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


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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.

The Baghdadi Cultural Centre in al Mutanabi Street

By Mehiyar Kathem, on 7 July 2022

In May 2022, the Nahrein Network organised a one-day event titled Cultural Heritage: Projects and Partnerships in Iraq. The event was held at the Baghdadi Cultural Centre, in al Mutanabi Street, central Baghdad. The Baghdadi Cultural Centre overlooks the River Tigris and is located in a historic site built during the Ottoman Empire and which was previously an Abbasid-era building. It lies directly opposite al Qushla, the famous Ottoman barracks and administrative building.

The event was attended by Professor Eleanor Robson and Dr Mehiyar Kathem. It was chaired by Dr Ali Naji Attiyah, of Kufa University. Presentations from ten different funded projects in the country covered several of Iraq’s provinces. The public event focused on work supported by the Nahrein Network’s funded activities in the country, including on such things as post conflict digital documentation, intangible cultural heritage, Christian heritage, cultural groups and Babylon.

Speakers, representatives and attendees hailed from Iraq’s universities, media, the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), the Iraq Museum, as well as members of the public.


Ali Naji Attiyah’s brillant chairing of the event made it a huge success. Eleanor Robson spoke about the Nahrein Network’s past work and its future plans in the country.

Since the recent rehabilitation of al Mutanabi street the area has become a major cultural and tourist hub in Baghdad, attracting thousands of people to its cafes, bookshops and cultural sites.

The Baghdadi Cultural Centre is one of Iraq’s most active institutions, working to promote Iraq’s diverse and pluralistic cultures. It houses private museums and libraries, including important collections of books, and offers its space for free to the public and cultural organisers– particularly on busy Fridays, a weekend day in Iraq, to promote handicrafts, theatre and more generally cultural activities.

The Baghdad Cultural Centre houses a growing number of private libraries, donated to it for safekeeping and management. Its director, Mr Talib al Issa, manages the building and organises its weekly events. The private libraries belong to some of Iraq’s intellectuals, including Jews, Kurds, Christians, Assyrians and Arabs, constituting a diverse and visual record of Iraq’s history, all made available for the public to visit.


Not only are private collections donated, but also the personal possessions and such things as furniture, are often transferred to the Baghdadi Cultural Centre, a tradition found across Iraq that preserves a living memory of Iraq’s intellectuals and their lives.

Eleanor Robson and Mehiyar Kathem also visited the heritage museum collections located on site, an initiative of Mr Sabah al Saady, a well known advocate for safeguarding the country’s cultural heritage. Through his personal efforts, Mr Sabah al Asady established the Land of Rafidain (or two rivers) Museum, which displays historical artefacts and heritage pieces that celebrate Iraq’s history.

On site was also Saad Al Adhami, an Assyriology-loving potter, who makes some of these beautiful bowls and other cultural objects.

Saad Al Adhami and Eleanor Robson spoke about Cuneiform writing, and its beauty.








The Impact of Climate Changes on Iraqi Heritage in the Southern Desert and Marshland

By Zainab, on 12 January 2022

Dr Jaafar Jotheri, Co-Director of the Nahrein Network, presented a workshop on December 11th, 2021, titled: ‘The impact of climate change on Iraqi heritage’.

The workshop hosted five main speakers and more than 60 attendees, including academics, officials from the SBAH, university students, members of local communities, and social and environmental activists.

The discussion presented a valuable opportunity to advance our knowledge of the extent and complexity of climate change impacts on Iraqi heritage. In addition, it provided insight as to the degree of awareness amongst stakeholders and the community. In this context, Dr Jotheri addressed critical questions related to the topics, followed by a broad open discussion amongst the participants. The questions were:

  •   What are the features of climate change impact on the Southern desert?
  •   What are the features of climate change impact on the marshes?
  •   How should we adapt to the impact on the desert?
  •   How should we adapt to the impact on the marshlands?
  •   Are there Iraqi studies concerning these issues?
  •   Does the Iraqi government have a clear plan to solve these issues?
  •   Do any NGOs fulfil roles in this field?
  •   What is the impact of climate change on the archaeological sites in the desert?
  •   What is the impact of climate change on the archaeological sites in the marshes?
  •   What is the impact of climate change on the heritage?
  •   How has climate change been reflected in society and its activities (like artistic activities) in Iraq?
  •   What is the role of individuals and communities to mitigate the effects of climate change?


