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


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Ceramic Craft in the Babylon Province

By Zainab, on 30 November 2023

Written by Ammar Al-Taee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceramic drums, photo by Ammar Al-Taee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delegation from the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities visits the United Kingdom

By Mehiyar Kathem, on 30 March 2023

Between 12 and 18 February 2023, the Nahrein Network organised a set of events and activities for a delegation representing the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities. The delegation was led by Dr Ahmed Fakak al Badrani, a historian of Iraq’s modern politics, who assumed the position of Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities and Dr Laith Majeed Hussein, Deputy Minister and Director of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), Iraq’s national heritage institution.

First on the list of cultural and educational meetings was Newcastle University. The delegation was warmly received by the university’s management, including its president and vice-chancellor Professor Chris Day.

Dr Fakak al Badrani and Dr Laith Hussein spoke about their work and challenges in Iraq and opportunities for collaboration. Dr Qusay al Ahmedy, chancellor of the University of Mosul and Dr Rawa Qasha, director of scholarships and external relations at the university were also in attendance. On behalf of the University of Mosul, Dr Rawa Qasha (a PhD graduate of Newcastle University) gave a superb presentation on the progress being made at the University of Mosul, where she also spoke about opportunities for building research partnerships.

The group visited the Great North Museum: Hancock and its temporary exhibition on Gertrude Bell, curated by Dr Mark Jackson. Soon after, the delegation visited and spoke to the researchers and archivists who completed the digitisation of her collections.

The delegation got the opportunity to see some of Gertrude Bell’s belongings, such as her diaries, photographs and translations of Arabic text.

Later that day, Dr Laith Hussein delivered a lecture at the Hershel Building at Newcastle University titled ‘State Board of Antiquities and Heritage Iraq: achievements and challenges’, where he spoke about current work being implemented to rehabilitate cultural sites and Iraq’s cultural emergencies and challenges in safeguarding its rich body of cultural heritage.

The next day, after our morning train ride to London we visited the Iraqi Embassy in London and met with Ambassador to the United Kingdom His Excellency Dr Mohammed al Sadr. Along with the delegation, Professor Eleanor Robson, Director of the Nahrein Network and Head of the Department of History at University College London, discussed ways of strengthening cultural and educational partnerships.

Next on our itinerary was a visit to the University of Oxford, where we visited three cultural institutions, the Ashmolean Museum, the School of Archaeology and the Pitt Rivers Museum. Hosted by Dr Bill Finlayson, director of EAMENA and the School of Archaeology, we discussed ways of strengthening institutional relationships with the SBAH. The delegation also visited several of the specialised labs at the university.

A short walk away, we visited the Pitt Rivers Museum, one of the world’s most distinguished anthropology-oriented museums. Dr Bill Finlayson kindly facilitated access to one of their Iraq collections, the archive of British explorer and writer, Sir Wilfred Patrick Thesiger. As a historian of modern Iraq, and formerly at the University of Mosul, Dr Ahmed Fakak al Badrani was particularly fond of the photographs of the country that captured a specific period and way of life in Iraq.

We then set off to meet with Professor Paul Collins, former curator at the Ashmolean Museum. Professor Collins had spearheaded the revitalisation of one of the galleries at the museum that concern Ancient Iraq, introducing new visual technologies and visitor-friendly interaction. The collections including from Sumer, Assyria and Babylon were on display, including one of an Assyrian relief where its original colours were displayed through the use of a projector.

We also had opportunity to visit renowned Iraqi artist Diaa Al Azzawi’s temporary exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, featuring work looking in part at the destruction of Mosul. That exhibition instigated an interest from Dr Ahmed Fakak al Badrani to visit the artist. The next day, a meeting with Diaa Al Azzawi was arranged in London, where discussions ensued about life in Iraq, a conversation that reflected the hardships, trauma and troubles Iraqis and Iraqi artists have experienced over the past twenty years.

The next day, Professor Eleanor Robson, Dr Ahmed Fakak al Badrani and Dr Laith Hussein participated at a roundtable meeting to discuss the current state of cultural heritage in Iraq, and several rounds of questions were taken from participants.

Lastly, the delegation visited the Iraqi Embassy where a British Museum media-oriented event was organised with Dr Timothy Potts, Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum and British Museum director Dr Hartwig Fischer. The event revolved around the British Museum’s current archaeological excavations at the Sumerian city of Tello/Girsu. 






Meet Niyan Ibrahim: Recipient of UCL – Nahrein Network Graduate Studentship

By Zainab, on 20 March 2023

Meet Niyan Hussein Ibrahim, the first recipient of the UCL-Nahrein Network Graduate Studentship. Niyan has just started her MSc in Sustainable Heritage at The Bartlett Institute of Sustainable Heritage. Niyan is an urban planner at Sulaymaniyah Antiquities Directorate and a co-founder of The Cultural Heritage Organization.

Tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Niyan Ibrahim, I am from Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan Region, Iraq. I was born and raised in Sulaymaniyah. I did both my undergrad studies and my master’s degree at Sulaimani Polytechnic University in the field of Urban Planning.

Why did you choose to apply to Bartlett?

