded by the Nahrein Network.

Tell us a little about yourself.

My Name is Niyan Ibrahim. I am from Sulaimani City in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. I have both my BSc and MSc degrees in City Planning from Sulaimani Polytechnic University. I worked as an Urban Planner at Sulaimani City Municipality and at the Sulaimani Directorate of Antiquities. I am also a co-founder and deputy head of the Cultural Heritage Organization for Developing Cultural Heritage (CHO), funded by the Nahrein Network. I have worked with the heritage neighborhoods within Sulaimani City and on other aspects of urban planning within the different departments I worked in. That’s why I am trying to have a disciplinary research approach because of my different carrier experiences.

Niyan at UCL’s Japanese Garden Pavilion

How was your experience studying at The Bartlett?

Studying at The Bartlett is a wonderful opportunity, as it is UK’s largest and most multidisciplinary school for studying and researching the built environment. While conducting my MSc at the Institute of Sustainable Heritage within The Bartlett, I had a great opportunity to cover various aspects of heritage studies and conduct practical work and research on different projects.

How is learning in the UK different from Iraq?

Learning in the UK is different from Iraq, in the sense that it is more practical and more based on empirical studies, and the courses are more appropriate for the working environment. You don’t just attend lectures which are taught by your professors, but they collaborate with people who are conducting the work on the projects, and they are also the ones who will deliver it to you. So it is a mix of academic and research education and empirical studies.

What was the focus of your Master’s research?

The focus of my Master’s dissertation was ‘Assessing the Level of Sustainability of Public Policies Regarding Cultural Heritage in the Kurdistan Region Iraq’, in which I aimed to assess the state of public policies regarding cultural heritage in the Kurdistan Region. This field of research is quite novel in general and for the context of Iraq especially.

Niyan at UCL’s Student Centre

Has completing this Master’s degree shifted your research interests and how?

Completing the Master’s provided me with a clearer perspective and narrowed down my research objectives. Before finishing the master’s program, I had a general proposal for my PhD studies. I knew what I wanted to achieve but not exactly how. But after undertaking the modules I had a better vision, and I knew exactly what I wanted to study and how to conduct my research.

Tell us more about your PhD research proposal and how you see your career benefitting from a PhD.

It is about exploring the relationship between sustainable heritage management and public transportation. There is a gap in this research area, and it has not been explored extensively. So as a researcher, it naturally gives me the opportunity to contribute to a novel research field that has yet to be explored. And in the context of a developing country with a rich heritage like Iraq, this kind of research is needed to inform policymakers and direct the country towards the sustainable development agenda through managing its heritage. So as an urban planner and a heritage professional, I will develop my career in many different aspects and levels.

Follow Niyan on X: ⁦@NHusseinu

Remembering the ‘Camp Speicher‘ atrocities

By Mehiyar Kathem, on 6 December 2023

Not all atrocities are remembered equally. Some are forgotten, or deliberately erased from public memory, buried like the victims. Sites of memory, including monuments, art and other public depictions and displays, can help society remember and negotiate traumatic pasts.  

On 13th June 2023, the provincial government of Wasit in Iraq unveiled a memorial to the events that unfolded in and around Tikrit’s Camp Speicher in 2014. The military site was renamed by the US Occupation after Michael Scott Speicher, a US pilot shot down by the Iraqi Army in the 1991 Gulf War. Camp Speicher was used from 2003 up to the withdraw of the US Army from the country in 2011 where it was then renamed the Tikrit Air Force Academy. In the Iraqi public sphere, the name Speicher however has lingered and become indelibly associated with the military camp and the unfolding atrocities.  