Dr Nawrast S. Abdalwahab provided a brief review of the most critical climate indicators on heritage and their associated risks, with diverse physical, social, and cultural impacts. In addition, she explained the complex nature of climate change impact on legacy and the ongoing Iraqi efforts toward achieving Climate Action, the 13th Sustainable Development Goal, which is considered one of the most challenging SDGs in Iraq.

Dr Sofia Jabbar Jassim introduced a brief description of the impact of climate change in the southern desert and its consequences on wildlife, such as the disappearance of hundreds of plants and changing migratory paths of birds. In addition, increasing  construction and farming’s effect as it expands into rangeland and affects natural plants, and the inequitable irrigation using groundwater resources. Furthermore, Dr Sofia outlined how certain desert cities like Alsalman and Bisaya vanish with their communities.

Dr Raheem Hameed Al-Abdan discussed the role of desertification in the loss of geomorphological features in the Iraqi desert, such as valleys, lakes and grassland. This deterioration in the environment directly impacts the Bedouin, who are not moving to the desert this year due to lack of rain. Overall, the Iraqi desert is losing its animal resources due to climate change.

Dr Rajwan Faisal discussed the disappearance of the historic Haj road, the ‘Zubeida Road’, and its Abbasid artefacts, and the migration of the original camel herders into the floodplain sites, causing increased friction and dispute.

Dr Ali Abdulkabeer Ali provided a brief overview of the Arab marshes’ unique way of life and the demographic changes for these communities resulting from the threat to their livelihood in their region.

Discussion and engagement by workshop attendees:

 The participants shared their most significant research outcomes on the topics. Some shared their memories of the area before the recent extensive impact of climate change, while others told stories and gave eyewitness accounts.

–         Dr Rasha Abdulwahab, Archaeologist at the Maintenance and Restoration Department, Samara University, shared her own experiences while explaining the impact on the artefacts and archaeological sites, specifically the role winds play in the deterioration of the facades of structures and building surfaces due to erosion.

–         Dr Qusay Fadel, Climatologist at Almuthana University, raised questions on climate adaptation and water management.

–         Dr Omar Jassam, Archaeologist in the Cultural Heritage Management Department at the University of Mosul, provided insight into the natural and cultural heritage of Mosul city. He discussed the value of Mosul’s Forest and the Tigris River, and their symbolic value to the people. He drew attention to the recent disforestation due to new construction projects.

–         Dr Khalil Aljubory, from the University of Tikrit, shared a story from his childhood, where one of his primary school teachers was from the desert, and kept a ledger of complaints against the farmers who used to extend their farming area, encroaching on grazing land. He emphasised that this type of dispute between the shepherds and the farmers has been ongoing since the 1980s. He was also an eyewitness to the levelling of the historic Ottoman ditches (or trenches), which were one metre deep and now been covered.

–         Dr Sabbar Alzubaidy, a member of a popular community for heritage protection in Najaf, provided eyewitness stories of the southern desert, specifically the deserts of Najaf and Almuthana. These stories were related to the Bedouin heritage and the impacts of wars, specifically the impact of often unexploded cluster bombs and mines in the desert.

–         Dr Wissam Raje, a landscape specialist, referred to the vast numbers of landmines in the desert and Basra and the importance of removing them.

–         Dr Waffa Almamory, a researcher in the maintenance of archaeological premises, highlighted the consequences of environmental impact on buildings. She also recommended recognition of the damage as the first step toward the process of maintaining the conditions of the buildings.

–         Mr Ahmed Hashoush, a geologist in water resource management, shared his memories of Lagash (his birthplace) and the effects of climate change, specifically the current distribution of salty soils due to high levels of evaporation.

–         Dr Raheem brought up the effects of rising sea levels and marine incursion at Shatt Al Arab and probably on the marshes.

