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


Archive for the 'Archeology' Category

The low groundwater level in Babylon

By Zainab, on 20 February 2024


Babylon, especially as the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626-539 BC), is significant for its historical and cultural accomplishments but it also was a place where early technologies sought to address water management through incomparable feats of engineering. The Shatt al-Hillah, one of the branches of the Euphrates River, passes through the center of Babylon, dividing it into eastern and western parts. That relationship served well in trade, transport, defending the city, and irrigating its fields, but it also posed complicated challenges to maintain the city. Groundwater, tied to the level of the Shatt al-Hillah, continued to confound the Babylonians throughout the city’s history. Likewise, it posed challenges to modern archaeological excavations. First, the German presence at the turn of the last century, and later Iraqi expeditions, struggled to go deeper into the city’s archaeological layers; as soon as they were excavated, pits filled with water, preventing archaeologists from knowing more about the early periods, including those of Hammurabi.

Water shortages in the Shatt al-Hillah occurred in the second half of the 19th Century because the intensity of discharge of the Euphrates caused scouring of the river bed downstream of the Shatt al-Hillah branch. Hence, water movement increased toward the main branch of the Euphrates with fewer discharges into the Shatt al-Hillah; sediments began to accumulate in the Shatt al-Hillah branch causing the river bed to rise. Ottoman Authorities took measures in the last quarter of the 19th Century when a French engineer named Schoenderfer was entrusted to find a solution. A weir across the Euphrates River was built, but it could not withstand the currents.

After the British engineer Willcock’s intervention, a barrage known as the Hindiyah Dam was completed and opened in 1913, and as Shatt al-Hillah water levels began to rise again, so did groundwater levels in Babylon. Between the initial weir and barrage, there was a golden opportunity for the Robert Koldewey expedition to excavate Babylon. Olof Pedersen mentions in his book Babylon the Great City that in between the constructions, the groundwater dropped to −3.55 meters (= 21.95 MASL, meters above sea level), allowing Koldewey’s team to excavate down to levels now impossible to reach. As a result, the first excavations of Old Babylonian and Middle Babylonian levels took place at higher parts of the city, especially at private houses in the Merkes area.

Figure 1, North wall of the Palace after the groundwater level decreased, November 1911, Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft

After the barrage was built at Sadat al-Hindiyya, the groundwater levels at Babylon became one of the biggest problems facing the process of developing the ancient city for tourism. In the late years of royal rule, the Iraqi monarchy sent experts, headed by young archaeologists Taha Baqir and Fouad Safar, to ascertain ways to develop Babylon’s visitor infrastructure and find appropriate solutions to the issues of groundwater levels. The responsible team set to work, but alas, the monarchy soon collapsed in 1958 with a military coup led by Abdul Karim Qasim and the project was halted.

Later, referring to the King’s initial idea, Saddam Hussein launched a project called the ‘Revival of Babylon’ and instructed Iraqi archaeologists and engineering teams to start planning tourism development. The first initiative, coming out of a 1979 international conference, addressed the issue of groundwater under Babylon. However, the revival of the country’s heritage and archaeological resources was hijacked by Hussein’s political ambitions steeped in a personal agenda, which cost Babylon an important and essential part of its heritage.

With the beginnings of the Iraq-Iran war in full swing and accompanying signs of political unrest in the country, Saddam Hussein sought to enhance his personal glory by twisting the Babylon project, and instead of working to address the high levels of groundwater, he dug water canals with four artificial lakes, surrounding the central part of Babylon with water on all sides, and the groundwater problem increased. Between the 1960s and 1980s, the effect was caustic on Babylon’s exposed archaeology. The increased moisture brought salts with it, and capillary action devastated the original masonry walls just above ground level; Ishtar Gate’s famed animals, the mušhuššu-dragons and the bulls, began dissolving into dust.