In June 2014, DAESH rounded up some 2000 student air cadets who had tried to escape the disorder and collapse in Iraq’s security command chain. After Mosul fell to DAESH, Tikrit and its environs, including Camp Speicher became under the control of local tribes who proclaimed allegiance to the armed group. Student air cadets, most of whom were between the ages of 18 and 24 years fled hurriedly on foot in civilian clothes. They were told by local tribes that they would be offered a route to safety. Sunni air cadet trainees were freed and the Shia among them were quickly rounded up by Tikrit’s tribes and marched to trucks that would then take them to Saddam Hussein’s former palace compound, overlooking the Tigris river.  

They were divided into groups and distributed between Tikrit’s main tribes, with each participating tribe now free to enact the most grotesque forms of torture on those in their possession. After those ordeals, some of which lasted for two or three days, most were shot and then dumped in shallow trenches in and around the palace compound. On another key location, prisoners were executed at the edges of the river Tigris in the palace compound. The presidential compound was effectively transformed into a factory of torture and death.  

Former Presidential Palace Compound. At the one of the sites of the massacres. 2023.  


The Speicher Memorial in Kut, the provincial capital, is one of Iraq’s first attempts to remember those atrocities in the form of a physical, public-oriented structure. The new memorial in Kut is inspired by Freedom Monument – an iconic emblem in central Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. Designed by renowned artist Jawad Salim, Freedom Monument represents notions of justice and dignity through a collective storytelling of Iraq’s modern and ancient history. Whereas Freedom Monument represents Iraq’s self-determination, calling to the stories of its peoples and rich histories for inspiration, this new memorial depicts the suffering of victims of the Camp Speicher massacres.  

Wasit, Kut. 2023.  

The memorial weaves this event’s traumatic memories, derived from those graphic images captured in videos and photographs posted on social media by DAESH. The spiralling cone structure, not unlike that of Samarra’s famous minerat, is dotted with artistic pieces made of brass depicting scenes of the ordeals endured by the victims. The memorial depicts handcuffed and blindfolded prisoners, some kneeling on a staircase adjacent to a palace building where their bodies would then be dumped into the river.  

A site of execution, at the former Presidential Palace Compound. 2023. 

Painting by Iraqi Artist Ammar Al-Rassam of the former presidential palace adjacent to the Tigris river, Tikrit.  

This is the not the first attempt to memorialise the Speicher massacres. Since 2014, families from different parts of Iraq would visit on every 12 June the former presidential palace compound. A monument that had been erected at the palace complex displays three mothers, one standing defiant and two wailing over a mass grave containing replicas of human skulls and bones strewn on the ground. In addition to recognition and remembrance, those now annual visitations serve group mourning. In the absence of any form Iraqi or foreign psychosocial support – particularly for victim’s children, wives and mothers– the gatherings have assumed a site for catharsis, even in a situation of an absence of justice for victims and where over 700 air cadet students are still missing.  

 A ‘Speicher Camp’ memorial at the former Tikrit Presidential Compound. Tikrit, Iraq.  

Other than families’ own ad hoc efforts to print and display photos of their children, up to the present moment, this was the only memorial to the camp Speicher atrocities in the country. Printing and raising a photo of their missing or deceased loved ones has been a common way families have sought recognition for those atrocities. Significantly, and as simple as this act is, it is perhaps one of the few ways those mostly impoverished and marginalised families can ask for a semblance of justice expressed through society-oriented remembering.  

Former Presidential Palace Compound, Tikrit. June 12th 2023. 

A woman whose son was killed by Daesh collapses at the Speicher Memorial site in Kut, Wasit. June 2023. 

On a recent visit to the former presidential palace, Victims of Camp Speicher, a registered Iraqi non-governmental organisation made up of family members whose sons were killed, discovered an unidentified human skull lying in a heap of earth next to a staircase. Human remains continue to pop out of the ground on the site as a result of rain and wind. The Victims of Camp Speicher Organisation is Iraq’s only non-governmental organisation working to document what happened. It is made up of members of families of those killed by DAESH. Abu Ahmed, the director of the Baghdad office, retrieved his son’s body from one of the mass graves in the Tikrit Presidential compound.  

