X Close

The Nahrein Network


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


Archive for the 'Archeology' Category

Reviving the Local Identity of the City of Basrah

By Zainab, on 25 September 2023

We talk to Dr Hamed H. Samir, Head of Architecture Department, Collage of Engineering, University of Basrah. Dr Hamed held a Nahrein – BISI Visiting Scholarship at University of Loughborough. Dr Hamed’s project is titled Reviving the Local Identity of the City of Basrah and is under the supervision of Dr Sura al-Maiyah.

Tell us about more about your project.

Dr Hamed with "Auto-Icon" of philosopher and reformer, Jeremy Bentham at UCL

Dr Hamed with “Auto-Icon” of philosopher and reformer, Jeremy Bentham at UCL

Built heritage conservation is essential in post-war areas. In recent years, Iraqi traditional architecture has been deeply affected by several wars, challenging the cultural memory of local people.

My research considers Basra as a pilot case study. Basra is classified as a city rich in cultural heritage. In particular, the canals are a unique feature of the city. Within Iraq, Basra holds the nickname of “Venice of the East”, surrounded by its distinctive architectural identity. Basra today faces urban decay and is losing its architectural heritage and identity in a severe way.

A significant problem is the continuous altering of traditional architecture. The value of Basra’s built environment and its architectural heritage is absent from the local residents. This has contributed to losing countless historical buildings and the unique Basra charm.

The aim of my research is to explore how the legacy of Basra’s past can be transmitted to future generations. My project focuses on digitally documenting the tangible and intangible heritage of Basra. I am hoping to create a digital library to revive the collective memory of residents and to raise awareness regarding the value of Basra’s heritage.

How was your stay in the UK? Did you have promising conversations with colleagues?

It was an amazing experience to be in the UK. I got the chance to meet and work with many colleagues working in similar projects from across the world. In addition, I had the opportunity to visit labs and got experience on the newest cutting-edge tools for heritage documentation.

The colleagues are friendly and very helpful, they were always available to listen and discuss my project and constantly giving feedback. I believe that all this will no doubt lead to developing a solid project and reducing the challenges and barriers.

How will your scholarship help you with your research?

As a researcher, the scholarship in the UK has given me the opportunity to learn the newest technology and tools, such as laser scanning and photogrammetry. In addition, this scholarship has improved my skills regarding the new heritage documenting tools and how to use it. This is very necessary to my project. Moreover, in order to set a plan to create the digital library for Basra city heritage, the interaction with the experts in this field is much required, and this was achieved during my stay in the host university as well as other institutions in UK.

Dr Hamed at UCL’s Japanese Garden Pavilion

How do you plan to further your research once you are back in Iraq?

The future plan for me after finishing my scholarship and returning to Iraq will focus on creating a digital library for the heritage of Basra city. I believe this library will enhance the knowledge of young architects. In addition, I hope this will raise the awareness of the local people and revive the collective memory of Basra’s heritage and traditional architecture particularly the younger generations.

You can watch Dr Hamed’s seminar titled, Safeguarding the diversity of cultural heritage in Basrah on our YouTube page.

Ancient Civilisations Archaeology

By Zainab, on 22 May 2023

We talk to Mabast A. Muhammad Amin, lecturer at the History department at the University of Garmian, Iraq. Mabast held a Nahrein – BISI Visiting Scholarship at University of Liverpool. Mabast’s project is titled Ancient Civilisations Archaeology and is under the supervision of Professor Douglas Baird and Dr Eleni Asouti.

Tell us a little about yourself and your background.

My name is Mabast Ali Muhammad Amin. I have an M.A. in archaeology at the University of Leicester. I am a full-time lecturer at the History department, University of Garmian in Iraq.

What is your project about?

During my stay in the UK, I worked on a research project entitled: Preserving prehistoric sites in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The project surveyed the range of environmental and human actions that have impacted a series of case study early prehistoric sites in Iraqi Kurdistan. The aim is to understand the nature of those impacts and the types of degradation they cause in order to develop a hierarchical framework assessing degrees of damage. This assessment resulted in a series of mitigation scenarios for these specific case studies and early prehistoric sites in Iraqi Kurdistan in general, focusing on some of the most damaging factors.

In terms of those factors relating to human agency, or where the human agency can influence environmental factors, the project aimed to identify the role of local communities. It will explore local community awareness of these early prehistoric sites and the extent to which types of awareness raising may have positive impacts on site preservation.

What was the main benefit of your scholarship?