When I started to apply for the The Nahrein Network studentship, I collected data and researched about departments I can apply for, on the basis of my previous degrees, knowledge and my desired future career. I also found that The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment is ranked #3 in the world in 2022 and remains #1 in the UK for the eighth year running.

How did you become interested in your focus area?

Ever since I started my undergrad in Urban Planning, as students we were introduced to the heritage of cities and their importance. Then I started working in Sulaymaniyah Municipality in 2014, I was working as an urban planner in Sulaymaniyah city center, and heritage neighbourhoods. I discovered the available potentials in heritage and the importance of managing it in the correct way. After I obtained my MSc in urban planning in 2020, I transferred my work to Sulaymaniyah Antiquities Directorate, which is the official institute related to heritage in KRG. I had the chance to work with the Digital Cultural Heritage Center (DCH). I am also the co-founder of Cultural Heritage Organization for developing cultural heritage, which is a registered NGO in KRG and Iraq Federal government.

What are your academic goals?

Definitely my goal is toward obtaining a PhD degree in my field of Sustainable Heritage. In this way I would have more knowledge and I would be able to do more research in this field. Yes, I would love to be funded for my PhD as well. And I will try to do what is required to be able to do my PhD at Bartlett.

What are your career goals?

As an urban planner who was born and raised in Iraq, I see a lot of potential and value in Iraqi natural and cultural heritage. Those resources and material require high level of management and planning. Unfortunately, Iraq lacks the ability and interest among it is researchers and academics to do so. So, my career goal is to equip myself with the required education to help in a better management, protection, and development for the Iraq heritage sector. And use this sector as sustainable source for implementing the Sustainable Heritage Goals of the United Nations.

How will this graduate studentship help your career goal?

Finding financial support while focusing on research is very important to any young researcher. Without this graduate studentship it would’ve been very difficult, even impossible, for me to continue my study in the Bartlett. So, I see this studentship as an essential step for me to keep going and do more research in the heritage field.

How are you enjoying UCL and studying in London? How’s it different from Iraq?

I enjoy being a UCL student very much. At first, I was expecting to have some culture shock, being in a new country, new culture, new study environment. But thankfully I didn’t go through that. I think a part of it goes back to the UCL, Bartlett and the Nahrein Network’s supportive and active team who are very friendly and supportive.

Furthermore, the academic staff and the materials they teach in Bartlett represent my interest and my wonders. Everyday I go to class I see and find answers to my questions about sustainable heritage, which makes this journey more interesting for me. I see a lot of difference in the teaching methods between Iraq and the UK.

I can easily compare because I have already studied an MSc degree in Iraq. Comparing to UCL the updated materials and the modern ways of teaching and the professionalism.

A visit to Iraq: Planning for the future

By Mehiyar Kathem, on 6 December 2022

On our trip to Iraq last month, we had noticed that most of the passengers arriving at Baghdad International Airport were pilgrims intending to visit the shrine of Sufi founder Abdul Qadir al-Gailani. Knowing that the next few days would be made up of formal meetings, we decided to take the opportunity to visit on that evening the shrine in central Baghdad.

Pilgrims from Iraq, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, UK and South Africa and other countries had come to worship and contribute to the spirit of a shared and global Sufi community. As a central meeting point for Sufi Muslims, the Shrine of Abdul Qadir al-Gailani fused devotion and religious practice – commonly with poetry, song and chanting – with a fervour of celebration and on the main courtyard, one could experience the uniqueness of that cultural and social mergence.

The shrine of Abdul Qadir al-Gailani

Professor Eleanor and I also met with the new Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, Dr Ahmed Fakak al-Badrani. Dr al-Badrani had previously been a lecturer at the University of Mosul, specialised in the political history of Iraq. The meeting was attended by Dr Laith Hussein, Deputy Minister and Director of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) and Dr Saad Iskander, an advisor at the Ministry. We discussed the Nahrein Network’s plans in the country and ways to support one of its key institutions, namely SBAH.

Professor Eleanor Robson and Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, Dr Ahmed Fakak al-Badrani. Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, Baghdad.

Professor Eleanor Robson and Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, Dr Ahmed Fakak al-Badrani and Dr Laith Hussein (Director of SBAH in Iraq) and Dr Saad Iskander (Advisor at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities). Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, Baghdad.

A meeting was also organised with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, led by Director General of Scholarships Dr Hazeem Taher and his colleagues. We spoke about the Nahrein Network’s current activities and efforts to support Iraqi universities and academics and ways to strengthen our work together. We also had the opportunity to meet with Dr Fatimah who is leading the ministry’s language centre and who would later be participating in the Nahrein Network’s AcademIQ workshops in Baghdad, which are part of our work to support Iraqi capacity for improved research in the country.

Meeting at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Baghdad.

As part of this trip to Baghdad, I went on to meet with Deputy Minister of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, Dr Naufel Abu Ragheef, where we discussed the work of the Nahrein Network. I also took the opportunity to visit some departments within the Ministry’s building, focusing on its modern art collections.

Dr Mehiyar Kathem of the Nahrein Network with Dr Naufel Abu Ragheef, at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities in Baghdad.