–         Dr Naeem Alzubaydi, an archaeologist at the University of Almuthana, shared a story of flooding as a result of the heavy rainfall of 2019 and discussed how this water is lost in the absence of rainwater harvesting projects in the desert. He also emphasised the cultural disconnectedness between the old and new generations due to the loss of many social traditions.


The open dialogue in this workshop significantly raised the likelihood of rapid deterioration and degeneration of the Iraqi heritage due to climate change, with clear awareness of these impacts among academic and community members, accompanied by the lack of, or failure to appreciate, this amongst governmental departments and NGOs.

Unique environmental, social, cultural, and economic risks were also highlighted in the lively debates. For instance:

  • The decline of Bedouin communities and their heritage due to the deterioration of the desert.
  • The loss of animal resources due to water shortage in the desert and the migration of the Bedouin.
  • The loss and disappearance of archaeological sites in the desert and marshes due to the impact of climate change, with no apparent government or international plan for adaptation.
  • The loss of diverse cultural heritages in the desert and marshes, especially those related to nature.
  • The loss of natural, valued cultural heritages due to the expansion of building without conservation plans or protective actions.


  • Holding and supporting many workshops, symposiums, and conferences to further discuss the impacts of climate change on heritage.
  • Making approaches to the government, represented by the ministries and local governments, to fulfil their roles of climate change adaptation and activate environmental and pastoral codes.
  • Providing suggestions to all stakeholders for an adaptation  for climate change projects and researches.
  • Supporting and encouraging environmental and social activists.
  • Improving and adding new educational materials on climate change knowledge and adaptation to all levels of education.

Najaf’s Arab Christian heritage

By Mehiyar Kathem, on 2 July 2021

Prior to the expansion of Islam, the area that Najaf encompasses was one of the world’s most culturally diverse cities. Al Hira, a city and civilisation of late antiquity, was located on the Roman – Sasanian frontier and composed of a majority Arab Christian population. It was a major trading hub and represented a cultural crossroads between al Hijaz, in today’s Saudi Arabia and the wider region. In light of its rich and fascinating history, al Hira’s place in Najaf and more broadly Iraqi society is being studied by a team of researchers from the University of Kufa. 

The Nahrein Network supported project is the first that looks at Hira’s past in relation to Najaf’s society today and its role and position in the public sphere. In recent weeks a research team led by prominent Iraqi historian Professor Khalid al Hussainy has been exploring what al Hira’s history, evidenced also by its archaeology and ruins in the province and its cultural and intellectual legacies, mean in Iraqi society. 

Along with other members of the team, Dr Amal al Bakri – Vice Dean of the Faculty of Archaeology at the University of Kufa – has been visiting Najaf’s various state and societal institutions, including schools, health clinics and police stations, to explore what Najafis understand of al Hira’s past and how they negotiate knowledge of the ancient civilisation. As part of these efforts, the research team has been conducting interviews with people and stakeholders, including local government authorities, the Shia Endowment and religious authorities. Those interviews, the first to be carried out about al Hira and the way society and communities negotiate its history, have yielded new insights about how the civilisation’s past is viewed. 

One of the early findings of this research is that al Hira is widely respected in Najaf and there is widespread reception for its promotion as an integral component of Iraq’s history. Many of the interviewees had known of al Hira’s cultural and intellectual developments, including in poetry and literature and its contribution to the development of Arabic as a language that came to be adopted by Islam. Whilst interviewees had varying degrees of awareness about al Hira, most have at least a basic understanding of its importance and also knowledge of its eventual contribution to the establishment of Kufa as an Islamic capital after the birth and growth of Islam.


An informational panel explaining the origins and background to the  name of a primary school, named after al Hira’s Christian king and ruler, Al Nu’man. Najaf, Iraq. June 2021.



Dr Amal al Bakri standing in front of a police station which is named after al Hira. Najaf, Iraq. June 2021. 