Photo from Sadiq Mahdi at the former presidential palace, Tikrit. 2023.  

Many identified mass graves have not been excavated and those that have been opened lie without any labelling or proper, professional or even basic demarcation, a sign of the dysfunctional nature of the management of this case. Indeed, anyone visiting the site could easily be walking over a mass grave without knowing it. The presence of unidentified human remains and absence of informational panels or professional management of mass graves is symptomatic of the wider neglect victims and their families continue to endure.  

A mass grave at the former Presidential Palace Compound. Tikrit, Iraq. 2023.  Photo: Sadiq Mahdi. 


The absence of professional and organised documentation is indicative of forgetting of the ‘Camp Speicher’ atrocities. Similarly, US-European governments and their funding agencies and organisations in Iraq have up to recently shown little interest in the case. Their interest has focused instead on one section of Iraqi society, namely the plight of Iraq’s Yezidis. US-European funding has imposed and reinforced on Iraq a ‘hierarchy of suffering’ where some groups or sections of Iraqi society are seemingly more worthy of support than others. 

Through a UN Security Council resolution in 2017, the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/ISIL (UNITAD) was established. A year later, a director  was installed. UNITAD’s mandate is seemingly meant to serve the people of Iraq, namely through ‘collecting, preserving and storing evidence’ on the crimes of DAESH. In a recent discussion at the UN, the Iraqi Government has underlined its unwillingness to extend UNITAD’s mandate, with a closure date of September 2024.

A central reason cited by Iraq’s representative at the United Nations for this decision has been that UNITAD has shared information and data with European governments but not with the Government of Iraq, instigating questions about violations of Iraq’s sovereignty, ethics pertaining to how victim-related and also Government-obtained information is used and who it is shared with and more broadly issues of accountability.  

The year 2024 will mark ten years since those atrocities were enacted on the people of Iraq. It will be a time of reflection and hopefully an opportunity to better explore how memorialisation can assist its people in recovering or at least coming to terms with a traumatic recent past.

The Zindan Archaeological Site in Diyala 

By Mehiyar Kathem, on 5 December 2023

Written by Mehiyar Kathem and Ahmed Abdul Jabbar Khamas 

Iraq contains tens of thousands of archaeological and heritage sites. One of its most significant though little known sites is the Zindan Archaeological Site in the province of Diyala. The Zindan, a Persian name for a prison, was one of the Sassanian Empire’s largest and significant fortresses. It lies about 80 km northeast of Baghdad or about 30 km from Baquba, the provincial capital of Diyala. More specifically, the Zindan is located about 12 km east of the city of Muqdadiyah, and near the village of Al-Jejan.  

Historically, the site was on the Great Khorasan Road, an inter-city network connecting Asia with the Middle East and further afield. The size of the Zindan, measuring 40,800 sqm in total, is commensurate with its significance as a key component in Sassanian security infrastructure provided along the Great Khorasan Road. The Zindan is considered as one of the facilities and extensions of the Sasanian Royal Capital City of Dastgird, located about 5.6km north of it. The brick-structure is 502m in length, 14.5m in width and 16m in height. It has 14 pillars or towers, of which 10 are still standing. 

Before the commencement of work  

After the commencement of work

The Zindan Archaeological Site is located in Diyala’s rich agricultural plain, in the middle of the Lower Diyala river basin, watered until recently by the Diyala River that flows into the country from Iran. In recent years, Iran has redirected its own water resources away from Iraq. The agricultural areas adjacent to the Zindan have consequently turned from a green, fertile land supporting a diverse and large crop output for Iraq’s population to ocherish fields of dry and increasingly fallow farms.  

In 2021, as director of the Diyala’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) office, Ahmed Abdul Jabbar Khamas undertook a project to safeguard and research the Zindan. This was the first initiative to investigate the site since 1957-1958, when Robert McCormick Adams, an archaeologist-anthropologist, undertook a survey of the site and Diyala’s surrounding archaeology. That research and work to document Diyala’s archaeology was formative for a field that was increasingly using new methods of documentation, namely arial-based surveying. It is worth noting that work carried was out on the site by Mr. Claudius James Rich in 1820. Rich stated that this site could be a royal shrine. 