Figure 2, Map of Babylon after completing Babylon Revival Project and filling the lakes with water, 1989, credit: SBAH

Several cosmetic remedies tried to hide the problem by treating Ishtar Gate’s degrading masonry symptoms rather than solving the root cause. Rather than replace crumbling ancient Babylon’s mud and bitumen mortars and respect Neo-Babylonian brick types, the Ishtar Gate was subjected to heavy-handed and inappropriate cement mortars and wrongly selected brick masonry infills. Instead of matching the Neo-Babylonian masonry, a patchwork installation featuring modern construction bricks normally used in houses was installed. To add insult to injury, at the Ishtar Gate, a heavy concrete floor was poured inside, blocking moisture evaporation. With no place to go, trapped humidity migrated deep into the masonry. These interventions only accelerated the erosion of the lower parts of the monument.

After the downfall of Hussein, removing the cast concrete floor became a priority. World Monument Fund (WMF) and the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), pulled it up and explored the depth of the Ishtar Gate. They were not able to reach Koldewey’s   levels, as Babylon had become, so to speak, a floating city on a lake of groundwater sitting mere centimeters below.

Later, in the summer of 2016-2017, the WMF and SBAH made another section on the western side of the Ishtar Gate, hoping that groundwater levels in the summer would be low, but they discovered underground water 150 cm below the floor, and an intact mušhuššu relief swimming up to its neck in groundwater.

Figure 3, The Mushkhushu is swimming in the water 150 cm below the ground, 2016, credit: WMF

In July 2023, WMF and SBAH began large-scale replacement of Ishtar Gate’s inappropriate modern infill bricks and their cement-based mortar. Excavations along the masonry facades meant to find the depth of these modern replacements to calculate costs for substituting in more sympathetic brickwork. Surprisingly, in some locations, the replacement continued 250 cm to 300 cm below the former concrete floor level, and the groundwater level was now below that. The mystery of why the infills were so deep was found in the SBAH’s archive. Only one paper mentioning that in 1958, a team from the SBAH, headed by Salem al-Alusi, with Kadhim al-Janabi and Najib Kiso, removed the dragons and bulls from the lower eastern side of the Ishtar Gate for the purpose of maintenance in the SBAH laboratories. But that created another question: why were the reliefs not returned to their places after their maintenance and why were they not in SBAH’s stores? So where did they go?

A piece of the riddle happened in 2019. Wahbi Abdel Razzaq, a retired SBAH archaeologist, who had an important role in the project to revive of Babylon, told me, “The SBAH removed parts of the masonry from below and reinstalled the dragons and bulls, on top of the Ishtar Gate.” Mr. Wahbi did not explain to me the details, which seemed strange to me at that time.But the historic photos of Babylon explain to us the process clearly and provide the final clue to understanding what happened. Photos taken in the 1950s show that the level of the excavated intact parts of the Ishtar Gate found by the Koldewey, and later Iraqi missions, show it was not that high, but rather lower. Mr. Wahbi’s words were correct. That is, in reflection of the masonry damage suffered on the west side, the lower parts being affected by rising damp on the east side were raised to be at the top of the Ishtar Gate.

Figure 4, before the animals were moved to the top of Ishtar gate from the bottom, 1950s, credit: SBAH
Figure 5, after the animals were moved to the top of the gate from the bottom, 2023, credit: Ammar Al-Taee

The strange thing is that despite our descent to more than three meters underground, the groundwater did not emerge before reaching 26.3 MASL! Which indicates a significant decrease in groundwater levels in Babylon compared to the year 2016. This is positive for those wishing to carry out archaeological excavations within the site of Babylon. On the other hand, this matter is a serious indicator that the groundwater levels in Babylon, which is in the middle of Iraq are witnessing a widespread and accelerating decline.

Figure 6, during the excavation process, 2023, credit: Ammar Al-Taee

Recently, the Water Resources Department provided me with the water levels of the Shatt al-Hillah, during the past seven years. The water level had decreased by about 2 m from 28 MASL in 2020 to 26 MASL in 2023. The result is a decline in groundwater levels in Babylon because the groundwater is mostly fed by the river. Especially after many of the neighboring upstream countries took an offensive stance to ensure that their people get enough water at the expense of Iraq’s water shares, ignoring international treaties related to the regulation and use of water.