A day later, I also met with the current and future director of Diyala’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, Mr Ahmed Abduljabbar and Dr Ali Tameemi. Both had been recipients of a previous Nahrein Network grant to document and safeguard Diyala’s rich cultural heritage.

Dr Mehiyar Kathem with SBAH representatives, Ahmed Abduljabbar and Dr Ali Tameemi.

On a return visit to SBAH, I bumped into the Director of Al-Anbar SBAH’s provincial office, Mr Ammar. We spoke about his plans for revitalising the cultural heritage of Iraq’s largest province. Mr Ammar, whose office is based in Ramadi in Al-Anbar, spoke about the need to strengthen the capacity of their cadre to conserve and protect the province’s heritage, which has long been neglected.

Professor Eleanor Robson’s trip to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) was equally successful. It was organised by Dr Rozhen Kamal Mohammed-Amin, a Co-Director of the Nahrein Network working in Sulaimani and who is now affiliated with the Kurdistan Institution for Strategic Studies and Scientific Research (KISSR).

Eleanor, Rozhen and members of her team were welcomed by the provincial governor of Sulaimani, Dr Haval Abubaker, who stated his support for initiatives in the field of cultural heritage and the uses of new technologies.

Professor Eleanor Robson and Dr Rozhen Mohammed-Amin meet the Governor of Sulaimani, Dr Haval Abubaker.

In Erbil, an agreement between the Nahrein Network and Kak Kaify Mustafa Ali, director of the KRI’s General Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage was signed, paving the way for increased partnership.

Professor Eleanor Robson and Kak Kaify Mustafa Ali show the newly signed agreement between the Nahrein Network and the KRI’s Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage.

A visit to Erbil Citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was also organised. Eleanor, Rozhen, and her deputy Tabin met with Lanah Haddad, Regional Director for the American NGO, the Academic Research Institute in Iraq (TARII). She introduced them to Salar Al-Agha, manager of the citadel’s interpretation centre, and spoke about creative ways to build visitor-learning at the site. The next day they were also introduced to Dr Georges Mouammar, the new director of the Institute Francaise du Proche-Orient (IFPO) in Erbil.

Traditional handicrafts for sale at the foot of Erbil citadel.

In Erbil, Eleanor and Rozhen also met with Dr Yasmin Abdulkareem Mohammed Ali, Dean of the College of Archaeology at the University of Mosul to discuss shared interests in digital cultural heritage.

Dr Yasmin and Dr Rozhen discuss the uses of digital cultural heritage.

Ethics In International Cultural Heritage Interventions. What We Can Learn from Humanitarian Principles.

By Mehiyar Kathem, on 1 December 2021

Written by René Teijgeler and Mehiyar Kathem. 

Since the devastation wrought on cultural heritage in Syria, Iraq and many other countries, international donors have ploughed hundreds of millions on cultural heritage related projects in crisis affected contexts throughout the Middle East, Asia and Africa. As an outcome, cultural heritage is fast becoming appreciated by governments and funding agencies as an integral component of international assistance programmes.

Yet, in light of its growing importance, international responses to cultural heritage in situations of violent conflict and instability have not seen a commensurate discussion about ethics and principles of interventions. Considering the emerging field of heritage related international assistance and the projects that it offers support to, established humanitarian and development principles need to be considered and integrated into the work of donors, state agencies, cultural operators, contractors and a growing array of cultural heritage actors.

Whether in the form of disaster, long-term conservation or emergency activities, support to cultural heritage can assist societies to recover. In the UK for example, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport allocated over £30m to the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund to support cultural heritage in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, amongst other countries. The British Museum alone received £3.2 million for what it said to be post-ISIS emergency support in Iraq, focusing on excavations and training. Since 2017, UNESCO in Iraq has secured over $100m for the ‘Revive the Spirit of Mosul’ initiative, with the European Union and the US similarly offering large amounts for cultural heritage. In Iraq alone, over $500m in recent years has been or is in the process of being spent based on cultural heritage, with the US, the United Arab Emirates, the European Union and its Member States leading in funding projects.

Cultural heritage programmes are also being funded through the private sector. The newly established private donor organisation for cultural emergencies and conservation, ALIPH, which is supported by France, China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and other countries, has similarly spent tens of millions on Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other countries affected by conflict and instability. Cultural operators that are involved in direct implementation such as the World Monuments Fund and the US-government institution, the Smithsonian, have also secured similar amounts for cultural projects from private funders.

While there have been no detailed studies of these interventions and their size and impact, particularly on beneficiaries and communities, a common factor amongst donors and operators however is that none of this work has been guided by a code of conduct and charter of principles. Some institutions do of course have a code of ethics but these are not as relevant or applicable when projects are implemented outside their home countries.

Rather than viewing cultural heritage as a separate field of activity to peacebuilding and humanitarianism, donors and international operators need to urgently focus on learning about the full impact of their interventions on societies that they work in and hold their work to the highest degree of accountability, not least by the minimum standards of their home countries. This is particularly relevant in a situation of degraded civil societies and weak state institutions whose capacity and power for engaging in the design and implementation of foreign funded projects are highly circumscribed.