My scholarship was helpful in updating my ideas and perspectives, where I learned about new methods and approaches to my work. I was also able to produce important research about the challenges in the protection and promotion of heritage sites in the region. My research assesses environmental and human threats to the preservation of early prehistoric sites (Palaeolithic and Neolithic) in Iraqi Kurdistan. I developed mechanisms that will aid their preservation, such as dialogue with local communities. I also engaged and collaborated with several heritage organizations and professionals in the UK.

Professor Eleanor Robson and Mabast Amin at UCL

What are your plans for your project once you’re back in Iraq?

Since I returned to the Kurdistan region, I presented two seminars to academics and professionals at the University of Garmian and Garmian Museum.

I have also organised a group of archaeologists and museum professionals, and we are planning to establish a non-governmental organisation in Garmian. We aim to bring awareness and educate local community about the value of archaeological heritage sites, through organising seminars, workshops and arranging festivals and heritage activities in schools, universities and public places.

I have also become a member of an archaeological team from the University of Liverpool, directed by Professor Douglas Baird and Professor Asouti to work in a Palaeolithic cave site. Another great example of how the Visiting Scholarship has created relationships and opportunities for me.

Contemporary Approaches to Museum Design

By Zainab, on 22 May 2023

We talk to Shazad Jaseem Tofiq, Architect at the Sulaimani Directorate of Antiquities. Shazad held a Nahrein – BISI Visiting Scholarship at The British Museum. Shazad’s project is titled Contemporary Approaches to Museum Design and is under the supervision of Dr Paul Collins.

Tell us a little about yourself and your background.

My name is Shazad Jaseem Tofiq and I’m an architect at the Sulaimani Antiquities Directorate. I’ve been working there since December 2007. My work primarily involves the preservation of historic houses and gallery design development at the Sulaimani Museum.

Over the years, I’ve been involved in several preservation projects where I’ve utilized my skills and expertise to conserve historic buildings. It’s always a challenging task because each building has its unique set of problems. However, it’s also rewarding when we manage to restore a building to its former glory.

At the Sulaimani Museum, I’ve also been involved in designing galleries and exhibits. As an architect, I’m able to utilize my knowledge of spatial design to create visually appealing and functional spaces.

Shazad Tofiq and Dr Paul Collins at The British Museum

Tell us more about your project and the main benefits of the Visiting Scholarship?

My project’s main focus was to observe and analyze the spatial design and configuration of the collections and exhibits at different UK museums. I received a two-month Nahrein Network – BISI Scholarship at the British Museum, which provided me with an opportunity to learn from their well-developed museum exhibits and design. Through this scholarship, I gained valuable insights into the spatial design components, collection configuration, and architectural elements of exhibits. I had the opportunity to visit over 22 museums across the UK.

I also undertook several semi-structured interviews with related professionals to explore the design process approach and rationale of those exhibits as well as the museum. It was an enriching experience that has allowed me to bring back new ideas and knowledge to my work at the Sulaimani Antiquities Directorate.

What are your plans for your project once you’re back in Iraq?

After completing my scholarship at the British Museum, I am now planning to take my learnings and apply them to my work at the Sulaimani Antiquities Directory. I believe that the knowledge and insights I gained during my time in the UK can be useful in improving our museum exhibits and preservation projects.

I plan to share my learnings by writing a research paper that summarizes my findings and observations. This paper will detail my analysis of the spatial design components and configuration of the collection and architectural elements of the exhibit at the British Museum. It will also provide insight into the design process approach and rationale of those exhibits.

Moreover, I am also planning to organize two workshops for related museum professionals, including architects, archaeologists, interior designers, educators, and other relevant experts. These workshops will provide a platform for us to discuss and exchange ideas on how to apply my learnings to our respective fields. By doing so, we can collaborate and contribute to the improvement of museum exhibits and preservation projects in our region.

Jumjuma, the Skull Village in Babylon

By Zainab, on 30 November 2022

Written by Ammar Al-Taee

Jumjuma is a village located inside the archaeological site of Babylon, to the southwest of the remains of the Temple of Marduk, on the eastern bank of the present-day Shatt al-Hilla (a branch of the Euphrates River). The village’s name derives from the Arabic word for ‘skull’, الجُمْجُمَة.