As the Shatt al-Hillah continues to shrink, groundwater has become a major source of water for farmers after river water levels decreased or dried up. This was confirmed by Omran Nahr, who lives in one of the villages adjacent to Babylon and works in drilling wells. Nahr says, “During the last seven years, my business started to boom, to the point that I abandoned the manual method of digging wells and bought a machine for digging wells.” According to Nahr’s opinion, the groundwater level in the villages surrounding Babylon was reduced by about 3-4 m. As for southern Babylon, especially in the villages surrounding Borsippa around 20 km to the south of Babylon, it decreased by 8 m. “I used to dig 10 m to reach groundwater, but now I need to dig around 18 m”.

This is an indication of the beginning of the depletion of groundwater, which represents a major economic and environmental threat, especially in light of the major climate change crisis that is afflicting Iraq, in turn, will lead to a decline in crop yields, and it is expected that the current trend represented in Iraq will continue. Hotter, drier, and a large water deficit for decades, which will reduce the country’s domestic food supply and turn the land into salt fields.

Figure 7, the land turned into salt, the area south of Ninurta temple in 2023, credit: Ammar Al-Taee

The Impact of Social and Climate Changes on Iraqi Earthen Buildings

By Zainab, on 3 January 2024

Written by Ammar Al-Taee

Mud as an essential material has been associated with Mesopotamia since the early maturity of civilization in the land now known as Iraq, with its earliest mentions in religious epics and myths. One of the first concepts that apparently occupied human thought was the origins of existence and the creation of humans. The Sumerians, as well as the Babylonians, considered mud the primary material from which humans were created, with this belief echoed in later Abrahamic ideas.

One of the key features of Mesopotamian construction and architecture was that, throughout the ages, it relied primarily on mud. The environment determined both types of building materials and construction methods, as well as architectural styles and designs. From these historical, ideological and environmental notions, earthen buildings, constructed as they were from mud, became crucially important to ancient Mesopotamia, representing an essential part of the identity of this early civilisation.

Earthen houses:

Today, the towns, cities and even villages of modern-day Iraq are primarily concrete in nature, as cement has become the most widely used basic construction material, at the expense of mud.

To discover why Iraqis have become reluctant to continue the country’s long traditions of relying on earthen buildings, we find examples of earthen houses still in use today. After a long search, we found a small village called Al-Samoud (Resilience) in Babel Governorate. This village still steadfastly preserves some of the ancient traditions of earthen buildings. We met Abu Abbas, the head of the village, who told us about local mud-built houses still in use today and discussed his own involvement in building earthen houses. However, he told us that because of developments in building materials and the popularization of cement – an economic material that can be prepared quickly, unlike mud, which needs specific mixtures and seasons to prepare it for construction – local people increasingly turned to cement.

Abu Abbas beside a traditional mud bread oven with one of his sons, credit: Ammar Al-Taee

His son Abbas believes there are other reasons for earthen houses falling from favour. The introduction of cement contributed to the gradual disappearance of craftsmen who specialized in making mud bricks and earthen plaster. The process of building mud bricks is similar, in principle, to the process of building fired bricks. However, building earthen structures requires specialist skills in preparing mud bricks, binding materials, and plastering methods, as well as expert knowledge of the timings and duration required to ferment mixtures appropriately. These processes are far from instantaneous, meaning that building earthen dwellings requires additional time and costs than constructing concrete buildings. In addition, earthen houses require annual maintenance to ensure they remain weatherproof, unlike cement which requires more minimal and sporadic attention. Abbas believes that dwindling local interest in earthen houses is not only a result of these practical aspects and loss of skilled and knowledgeable craftsmen but because people have also come to reject earthen houses as a symbol of poverty and low social standing.