Considering the significance of cultural heritage as an indispensable element in people’s lives, identities and histories, donors and cultural operators need to review how their interventions affect the countries and societies in which they work. For example, generalised trauma is a key characteristic of conflict affected societies, meaning that interventions in the field of cultural heritage need to be particularly cognizant about the way projects are designed, who they work with and how activities unfold once they are funded. These issues are far from being translated into actionable practices, frameworks and approaches let alone seriously discussed.

As such, interventions in the cultural heritage of other countries need to be openly discussed and issues pertaining to it elevated to the highest echelons of policy thinking, planning and practice.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. A good start would be to integrate and where possible adopt existing humanitarian principles to heritage related work. By learning from the Sphere Handbook’s Humanitarian Charter, for example as well as ethical principles more generally, we could apply much of what we have learnt over the past few decades to the field of cultural heritage assistance.

At the heart of what could be a new cultural heritage relevant ethics is the established humanitarian principle of ‘Do No Harm’. Assistance and other forms of interventions in the field of cultural heritage should not exacerbate conflict or social tensions and put partners and communities in harm’s way, either when projects are implemented or after they have been completed. In this context, interventions should be sensitive to conflict dynamics and their legacies, which continue well after countries have been labelled ‘post-conflict’ by foreign funding agencies.

Four core principles taken from the world of humanitarianism could make a good starting point in these discussions.



One of the key humanitarian principles of interventions is humanity. To address human suffering, to help those in need, is a moral obligation. The principle of humanity is frequently taken for granted, however. The Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a political commitment to end the worst forms of violence and persecution, goes a step further and was accepted by the UN in 2005 and has been used as a pretext for armed international interventions. It was expanded to the protection of World Heritage later and today the UN and UNESCO are meant to apply this moral code to cultural heritage.

‘To do good’ or ‘to do something’ is in many cases thought of as enough, especially with charity and volunteer organisations. To organize and support heritage colleagues and address cultural collapse in a crisis, however, needs a professional approach. How aid and projects are designed and for whom are key questions in this regard. Participatory approaches are required to be integrated and made a point of discussion. After all: ‘Whatever you do for me without me, you do against me’(Gandhi).



Neutrality is about offering assistance without taking sides. Violent conflict ruptures society and creates divisions. Many people withdraw from society or escape, leading to cycles of long-term damage. Dynamics of conflict should be considered by heritage related assistance and cultural operators. They are often not even spoken about or integrated into programmes.

Whilst there might be a need to support groups, especially the weak and vulnerable and those that have been deliberately targeted or affected by conflict, it is also important to note that fractures in society are an outcome of war itself and at times discriminatory state policies. Social analyses or assessments of interventions are missing and there is a fear that large amounts of foreign funding could exacerbate and reproduce existing problems.

A common responsibility to all affected by conflict, rather than those donor agencies deemed to be closer to their interests, should be of paramount importance. Pertinently, it is a duty on all donors and cultural operators to ask why they are selecting one section of society over another. Projects are an opportunity for self-reflection on such things as intentionality, which shapes the design and delivery of programmes.



Impartiality – to provide aid and deliver projects without discrimination – is a difficult obligation. It is, however, central to the development of cultural heritage ethical principles. In the light of other guiding principles that identify drivers and connectors in a violent conflict, impartiality has its limitations. It requires interventions to be cognizant of not only the context in question, but importantly donors and implementing parties’ own positionality and power.

Arguably, no one is impartial, and we all have views about how society should be governed. The main question here, however, is mostly one about power and the type of relationships forged in projects. These factors have generally been ignored, or altogether dismissed in cultural heritage work, with the focus of discussions about other people’s contexts rather than those of the donor country’s interests and politics.

As a corollary, all forms of heritage – tangible or otherwise – need to be respected and treated equally in emergency and recovery programmes as they are all significant to society. Cultural heritage is a resource for everyone.  Interventions in the field of cultural heritage have shown however that projects are generally focused on what is primarily of direct relevance to donor interests. This has remained unchanged, even in situations of emergency and collapse. In Iraq and Syria, for example, cultural heritage interventions both now and in the past have preferred to focus on pre-Islamic tangible heritage and have as such mostly ignored Islamic heritage and other fields such as modern architecture and other important parts of the identities of people. Interventions that focus on one part of history over others – not least in a country as diverse as Iraq – are more likely to be viewed in those countries as oriented to foreign interests than local priorities.

Archaeology in Iraq, for example, is still underpinned by colonial-era practices. Indeed US-European archaeologists and related agencies have not changed  their approaches which are oriented primarily to knowledge extraction. Everything else that is championed today, such as issues of sustainability, conservation, community, and education, are peripheral or merely used to look relevant. Indeed, the scale of the challenges are huge for archaeology, especially when many archaeologists think that their interventions exist in fields that are separate to issues concerning conflict, development, politics and society.

Interventions have increasingly become politicized over the last decades. Some large international projects have little if any sense of impartiality as they are designed to support particular sections of society, creating in their wake deep fissures and inequalities. For example, USAID has spent over $373 million for Christian groups in Iraq alone, favouring groups that suited its own political agenda. In what is an ethnically and religiously mixed society, the repercussions of these huge programmes targeting conflict affected communities over others have yet to be fully understood. Favouring one group over another is, in fact, the very opposite of neutrality and does little for social cohesion and for building long-term peace.