Dr Amal al Bakri in an archaeological site containing the remnants of a Hiran church. Najaf, Najaf Airport complex. June, 2021


The project is also one of the few in Iraq today that is exploring new ways of enriching the field of history which have for decades been characterised by desk-based studies and intellectually stagnant repetition. In this context, one way in which the study of the past could be revitalised in Iraq is by looking at public history. Public history – the study of the past with a view to its relevance and role in society – is a relatively new field in the country and largely under-developed as an approach and field of research. Encouraging Iraqi researchers to engage with society has many benefits, not least in developing stronger linkages between Iraq’s universities and communities, which for decades have remained disconnected and therefore need to be strengthened over the next few years. 

The research conducted by Dr Al Hussainy and Dr Al Bakri and other team members highlights a number of issues that could be explored in the future. The first is that al Hira’s Christian and multi-faith heritage could be better integrated into national learning curricula at different levels of education as there is widespread interest in its promotion. Such education-based approaches could be an effective method of strengthening awareness which is commonly promoted as one of the remedies to Iraq’s heritage challenges.  

In addition, al Hira’s archaeology – which has produced numerous artefacts much of which are now in the Iraq Museum – could be used for the preparation of Najaf’s new archaeology museum, which is currently being established by the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH). The ground-breaking work of Kufa Univesity’s public history research team could lay the foundation for a major permanent exhibition at the museum, and help in the process strengthen public knowledge of Najaf’s pluralistic histories. Indeed, the research team is in communication with SBAH archaeologists to do just that. Again, this is a relatively new development in Iraq as academics have generally not been part of developing museum learning experiences and improving the capacity of museums in such things as interpretation, history-writing and information presentation. That disconnection between Iraqi academics and museums is palpable and could be addressed through such initiatives. 

It is worth noting here that the public history project represents a major change from conventional US-European programmes in the field of heritage, which mostly focus on traditional archaeology and excavations. Such projects have commonly ignored people, public education and societal engagement in their Iraq activities and research interests. The project could in this context offer a number of lessons for conventional archaeology in the country, whether they be led by non-Iraqis or national ones. In particular, the research team has shown the necessity of ensuring that archaeology and history should be made more accessible to wider society and communities, and that public history should be prioritised in all projects in this field. Foreign archaeological excavations – which mostly focus on digging and working with material structures – would do well to learn from such projects and incorporate public engagement and education activities in their future programmes. The same would also be true for Iraqi-led excavations, though for various reasons those are more limited in number in Iraq today. 

Importantly, the work produced by the research team showcases the need to strengthen safeguarding mechanisms regarding the archaeology of al Hira, which remain in a precarious state. Indeed, the project’s public engagement activities – particularly visits to stakeholders in the province – could potentially assist heritage authorities and government to implement more effective protection measures. As mentioned, the idea of establishing a museum hall in Najaf’s archaeology museum about al Hira’s past and role in Iraqi society could be an important step in supporting efforts to prepare a sustainable plan for the protection and celebration of this history. 


A gravestone with the symbol of a cross, Al Manadirah cemetery, Najaf, Iraq. June, 2021. 



A section of a Hiran Church in Najaf Airport complex,  Najaf, Iraq. June 2021. 


The blog piece was written by Dr Mehiyar Kathem.



The ʿibād Of Al-Ḥīra: An Arab Christian Community In Late Antique Iraq in: The Qurʾān in Context (brill.com)

Late Antique Iran and the Arabs: The Case of al-Hira in: Journal of Persianate Studies Volume 6 Issue 1-2 (2013) (brill.com)

Al-Hira and Its Histories 

Changed practices in Iraq’s heritage related academic networks

By Mehiyar Kathem, on 30 June 2021

Written by Dr Mehiyar Kathem 

It is not always easy to notice changing practices within the field one works in. Indeed, one must have relative distance – to notice and observe how things evolve over time – but also an in-depth knowledge of the field. By the end of the year, it would have been four years since the Nahrein Network started its work and one can now discern several transformations in Iraq during this period. This piece is written with a view to highlighting how the Nahrein Network, through its work in Iraq, has contributed to strengthening capacity amongst Iraqi academics and the universities it works with, focusing in particular on its heritage related activities.