A group of earthen houses that were abandoned by their owners after they moved to the city, credit: Ammar Al-Taee

Abu Abbas said that, whilst his son’s points were correct at the current time, building with mud bricks was previously a considerably cheaper option than cement as work depended on villagers helping each other. His perspective is that earthen buildings were linked to a strong, stable and mutually beneficial social environment. Abu Abbas also pointed out that, although the village is surrounded by earth, after several drought years, the decrease in groundwater levels and the increase in salinity has had an additional impact on the environment upon which this community, and even its social cohesion, long depended. “We are no longer able to farm or raise our livestock easily, as both our lives and the lives of our animals today depend on the water truck that stands next to my house,” he said. He views these environmental changes as the main reason for the migration of many village residents towards Iraq’s towns and cities, something which, in turn, has speeded up the disappearance of previously common building methods and customs.

The impact of such climate changes is not only limited to tangible heritage, such as the earthen buildings themselves, but its threat extends to intangible heritage. Traditional customs, social living, especially tribal social structures and the songs and oral traditions that have long been part of the fabric that binds communities together, are now also under threat.

Abu Abbas prefers earthen houses because they are cool in summer and warm in winter, in contrast to concrete properties which retain heat, something which is incompatible with the local climate, especially the soaring summer temperatures of central and southern Iraq. According to recent studies, average temperatures in the region have been consistently rising, something regularly described as a result of climate change. Although Abu Abbas is committed to preserving his earthen house and traditional way of life for the time being, he admits that, if consistent and reliable electricity and water supplies were to become available in his remote village, he would sacrifice his earthen house and replace it with a cement one, relying on air conditioners to cool it in the summer months.

The village river drought and layers of salt appear on the river banks, credit: Ammar Al-Taee

During our visit to the house of Abu Abbas, I noticed beds and chairs also constructed out of mud, which evoked many household scenes depicted on ancient Sumerian cylinder seals. The Iraqi Museum in Baghdad holds collections of miniature models of mud furnishings very similar to those seen in Abu Abbas’ residence. The mud bed was located in the outside courtyard of the house and is where Abu Abbas sleeps at night in the summer, under the stars, to enjoy the cooling dawn breeze. The survival of mud tools and furniture is linked to the presence of earthen houses, which will also disappear with the disappearance of earthen houses.

Earthen heritage monuments:

Many specialists believe that protecting this Mesopotamian heritage of earthen buildings, as well as all aspects relating to mud craftsmanship, is very important. The responsibility of protecting this cultural heritage falls primarily on Iraqi governmental and non-governmental institutions working with heritage, but Iraqi universities should also share this responsibility. To this day, departments of architecture, whether in Baghdad University or at Babil University, do not generally study the earthen architecture of Mesopotamia.

“There is no real interest in teaching the earthen architecture of Mesopotamia in Iraqi universities, and all we know about such earthen buildings is that they used mud to make mud bricks and added straw to them,” said Dima Saad Zabar, an architect who holds a Master’s degree from Nahrain University, Baghdad. “After my work documenting the Temple of Ninmakh in the ancient city of Babylon with the World Monument Fund, I realized the importance of this architecture, and I now believe it deserves to have a special section dedicated to its teaching in Iraqi universities.”

Dima is working on documenting the Ninmakh Temple, credit: Ammar Al-Taee

The Iraqi higher education system also faces an additional problem, as archeology departments countrywide lack specialists in teaching conservation. Despite this, there has been a recent trend towards lecturers encouraging students to write theses focusing on the maintenance of historic buildings and/or ancient artefacts. There have been reported instances of professors specialising in, for example, Islamic arts and having no practical field experience in maintenance, supervising theses on the preservation of ancient buildings or artefacts. This not only threatens to undermine the value of Iraqi qualifications but, in the future, could put valuable archaeological sites and artefacts in danger. Graduates with backgrounds lacking in sound historic preservation principles, an understanding of international practice, and practical experiences may one day be responsible for maintaining Iraq’s precious heritage.

During a 2015 overland trip visiting Iranian heritage and religious sites, which encompassed Mehran, Khorramabad, Arak, Qom, Nishapur, Mashhad, Yazd and Isfahan, I found that earthen buildings and related crafts received significant care and attention. Furthermore, I discovered that Iranian plans for managing, preserving, and protecting earthen heritage sites differed greatly from our limited capabilities in Iraq, where heritage management and maintenance has long been a low priority for successive governments.