Although cultural heritage assistance is mostly derived from government or private donors, there should be always an adherence to principles of independence. Whilst this is problematic given that donors themselves have their own agendas in relation to cultural heritage, principles pertaining to independence should influence, as much as possible, how projects are designed and implemented.

A code of conduct that champions independence would ensure that both donors and grantees also factor their role in other people’s cultures and countries. Significantly, the principle of independence, long cherished in humanitarian agencies such as the Red Cross, could offer an important entry point into building good, trust-based relations in cultural recovery and support to communities.

Notwithstanding the fact that international development departments reflect foreign policy of the donor country, independence could constitute not only ideal constructs but working practices that shape programmes and the relationship they have to other countries. It could be central to the success of programmes as they rapidly move from conventional state-to-state cultural diplomacy to more assertive and interventionary heritage programmes that are implemented in-country, especially in contexts where state institutions are themselves weak and society is undergoing multiple, concurrent crises.

Donors and other cultural heritage actors need to appreciate that cultural heritage is also a sovereignty issue. New cultural heritage assistance programmes should not normalise unfettered interventions that violate the sovereignty of other countries. Cultural heritage should not be a new tool in reshaping other people’s countries such as fostering neo-liberal capitalism and liberal democracy. It is all too often the case however that cultural heritage has been exploited as a trojan horse – often under the banner of emergency assistance – to shape society in ways conducive to political interests.


Towards a Code of Conduct for Cultural Heritage 

There are other principles, taken from international development, that should similarly be integral to the preparation of a code of conduct in cultural heritage projects. These are also listed in the Sphere Handbook (2018) and include respect of local cultures and customs, building local capacity, the need to involve beneficiaries in project management, work to reduce future vulnerabilities, meeting basic needs, ensure accountability to both donors and recipients of aid, and finally recognise disaster victims as dignified human beings, not hopeless objects. Other key principles that should be appreciated are about the use of data and knowledge from other countries’ cultural heritage and our collective responsibility regarding looting of cultural artefacts. These are just a handful and there are many others that need to be considered.

To most funding and implementation agencies in the field of heritage these principles are not new. Nevertheless, acceptance does not mean they are part of implementation, monitoring and evaluation. Unfortunately, these additional principles are frequently rendered marginal to international assistance programmes in this field.

As cultural heritage is an integral part of the lives of people, interventions should be scrutinised and held to the highest levels of accountability. Worryingly, neither accountability nor ethical principles characterize what has become a boom period of huge windfalls for cultural organisations, which are mostly contracted to undertake work in other countries. Similarly, huge overhead expenses have been secured for home country implementing institutions, providing little if any incentive for changing practices and the status quo.

Taken together, a code of conduct would also assist in ensuring transparency and openness. Huge government and private funding have translated into competition for funding rather than co-operation. Combined with a situation of weak outputs and the need to support long-term cultural sustainability, participation, partnerships and the priorities of crisis affected countries, the sector is characterised by dysfunctionalism and a rush to extract resources in the name of helping others. This became especially clear during the Corona pandemic.

New funding in the past few years has been designed for emergencies but in fact most cultural organisations that donors are working with have carried on as normal and their programmes have little changed practices regarding addressing cultural crises. By centering ethics at the heart of cultural heritage, projects are more likely to be sensitive to the crises that they claim to be addressing.

This is just the start of what will be a long journey. Leading by example should be a priority and necessitate a review of cultural heritage interventions, the role of donors and implementing organisations. It is now time to open the discussion about ethics and humanitarian-based principles regarding the work being done in countries affected by conflict and other disasters.


René Teijgeler

René is an independent conservation and heritage expert, based in Holland. As a conservator he worked at the National Library of the Netherlands and designed risk management plans for different heritage institutions home and abroad, and has worked in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, amongst other countries. His website is http://www.cultureindevelopment.nl/About_Culture_in_Development/Rene_Teijgeler


Mehiyar Kathem

Mehiyar is Deputy Director of the University College London’s Nahrein Network


Nahrein Network meets with Iraq’s Minister of Culture in Baghdad

By Mehiyar Kathem, on 24 May 2021

On 16 May, the Nahrein Network, represented by Dr Mehiyar Kathem, met with Iraq’s Minister of Culture, Dr Hassan Nadhem. The Nahrein Network’s activities in Iraq were presented and its 10-year plan, available on the Nahrein Network website, was discussed.

Dr Kathem spoke about the need for greater co-ordination and strengthening Iraq’s heritage education and intellectual infrastructure.

Funded activities supported by the Nahrein Network were discussed, including plans for future collaboration. Other key points of discussion included the need for improving the role of UK and Iraqi universities in the field of archaeology and heritage.

Dr Nadhem welcomed the Nahrein Network’s work to date, which formally commenced in 2017 and requested support for strengthening the capacity of Iraqi archaeologists in the protection, promotion and celebration of Iraq’s rich cultural heritage.