Iraq, and in particular, Iraq’s academics – the Nahrein Network’s main partner in the country – are thirsty for international engagement, particularly with UK-based universities. As an essential component of civil society – and wider society for that matter – Iraq’s universities and academics are increasingly becoming engaged in Iraq’s intellectual, educational and cultural recovery. Observing those changing practices is not an easy task, particularly when much of Iraq continues to be framed as a crisis prone country. Understanding those changes however and exploring how things have evolved over the past few years is essential if we are to collectively work towards strengthening Iraq’s academic and heritage institutions. 

We all know that the challenges in Iraq are immense. Perhaps in every single field Iraq finds itself reeling from decades of conflict, instability and ineffective working practices. The lack of institutional reforms, resource scarcity, brain-drain, isolation and weak incentive-structures for improving the quantity and quality of research in the country continue to debilitate Iraq and its intellectual and academic fields. What I am interested in however are incremental changes and improved practices, which I explore below.

With an understanding of those aforementioned challenges, and in a situation where Iraq’s heritage has faced and continues to endure major crises as a result of the Islamic State and the lingering impact of conflict, the Nahrein Network was designed to support Iraq at a time when it was just coming out of war. 

In 2017, Nahrein Network director, Professor Eleanor Robson, initiated the project to directly enable and support Iraqis themselves to lead and contribute to the country’s post-conflict cultural and heritage recovery. Nearly four years since then, it continues to be one of the few initiatives providing support to Iraq in this field and the largest focusing on heritage related research and support to academics in this specialisation. 

Incremental changes – often not picked up or analysed –  have for the Nahrein Network been clearly visible, with tangible benefits noticeable in the field of heritage and academia. The bulk of those benefits that have accrued from the support offered by the Nahrein Network have been within Iraqi-led projects and research teams from Iraqi universities. The Nahrein Network’s small projects in particular – led by Iraqi academics themselves – are testimony to those changing practices in the field of Iraq’s higher education and more broadly in the field of heritage. Importantly, project leaders have used the opportunity to work on heritage-related projects to engage with society in ways that didn’t exist before. Funding for academics to work in the field of heritage have at least since the early 1990s been scarce and most financial support since 2003 for research in the field of heritage has come from outside Iraq. 

Academic research in Iraq has largely been dominated by conventional approaches that have for decades remained unchanged. Understanding the limitations of those common research methodologies – which mostly rely on desk-based research and its monotonous reproduction – project leaders supported by the Nahrein Network have instead adopted new approaches that engage with wider society, using more people-oriented methods such as interviews and ethnography. Indeed, interview-based research – adopted by many project leaders – has offered researchers fresh and new data about society. The use of such methods is a relatively new thing in Iraq, with most researchers in Iraq’s universities suffering from poor training and an absence of knowledge about the type of diverse and context appropriate methodologies they could potentially utilise in their work. 

Sanctions of the 1990s and conflict from 2003 have isolated Iraqi academics, producing a vicious cycle of poor academic attainment and little innovation and creativity in writing and research. Indeed, something as relatively basic as the adoption of new research methodologies to better understand such things as Iraqi society and cultural heritage – is a major development in a field that continues to suffer from weak academic standards and poor research production. For example, interviews with target audiences, including communities, is something that is neglected in Iraq’s higher education system. It is one of the reasons why academics in Iraq have produced little research about Iraqi society itself. They often rely on literature and research from the 1950s and 1960s, or commonly the adoption of abstract concepts and ideas taken from faraway places. In a context of the field of heritage, which is essentially about people, such antiquated research methods are devastating over the medium to long term, particularly when efforts are geared to strengthening the heritage and archaeology sectors in Iraq and learning about how they could be more responsive to people’s needs. 

With an understanding of those limitations, the Nahrein Network’s projects in the country, which focus on research with an impact on society, have encouraged researchers to produce new data and information by focusing on people, communities and heritage. In particular, the Nahrein Network’s small – grants have been effective in supporting Iraqi academics and improving academic standards. Such projects are led and managed by Iraqi academics themselves and their projects are the ones that are defined and prepared by researchers living and working in the country. They have a high degree of local ownership, which is essential for realising good results and outputs. 