After the fall of Babylon, Jumjuma was occupied for centuries, with archaeological evidence supporting habitation as far back as the Hellenistic and Parthian periods. We know that it was the headquarters of European excavation missions in the late Ottoman Period. Claudius Rich, in his book Narrative of a Journey to the Site of Babylon, published in 1811, said, “North of Hilla on the river is the Jumjuma, which is the burial place of the Sultan.” Also H.V. Hilprecht said in his 1904 book, The Excavations in Assyria and Babylonia, “in the company of two regiments of soldiers, who happened to leave for Hilla, the French expedition quitted Baghdad, established its headquarters at Jumjuma, and began actual excavations at the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II on July 15, 1852.”

But what about the skull name? The majority of Jumjuma residents believe that the name appeared after the battle of Nahrawan that took place between the army of Imam Ali and the army of Abdullah Al-Rasbi in 659 AD. Imam Ali and his followers were returning to Kufa and passed through Babylon. His son (Omer), or as the locals call him, Amran, succumbed to his wounds suffered during the battle and needed to be laid to rest. So, to mark his son’s death, Imam Ali asked one of the skulls he found in the area about the location’s name; the skull became animated and answered, “IT IS BABYLON”. The event stuck, and the contemporary village became ‘Skull,’ as Imam Ali buried his son on top of the archaeological mounds northeast of the settlement.

Other local people believed that the name Jumjuma dates to before Imam Ali because the village was originally an ancient cemetery. It makes sense because some villagers still find graves amongst the Babylonian brick walls, pottery, and other artifacts when constructing sewers for homes or plowing for agriculture. Their finds inspired the only excavations in the area carried out by The Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) in 2002, near the village’s primary school (Figure 1). Archaeologists discovered a massive building dating back to the Seleucid era and a big cemetery. In one of these rooms, they found a jar containing 146 silver coins with the image of Alexander the Great. It is not rare in this village, as German architect Robert Koldewey found a statue of a boy whose fragments were found in the southern city wall about 500 meters east of the skull village in 1913 and 1914, assembled as the final form of a Hellenistic statue exhibited today in the Pergamum Museum in Berlin (Figure 2).

Figure 1: aerial photo of excavations at Jumjuma (credit: John Russell 2004)

Figure 2: fragmentary terracotta statue of a boy, Hellenistic period, now in Pergamon Museum, Berlin (credit: Ehab Raad Abbas 2019)

The area around Jumjuma is still used as a cemetery, and some believe that the reason for the continuation of the burial in this village is because it is an inherited habit. It may be one of the oldest cemeteries in Mesopotamia, where burial has continued from ancient times until now. Many graves can be seen in old pictures and the modern pictures, all the way up to the vicinity of Amran Ibn Ali, which has become a symbol of the village (Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3: Jumjuma cemetery with shrine of Amran Ibn Ali on the horizon (credit: Ammar Al-Taee 2022)
Figure 4: drone footages of the cemetery at Jumjuma (credit: Ammar Al-Taee 2022)

Some residents in Jumjuma and other surrounding villages stand against the recent changes made at Amran ibn-Ali’s tomb, a pattern of destruction similar to many Islamic heritage shrines in Iraq’s archaeological sites. For example, Amran’s tomb near Jumjuma sits above the Babylonian temple dedicated to Marduk, arguably the ancient city’s most sacred and essential site (Figure 5). The historic repurposing of Babylon goes along with an evolutional sense of its importance throughout history. However, the recent demolition of Amran’s early Ottoman-era tomb complex to construct a new, more prominent modern shrine came at the expense of an important part of that long story that is now lost forever (Figure 6). Many stories, legends and oral traditions carried by the local population were associated with the tomb.

Figure 5: The shrine of Amran Ibn Ali in the early 20th century (credit: Robert Koldewey 1914)
Figure 6: The shrine of Amran Ibn Ali today (credit: Ammar Al-Taee 2022)

Early Islamic sites, like Amran’s tomb, form important parts of the evolutional history of reuse and reoccupation of ancient sacred sites. Since the fall of authoritarian government controls, many modern-era shrines have been created or replace far older sacred sites, often early-era shrine structures superimposed over ancient Neo-Babylonian temple remains. These constructions take place in archaeological zones, where encroachment is restricted by law.


The resurgence of religious pilgrimage tourism and its aggressive pursuit to construct new shrines at the expense of older, high-value historical layers is a concern. These impositions are highly destructive to earlier era, post-ancient Islamic religious heritage, and worse, install irreversible and compromising complexes over ancient sacred site archaeology, limiting future opportunities for scientific study and the enjoyment of Iraqis and their future generations.

Decolonising the Excavation Licence in Iraq

By Zainab, 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.