For regular updates on the Nahrein Network, see @nahreinnetwork on twitter and facebook

Overcoming structural barriers in digital learning

By Nahrein Network, on 28 July 2020

In this post, UCL Laidlaw Scholar, Fareeha Masood, writes about her recently completed research project, “Whose Middle Eastern Heritage? A demographic study of Oracc’s users worldwide”.

The Nahrein Network’s collaboration with Oracc and UCL’s Research Software Development Group aims to improve inclusivity in the study of cuneiform. Cuneiform texts preserve the earliest languages known to humanity. Yet today, for those living in the Middle Eastern lands where these texts were first produced, there are disproportionately high barriers to studying cuneiform in the Arabic language. Overcoming the loss of such rich literary heritage is part of the Nahrein Network’s sustainable development aims, and the adaption of open-access resources provides real prospects to re-centre the production of cuneiform research.

Oracc.org hosts a growing cuneiform corpus: an open platform for researchers to collaborate and publish projects on the traces of life left from Ancient Mesopotamia. Digitisation has come a long way in improving access to these tablets, which have become dispersed across the world through a haphazard history of excavation and plunder. As with much of the digital world however, the centre of gravity is shifted towards the European and American sphere, pulling Middle Eastern heritage along with it. In the last few weeks, I have undertaken research to assess the needs of Arabic-speaking audiences in the Middle East to access online resources, and specifically, Oracc.

Through a combination of Oracc’s Google Analytics data and a survey circulated across the Nahrein Network, I built up a detailed picture of the target demographic. Questions addressed included: how Middle Eastern users currently use the site, what technology do they access it through, what channels are used to reach the site, and what content and features are they interested in. The notification of a new survey response was always a welcome sound, promising insights into the real experiences of researchers behind the numbers on the screen.

Findings revealed similar research interests between Middle Eastern users and their counterparts around the world, although the former are slightly more interested in archaeology. The biggest divergences between the two groups came from the devices and software being used to access Oracc. A higher proportion of Middle Eastern users reached the site through social referral. Non-expert users found it difficult to engage with the site interface across all demographics, preventing the growth of widespread interest.

The future of scholarship relies on widespread access, and so I have put forward recommendations to develop the site for new, as well as existing, audiences. Solutions addressing immediate usability and marketing, such as mobile-friendly interfaces and a more diverse social media presence, are all under consideration. Most importantly, a longer-term, sustainable outlook is developing around content creation from the Middle East, which will spur engagement to organically grow from the region. All suggestions are driven by a shared, clear vision: improving the offerings for Middle Eastern audiences to explore their heritage.

Having newly joined the teams behind Oracc to complete this research, my personal takeaway has been the core values held by the people behind the site. Working during the pandemic has had its solitary moments, but meetings with UCL’s RSDG, Oracc Steering Committee, and of course, my supervisor, were infectious with the drive to be doing more. Decisions are research-heavy, solutions are ambitious, and integrity runs throughout project aims. Perhaps my most important finding, therefore, is that the future of cuneiform resources are in safe hands. The inheritors of the world’s first written culture can expect big things from this space.

Cultural Heritage, Statebuilding and the Future of Iraq

By Mehiyar Kathem, on 23 June 2020

The Nahrein Network – Chatham House partnership, established in 2019, addresses the neglected role of cultural heritage in statebuilding and international policy. Although in recent years development agencies as well as private foundations have recognised the significance of cultural heritage in countries affected by conflict and political instability, those growing interests have not been translated into effective policy or improved academic research. This partnership attempts to overcome that dearth of research in this regard and highlights the need for more holistic approaches to cultural heritage in Iraq.

The Nahrein Network’s partnership with Chatham House explores the connections between cultural heritage and statebuilding in Iraq. In Iraq’s contested statebuilding process, cultural heritage has been heavily shaped by the country’s changing politics. In recent years, new structures of power and systems for organising politics have transformed Iraq’s cultural heritage in ways that have yet to be fully understood or studied.

State institutions and other structures of power, including the ways in which resources are distributed, have also shaped national and community cultural heritage. Exploring the connections between cultural heritage, politics and statebuilding can help us better understand how the past is used today. These analytical directions, taking into account political-economic structures and resource-distribution, can shed light on why particular components of Iraq’s cultural heritage are prioritised and afforded protection and financial support, whilst other aspects suffer from neglect and even destruction.

Tangible cultural heritage, including historic city centres and buildings, archaeological sites, places of worship as well as intangible cultures, such as crafts and cultural practices, have been altered by decades of conflict and changing politics. The relationship between politics and cultural heritage was most glaringly highlighted by the destruction visited on Iraq’s built heritage in Nineveh, Anbar, Kirkuk, Salahaddeen and Diyala and other Iraqi provinces by the Islamic State and the war to oust them from the country. The deliberate destruction of material cultural heritage is a glaring manifestation of political contestation in Iraq. There are other forms of cultural destruction however, whether deliberate or otherwise. Those include looting and the effects of social-economic development, urban sprawl, construction and agriculture. Ill-conceived conservation interventions have also detrimentally affected Iraq’s tangible cultural heritage.