At times, non-Iraqi facilitators or trainers have been invited by Iraqi teams, offering such things as training in data-collection, methodologies and field research. Funding for research in Iraq, particularly for social sciences and humanities, is highly circumscribed, though resource-scarcity characterises most of Iraq’s higher education. In this context, small-grants can go a long way, and for this reason the Nahrein Network’s projects are mostly made up of small projects. There is much to learn here – too long for this blog – about why small projects are generally more effective than larger ones in Iraq. 

The exercise of devising and managing a small project is itself a learning process that most Iraqi academics are not accustomed to. In this context, the Nahrein Network has provided an important stream of support – financial but also other forms of assistance – to strengthen the capacity of Iraqi research and in the process for researchers to learn essential career but also project related skills. Those funded projects, which are related to heritage in its various dimensions, are about people and have compelled researchers to leave the comfort of their universities to better understand the social and cultural environments that they are seeking to research and shed light on. 

Several projects stand out in this regard. A project led by Dr Zainab Alwaeli, a researcher from Al Mustansiriyah University, and composed of researchers from Iraq’s diverse backgrounds as well as cultural and religious group representatives, is focused on Baghdad’s cultural pluralism. After a period of research training – which itself has been an important aspect of researchers’ own skills development – team members are exploring how heritage practices, particularly within and between Baghdad’s cultural groups, have evolved over the past few years. For example, interviews were conducted with Iraq’s Mandaean representatives to better explore the life-situations of that community. Similarly to other non-majority cultural and religious groups, Iraq’s Mandaean population has dwindled in number in the face of Iraq’s post-2003 state collapse. Exploring those dynamics as they evolve is critically important during this period of change.  

One of the things that the research team has realised is that the voices and perspectives of those communities haven’t been properly researched and written about. One of the goals of this research project is to understand their positionality within a society undergoing change and how the past few years have affected how they view themselves and wider society. Instead of framing community members from non-majority groups as victims, the research team has been exploring their cultural and religious practices and engagement in society. 

Members of Baghdad’s Mandaean community by the banks of the Tigris. Baghdad, Iraq. June 2021.


A member of Baghdad’s Mandaean community performing an ablution by the banks of the Tigris, Baghdad, Iraq. June 2021.

Another major development that the Nahrein Network has encouraged and supported is the preparation of multidisciplinary research teams. Architects working with historians as well as with archaeologists, for example, isn’t a common phenomenon in Iraq and the Nahrein Network has encouraged multi-disciplinary teams to group together to research the particular subjects that they are concerned with. This has meant that researchers within each team – in most cases from different universities – are engaged within the confines of their projects to work together to produce and share knowledge. Support for team-based research in the field of heritage is not common in Iraq, and there are clear benefits particularly in terms of strengthening interdisciplinary skills and knowledge transfer between academics and universities. 

Another notable project sheds light on the dearth of up-to-date research about some parts of Iraq. A collaborative research project led by Al-Qadisiyah University looking at Southern Iraq’s Bedouin communities is the first such study since the 1960s to better understand the life-situations and intangible heritage of nomadic groups. Those nomadic groups, who traverse the desert and alluvial plain situated west of the Euphrates in Najaf, DhiQar and Muthanna provinces, have produced new data about neglected segments of Iraqi society. Research and findings to date have highlighted issues that could possibly also be used for policy and new support oriented national and international programmes.

With a view to developing a new university module, focusing on the intangible heritage of Bedouin communities, over sixty interviews were conducted with those hard to access groups. Women as well as men were interviewed by Iraqi researchers trained in ethnographic research techniques. Indeed, interviewees said this was the first such effort that asked about them, highlighting issues of neglect and deprivation. Whilst the project is still being implemented, an interesting aspect of this research has highlighted how those communities and individuals have been able to negotiate such things as urbanity and climate change – which affects the grazing of their livestock, and the ways they have coped with change at a time when Iraq itself is undergoing rapid political and social transformation. In the face of change, Iraq’s Bedouin communities are also dwindling in number, which is affecting their way of life. In this situation, the project could be seen as a strategic intervention at a time when Iraq’s Beduoin communities and their practices and traditions may altogether disappear from Iraq. 