SBAH sought to protect the site by re-installing a previously damaged 2000m fence wall. That would be the first line of defence for safeguarding the site from vehicles and other infringements on the structure, not least by the expansion of farming. Khamas’ team would then unveil the structures of the Zindan by removing some 17,000 tonnes of material accumulated on the site over the past few centuries.  

Once that had been completed, the SBAH team were able to better understand the architectural structure of the Zindan, which was surveyed for documentation and further research. Several new structures within the site were discovered and some 68 artefacts were retrieved and submitted for cataloguing at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad. Throughout 2021 and 2022, a total of $300,000 was spent by SBAH on the project and 140 temporary workers, most from the district of al Muqdadiyah itself, where the Zindan is located, were employed. 

Workers from the nearby villages and towns in Diyala 

Work challenges included the presence of snakes and scorpions, posing a threat to workers on the site. The site itself is not connected to local electricity grids and water networks. Access roads are not paved, making it difficult to reach the site on rainy and muddy days. A service infrastructure would need to be implemented before the site can better welcome visitors. The site however is open to tourists and there are a growing number of residents, numbering on average 300 or so per week, from Diyala itself who are visiting the site. As of yet there are no information or educational panels.

The discovery of arches and Iwans at the Zindan.  

The original brick floors.  

 A view from inside the Zindan. 

The re-discovery of the Zindan by Iraqi heritage authorities and archaeologists marks a major turning point in the safeguarding, study and celebration of Iraq’s neglected Persian Empire heritage. Such Iraqi-led initiatives are central to strengthening the country’s own body of knowledge and research regarding its past and that of the wider region. Significantly, SBAH, led by Ahmed Khamas were also recently able to discover the Sassanian-era royal city of Khosrow that had been the residence of King Khosrow and his armies that would eventually, like the Zindan itself, be attacked and looted by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclious. Evidence of that attack on the Zindan are visible on its structures and walls and require further documentation and study. 

This Sassanian Empire era fortress also paved the way for SBAH Diyala to survey the historic site of Jalula, also on the Great Khorasan Road, where Islamic armies of the Rashidun Caliphate had defeated a Sassanian garrison that eventually led to the capture of historic Mosul and the spread of Islam in the region and into ancient Iran itself. The Zindan forms a central part of this story and could potentially be registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with other key sites in the region. 

For connecting with communities, SBAH organised a cultural event that invited nearby villagers, farmers, government workers and other constituents of local society to an opening of the Zindan, which helped raise awareness of its historical significance and the work that had been conducted. 

A community event was organised to raise awareness of the site and to celebrate the completion of this initial phase of the project.

The heritage of the Zindan and the wider Diyala region is an assemblage of the histories of ancient Iraq, Iran and the Eastern Roman Empire, as well as the wider Muslim world. The Zindan as part of wider complex of archaeology could make for a superb educational and tourist location. The site is also potentially significant for historians of early Islam. 

Considering the site’s diverse and rich history, it could be a vector for Iranian archaeologists and historians to work with their counterparts in Iraq. This would help reverse or address decades long neglect in Iraq’s university system of the country’s Persian and Ottoman heritage past. New collaborations would be welcome, not least to build networks of research and knowledge within the region and help diversify Iraq’s body of archaeology. Such possible and productive research partnerships, formed around shared heritage sites, could help center knowledge production within the region. 

SBAH’s relatively small initiatives to invigorate a long-forgotten component of Iraqi cultural heritage bodes well for the construction of an Iraqi-oriented school of archaeology and history, not least one that is determined and shaped by Iraqis themselves. 

All photos were taken by Ahmed Abdul Jabbar Khamas.