In Iraq, cultural heritage has historically been central to the operation of politics. Specifically, the construction of singular narratives – most notably witnessed when key cultural sites are folded into competing political elite projects – also highlights cultural heritage as an integral component of statebuilding. In recent years, the fragmentation and fracture of Iraq’s national heritage institutions, overlapping power structures and laws, and the absence of long-term goals and strategies, are also some of the many outcomes of Iraq’s divided politics.

How tangible and intangible cultures are used, instrumentalised or destroyed can tell us much about politics, actor-motivations and provide evidence-based analyses about Iraq’s statebuilding processes that have conventionally been studied through other domains of practice and research. Significantly, an exploration of these dynamics can shed might light on the future of Iraq’s cultural resources and what the Government of Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, as well as international development agencies, NGOs, universities and academics can do to strengthen Iraq’s cultural heritage.

The Nahrein Network – Chatham House partnership is working to map key state, quasi-state and nonstate heritage related institutions in Iraq and the impact the country’s political system has had on its cultural heritage. Exploring the type of relationships institutions forge in relation to cultural heritage is a key component of this research. Other features of the report will explore lessons learnt over the past few years, case-studies and challenges pertaining to Iraqi and international initiatives in the field of cultural heritage. An evidence-based and policy-oriented research paper will be finalised in 2021.

Future events include roundtable discussions and other meetings planned from July 2020 and a series of one-to-one and group interviews. Webinars will also be organised.

We invite all those concerned about the future of Iraq’s cultural heritage, its protection and potential contribution to peace, stability and social cohesion to participate in these activities.

For further information, and to participate in these discussions, email us on nahrein@ucl.ac.uk


How Iraqi academics are overcoming a legacy of intellectual isolation  

By o.borlea, on 12 June 2020

Mehiyar Kathem

In recent months, hundreds of online academic webinars have been organised from Iraq as an outcome of the situation arising from COVID-19Across a wide range of topics and fields of research and discussion – from arts and heritage and archaeology to medicine and engineering – this new trend in Iraqi academia is helping Iraqi academics overcome decades of academic and intellectual isolation.  

Online meetings or webinars, including symposiums, lectures and conferences, are not only about academic conversations. They are ultimately focused on using more creatively and constructively online platforms such as Zoom, Free Conference Call and Google Hangouts for cultural exchange. Overcoming physical barriers, not least in terms of geography and problems of inaccessibility, online intellectual exchange has produced lively debates about the ways in which Iraqi academics can contribute to the development of their country and help breakdown in the process decades of isolation.  

Significantly, as seen from the images (link provided below) of these seminars and lectures, there has been an overwhelming focus on humanities and social sciences. This represents a major positive development as Iraqi researchers and academics recognise that these new forms of communication can provide an important alternative to physical meetings. In this context, online platforms have made it much easier to instigate and engage in conversations with academics and researchers, which have seen the participation of thousands of Iraqi academics as speakers and attendees. 

Online meetings have been a way in which Iraqis who have returned to the country after completing their education in the US and Europe and other parts of the world can continue to engage in international academic debates and ensure their connections to those countries and their colleagues are not severed. In the UK, these exchanges have included participants and speakers from University College London, the University of Greenwich, Lancaster University and Oxford University, to name just a handful. Another positive development is that webinars have seen a rapid growth in the number of femaleled lectures and have also provided a space for addressing gender balance in terms of participants.  

There are several factors as to why this is happening now. The first is to do with financial costs.  Inviting foreign academics to Iraq has been prohibitively expensive and Iraqi academics also find it difficult for cost reasons to visit other countries. Iraq’s security situation continues to be a key challenge for UK and other academics to visit the country. COVID-19 has also made it difficult to visit Iraq. Visa issues have been another obstacle.  

Webinars have provided an opportunity for academic exchange between Iraqi universities, who have otherwise found it difficult to communicate with each other. As seen from webinar invitations, there has also been significant exchange between Iraqi academics and their counterparts in the Middle East, including Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and many other countries. This marks a major change from years of Iraq’s isolation and cut-off from the region and this exchange is also helping Iraqis communicate with Gulf neighbours and universities in ways that have been not possible since the 1980s. This has importantly been a way to break down barriers resulting from conflict of the past three decades in the region.  

In this spirit, and acknowledging the challenges faced by Iraqi academia in recent years, online academic and cultural exchange have been widely encouraged by the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and university leadersMuch of these webinars have however been organised by individual academics and university departments, telling of some positive change within the university system in Iraq.  

A significant number of these initiatives have been led by Nahrein Network’s partners in Iraq, including Mosul University, Kufa University and University of Al-QadisiyahMustansiryah University and DhiQar UniversityWithin a matter of a few months, and since the Nahrein Network started its work in late 2017, we have witnessed a remarkable increase in academic and intellectual activity in the country.  

 The Nahrein Network has actively participated and supported these positive developments. In 2019, the Nahrein Network implemented three workshops funded by the British Academy to support Iraqi academics improve the quantity and quality of research production in the country. Academics from London School of Economics, University College London and the University of Glasgow, were able to visit and implement the Iraq Publishing Workshops in Kufa University, Mustansiryah University and Sulaimani Polytechnic University. Whilst webinars are not perfect substitutes for tangible presence, they should be widely encouraged as important alternatives 

 Recently, the Nahrein Network issued a grant to Bristol University to work closely with Mosul University and Kufa University to develop Open Educational Resources (OER) as a way to improve awareness of Iraq’s cultural heritage (see further https://www.ucl.ac.uk/nahrein/research-grant-awards/large-research-grants-awarded). An introductory online meeting was recently held which saw the participation of numerous academics from both universities. The former Minister of Higher Education also participated in these debates. 