The new and innovative research produced by the project will become integrated into Iraq’s heritage curriculums, forming a key part of higher-education learning materials. These new developments are significant in Iraq, especially as the field of heritage in Iraq has been mostly dominated by conventional notions of archaeological research and practices that have largely remained unchanged for over fifty years, if not longer. Current plans by Nahrein Network Co-Director Dr Jaafar Jotheri, Vice-Dean of the College of Archaeology in Al-Qadisiyah University, to develop a new masters degree in heritage – the first in Iraq – is a direct outcome of this learning experience and the urgencies of ensuring that heritage is oriented to people and their needs.

Taken together, the Nahrein Network’s activities in Iraq are having a positive impact on the country’s heritage sector and academic fields. Change is incremental, at times slow and difficult, but increasingly visible in Iraq. The good news that the Nahrein Network will continue to work and partner with Iraqi colleagues for the next ten years means that those resources and efforts invested in the country thus far can be built on, strengthened and rolled out across the country. 



 A member of a nomadic group in DhiQar, Iraq. June 2021.



Nahrein Research Grants Awards Principal Investigators meet in Baghdad

By o.borlea, on 5 May 2021

Dr Mehiyar Kathem


On 3rd May, the Nahrein Network organised a meeting in Baghdad with several project partners from Baghdad, Diyala, Anbar, Salahadeen, Nassiryah and Najaf.

Principal Investigators and researchers of funded projects spoke about their respective activities and work to date.

The meeting was organised by Nahrein Network Co-Director, Dr Jaafar Jotheri and Deputy Director, Dr Mehiyar Kathem. The meeting was also attended by Management Committee members Dr Ula Merie and Dr Dhirgham Aloybaydi.

The meeting provided an opportunity for project leaders to exchange information and share good practices especially with a view to the future development of the Nahrein Network. Activities are diverse in scope and concentrate on Iraq’s tangible and intangible heritage.

Representatives from the following projects were in attendance:

The projects listed above are headed by Iraqi academics and some will be implemented in partnership with Iraq’s national heritage institution, the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), which is part of the Ministry of Culture.

For further information and regular updates, follow the Nahrein Network on twitter (@nahreinnetwork) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/nahreinnetwork).

Building Ancient Boats for Today’s Iraq

By Nahrein Network, on 11 June 2019

Safina Projects on the revival of Iraqi watercraft heritage

By Hannah Lewis

I arrived in Iraq for the first time on 14th April this year.

1 Guffa coracle, Tarada canoe, and Delil barge guide-boat, on the Euphrates at Hit 12 April 2019 - copyright Rashad Salim

1 Guffa coracle, Tarada canoe, and Delil barge guide-boat, on the Euphrates at Hit 12 April 2019 – copyright Rashad Salim

The visit felt overdue: it was almost two years ago, in June 2017, that I co-founded Safina Projects with my husband, the expeditionary artist Rashad Salim, and joined him on a mission to revive, protect and study the traditional boats and craft heritage of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. My experience lies in project management and grant fundraising, so I took on the back office role –applying for funding, reporting to funders, admin and communications – while Rashad was in the field, tracking down the last few craftspeople who know how to build traditional boats like the Guffa coracle, Meshouf canoe and Isbiya barge.

2 Two Taradas and Chilaika on the Euphrates at Babylon 20 April 2019 - copyright Rashad Salim

2. Two Taradas and Chilaika on the Euphrates at Babylon 20 April 2019 – copyright Rashad Salim

These watercraft represent a heritage that has endured since earliest recorded history, but is now on the verge of extinction. Through a series of boat reconstruction workshops and oral history recordings – as part of our current projects, “Thesiger’s Tarada” supported by Nahrein Network (AHRC), and “An Ark for Iraq” supported by the Cultural Protection Fund (British Council with DCMS) – Safina Projects has documented these boats in detail, from the materials used to the making techniques, structure and traditional terminology associated with each boat type.

Through daily conversations with Rashad and through the thousands of photos and video recordings he has captured, I already felt familiar with the boats, their settings and the communities involved in their making. But seeing them at first hand would be very different, and I was excited to experience the real boats, the rivers and wetlands, and to meet the people Rashad had been working with for many months.