Today, the earthen monuments in Iraq, and in Babylon in particular, suffer from many problems that urgently need to be addressed. The first of these is the lack of overall management plans for individual sites, as well as a lack of any comprehensive countrywide maintenance strategies. Another problem is one of recent history. Between 1979 and 2003, monument maintenance relied on direct implementation of maintenance work without any prior studies for long-term viability of this and without suitable consideration of materials used. Such prior studies would have represented not only a doctor’s diagnosis of a disease but also could have identified appropriate methods of treating it in the long term.

Part of Babylon’s inner walls after they were maintained with baked bricks and cement in the eighties of the last century, Credit: Ammar Al-Taee

Therefore, previous maintenance work undertaken on earthen monuments included reinforcing ancient structures by filling them with hundreds of tons of cement, concrete, fire bricks and assorted other materials. For example, more than 40 different non-earthen building materials were used on the Ninmakh Temple alone in order to keep it standing. Whilst this gave an outward appearance of the integral strength of the temple, during a Babylon International Festival, in fact the use of modern construction materials meant that its interior was carcinogenic to the structure itself.

Unfortunately, since 2003 and up to the present day, the reality of Iraq’s earthen monuments has become bitterer. Valuable ancient buildings and sites have suffered from two decades of near-total neglect. The result of an ongoing lack of regular maintenance, the impact of climate change and human interventions, and the negative impact of former inappropriate modern materials deployed during maintenance is that large parts of earthen monuments have been lost.

Today, Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) which is the institution responsible for these monuments does not have the funds needed to maintain them. When funds are available, usually at the end of the fiscal year (in the months of October and November) these are very modest and must be spent within these two months. The question is: What can be accomplished in just two months?

A project to maintain parts of just one of Ancient Babylon’s temples in an appropriate scientific manner require at least two years. Here we return to the words of Abu Abbas from the village of Al-Samoud: “Building with mud requires not only prior preparations but also specific seasons for the processes.” Long-term successful maintenance using sympathetic materials requires years not months. In addition, the effects of the climate changes seen in the region over the last few years have further complicated maintenance operations as base materials – including water and earth – now have higher salinity and a greater presence of pollutants. Processes to make sympathetic maintenance materials now have to include more careful soil selection, and the purification of both water and earth before construction materials can be made, which takes still more time.

Another challenge – also seen in Al-Samoud village – is that the mud brick craftsmen and masons have all but disappeared, abandoning their former careers due to the prevalence of cement, fire bricks and concrete in not only construction but also building maintenance.

A group of young Iraqi masons, after rebuilding the the Cella room of Ninmakh temple, Babylon. Credit: Ammar Al-Taee

Today, those specialists and experts have grown old, and their health does not often allow them to practice this arduous craft. Therefore, since 2018, the World Monument Fund has focused on training a new generation of specialists by selecting 10 local youth from villages surrounding ancient Babylon to become mud brick and earthen craftsmen, to fill the gap that the cement created it. The goal is for these young people to have the skills to be able to maintain the earthen buildings in Babylon in the event that Iraqi institutions concerned with heritage preservation ask them to do so in the future.

Although undoubtedly a valuable initiative for Babylon, it does raise concerns about what the future might hold for the thousands of other earthen heritage sites spread across Iraq.

Egyptian architect Mohammad Tantawi, who specializes in earthen buildings, is working with us today to maintain Babylon’s Temple of Ninmakh. He believes that traditional adobe (clay) buildings in Egypt face similar problems to those seen in Iraq, both from maintenance and climate perspectives.

Preserving and maintaining earthen heritage and even reviving traditional building practices in the Middle East and North Africa is something largely dependent on international universities and maintenance missions. Unfortunately, in light of the apparent inability of national governments and institutions to prioritise heritage and provide appropriate levels of financial and practical support and expertise in this field, foreign institutions remain a key supporter in the fight to preserve this cultural heritage from further ruinous deterioration or even extinction.

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. 

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.