In an online meeting in early June, Nahrein Network – British Institute for the Study of Iraq Visiting Scholar, Dr Ali Naji, also led a discussion about peace and  the role of heritage in Iraq. Dr Ali Naji recently completed a scholarship at University College London and is now also working on a grant to document historic buildings and heritage in the old town of Kufa (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/nahrein/research-grant-awards/small-research-grants-awarded)This particular discussion saw the participation of Dr Hassan Nadhem, UNESCO Chair for Inter-Religious Dialogue, who has recently assumed the position of Minister of Culture in Iraq. To listen to this discussion, which is in large part in Arabic, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lXP9FJ7upJ4&feature=youtu.be 

There have been many other Nahrein Network friends and colleagues who have actively participated in Iraqi organised seminars. To view some of the topics discussed in the past few monthsI’ve prepared, with the support of Nahrein Network – British Institute for the Study of Iraq Visiting Scholar, Dr Dhiaa Kareem of Kufa University, some of these invitations and images. It provides a snapshot of the topics covered in Iraqi webinars. You can view them here to get a better picture of the type of discussions happening in Iraq todayhttps://www.dropbox.com/sh/q6mtb7uel85z87o/AABDM5fVjEzj-b42GaBqV0v5a?dl=0 

Online platforms, in Arabic and English, have been a central way for Iraqi academics to decide on topics that concern them most and have as an outcome provided significant agency to Iraqi universities and researchers. There is as an outcome of these recent activities obviously a ‘democratisation’ of learning that is taking place as knowledge and cultural exchange is made more accessible to people directly from their homes.     

Development is about gradual change and sometimes shifts, as we are seeing in recent months. These hundreds of webinars and online conferences and lectures that have taken place in a short period of time are not only about academic exchange but represent a thirst for engagement in a country that has suffered from many decades of conflict and political instability.  Taken together, they also represent an expression for moving beyond the challenges of the past few years.  

There is much to be done to support academics, universities and researchers who are now increasingly becoming an integral part of the country’s national development. We all can be part of this change.   

Cultural heritage and reconstruction — a view from Mosul University

By Nahrein Network, on 7 January 2020

Panellists at the Chatham House round-table on cultural heritage in Iraq

Panellists at the Chatham House round-table on the role of cultural heritage in the reconstruction of Iraq, 2 October 2019

On 3 October 2019, The Nahrein Network organised a round-table discussion on the role of cultural heritage in state-building, as part of Chatham House Iraq Initiative’s conference, Iraq in Transition.

Professor Kossay al Ahmedy, Chancellor of the University of Mosul, gave a local perspective.

I will speak about the University of Mosul.

DAESH’s occupation of Mosul has been hugely detrimental. Nineveh, capital of the ancient Assyrian state, saw a great deal of damage and destruction. 83% of the Old City of Mosul was destroyed, including its most iconic and historic sites.

DAESH undermined and attacked culture.

One of the most important cultural sites is the University of Mosul. Large parts of it were also destroyed – we had 70% destruction and over 300 buildings damaged and destroyed.

The electricity network of the university was 80% destroyed. 50% of the water network, 50% of the road network were also destroyed.

217 university vehicles disappeared from the university.

The central library lost 1 million books.

Now, the question is, why did ISIS target and destroy Mosul University so severely?

We have 48,000 students enrolled. 8,091 staff and 24 huge faculties. 125 scientific institutions and 7 research centres.

Mosul University is like a city within a city.

It’s a learning and education zone. That is why it was targeted – the intellectual class was attacked and undermined, including culture.

With international friends we are working to rebuild Mosul University. The university is not about formal education only. Its role is to rebuild ideas. We have achieved a military victory but not yet a victory in thoughts and ideas. The university is key to rebuilding this.

The university is a key institution, able to rebuild the city and to rebuild the intellectual life of the city.

People lost hope. Most historical landmarks have been lost – destroyed. How can we revive hope for the people, especially the youth?

How to access the youth is key. Key question: Do youth watch and observe media – no! They don’t, they only focus on social media. Our university publishes a monthly newspaper. Most youth do not read newspapers, therefore we need to focus on social media.

We have 16 workers in the media department, and we set up tens of websites and social media sites – to transfer knowledge, using the language they understand.

Key to our work is to use media and knowledge to rebuild youth and their understanding of the situation in Mosul.

Now I am always smiling. My smile is a message – that we can rebuild Iraq and rebuild Mosul and build our culture and society who share our ideas.

We need international assistance. The challenges are immense and therefore we need to work together. We all have a responsibility to rebuild so that we can prevent this catastrophe from happening again.


This summary of Professor Al-Ahmedy’s words was compiled by Dr Mehiyar Kathem.

This event is part of a project funded by a UCL Public Policy Expert Engagement grant.