3. Hannah with Sajjad and Abu Muhenid paddling Nawfili at Chibayish 24 April 2019 - copyright Rashad Salim

3. Hannah with Sajjad and Abu Muhenid paddling Nawfili at Chibayish 24 April 2019 – copyright Rashad Salim

My two week trip was a whistle-stop tour, checking in at Baghdad, Hilla, Basra, Huwair, Chibayish, Nassiriya, Samawa, and back to Baghdad. Many days were filled with meetings, updating partners on our project progress and planning the next stages. We’re collaborating with organisations including Humat Dijlah and Humat Furat (the Tigris and Euphrates Protectors, an environmental activist network), the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Water Resources, and several universities and museums. Joint efforts include river expeditions, boat training events, and student projects featuring the documentation of boats using architectural drawing techniques (University of Basra, architectural department) and the transciption of oral history recordings for our planned digital archive and online museum (University of Thi-Qar, sociology department).

4 Leila helps tar the Nawfili - copyright Hannah Lewis

4. Leila helps tar the Nawfili – copyright Hannah Lewis

We’re working towards the culmination of the Nahrein-funded Thesiger’s Tarada project: bringing one of our reconstructions of Wilfred Thesiger’s iconic Tarada (Sheikh’s canoe) along with a Guffa coracle to participate in London’s Totally Thames festival this September. We’ll then hold a major exhibition at Basra Museum in October, when a second reconstructed Tarada will make its way from the boatyard at Huwair downriver to Basra, and be displayed in the Museum alongside photographs from Thesiger’s archive (provided by our partners at the Pitt Rivers Museum) and selected archaeological artefacts that offer clues to the development of the Tarada and its predecessors dating back to Sumerian times.

Progress in building partnerships was satisfying, but my favourite moments were those when I could forget about planning, step into one of the boats and be carried on the fast-flowing waters of the Euphrates at Babylon, or move into the deep quiet of the marshlands at Chibayish, where we stopped in a small Mudhif guesthouse on a reed island, and I practised paddling a Nawfili (a particular type of canoe named for the tribe who commissioned them, who preferred a more upright prow resembling those seen in Sumerian boat depictions). Observing some of the boat-making at first hand was a joy too, and even our 2-year-old daughter became totally absorbed in “helping” to tar the Nawfili, using a scrap of wood to push cooled tar into the gaps between the boards at the edge of the boat, while boatbuilder Abu Muhenid swiftly rolled hot taronto the larger surfaces.

5 Abu Muhenid tarring the Nawfili - copyright Rashad Salim

5. Abu Muhenid tarring the Nawfili – copyright Rashad Salim

I also loved watching others using the boats, particularly during the training event we held at the Babylon archaeological site (19-21 April), when 28 young members of Humat Dijlah’s network who are keen to participate in our upcoming Euphrates Expeditions attended to practice the art of paddling Guffas and Meshoufs, as well as learning First Aid and oral history skills. The camaraderie of being part of a boat crew, the sheer enjoyment of being out on the water, and the shared pride in an ancient heritage that’s intimately connected with that environment, combined to make the experience very special for everyone involved.

6. Tarada, Meshoufs and Guffas at Babylon training event 20 April 2019 - copyright Rashad Salim

6. Tarada, Meshoufs and Guffas at Babylon training event 20 April 2019 – copyright Rashad Salim

As our current projects draw to an end, the next challenge is how to sustain the boatbuilding practices that have been revived: how to forge some continuity for this heritage when the boats no longer serve their traditional functions, having been pushed out of existence by industrial substitutes (truck transport or motorboats), by damage to the environments in which they traditionally operated, and by the rupture of intergenerational knowledge transfer? There are no easy answers, but my experiences in Iraq demonstrated that traditional boats still have the power to bring people together and generate pride in post-conflict Iraq. They may no longer serve a central role in the economy, but in sectors like tourism, sports and leisure, culture and education, they bring a unique ingredient – perhaps a glimpse of how heritage can be engaged, not just as an effort to preserve the past, but as the foundation of a future that honours traditional knowledge, local ecology, and the vernacular heritage that has outlasted successive civilisations in Mesopotamia.