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Cultural Heritage in Najaf and London: Visiting Scholarship Report

Nahrein Network13 October 2020

Dr. Ali Naji Attiyah, University of Kufa, Iraq

I was hosted by Dr. Edward Denison from UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture, from 10 February to 23 April 2020, on a BISI-Nahrein Network Visiting Scholarship. My main goal was to write an article on the importance of linking both types of heritage, tangible and intangible, in increasing people’s awareness of the role of heritage in their lives.

Seminar at UCL

Eleanor Robson, Sadiq Khalil and Ali Naji at UCL IAS on 13 February 2020

Eleanor Robson, Sadiq Khalil and Ali Naji at UCL IAS on 13 February 2020

The Embassy of Iraq and Nahrein Network-University College London organized a symposium on the sustainable development of cultural heritage and archaeology on 13 February 2020, chaired by Professor Eleanor Robson. First, Dr. Sadiq Khalil presented a paper on heritage management in Iraq. Then I gave a paper on the role of cultural heritage in Najaf.

The attendees were professors with different disciplines such as history, archeology, architecture, and environment, in addition to other attendees who were interested in Iraq’s heritage.

The seminar was in the first week of the scholarship and it was a good opportunity to meet other specialists in heritage with different disciplines. Moreover, in the discussion after the seminar, the attendees responded very positively to my paper, finding that relating both types of heritage, tangible and intangible, is an attractive strategy to get a more holistic view of the importance of heritage.

Ph.D. Research Projects 2020 Conference at Bartlett School of Architecture

Bartlett Faculty's exhibition space UCL

The exhibition space of the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL

My host institute was the Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL and the host professor was Dr. Edward Denison, who has an interest in heritage. On 18 February 2020, the Bartlett ran an interdisciplinary conference and exhibition, featuring the work of students from across the faculty who are developing or concluding their doctoral research.

The conference and the exhibition aim to encourage discussions between students, staff, invited guests and critics, and the public. I attended the conference and exhibition to listen to the research ideas in architecture and those trends related to cultural heritage.

One presentation was particularly relevant to my work, by Amr El-Husseiny, whose PhD title is: “The Boundaries of Heritage: A Socio-Political Approach to Heritage Spaces in the Egyptian Context”.

Heritage Workshop at Barcelona

The participants of the conference on heritage for peace, Barcelona, 5 March 2020

The participants of the conference on heritage for peace, Barcelona, 5 March 2020

A workshop was organized by Heritage for Peace, together with the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (ALIPH) and Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), 4–5 March 2020. The workshop was on the empowerment of civil society for the protection of cultural heritage in conflict areas and was held in Barcelona, Spain.

The event was attended by many representatives of civil society NGOs from Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq, as well as members of State Boards of Antiquities, who had the opportunity to present their work and discuss their needs, as well as experts from the University of Oxford, Blue Shield, Syrian Heritage Archive Project, University College London, and others. I gave a presentation titled “Holistic View of Cultural Heritage in Historic Centre of Najaf City”, in which I tried to describe the role of local communities represented by NGOs in the protection of cultural heritage.

The event concluded with the launch of the Arab Network of Civil Society to Safeguard Cultural Heritage, ANSCH. I am delighted to be one of the founders of this network, which has the following objectives:

  • To create a network of civil society organizations.
  • To identify and define the heritage protection projects needed in Arab countries.
  • To enhance the visibility of civil society organizations and their work.
  • To empower local communities’ participation in the management of cultural heritage.
  • To foster inclusive social development.
  • To foster inclusive economic development.
  • To promote the protection of the environment.

The website https://ansch.heritageforpeace.org/ will be a platform to exchange ideas between peers from countries that have a similar unsettled situation.

Meeting with ICOMOS-UK

On 12 March 2020 I held a Skype meeting with Clara Arokiasamy, the Chair of the ICOMOS-UK’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee, which she founded in 2012. The main points discussed were establishing ICOMOS-Iraq and the relationship between tangible and intangible heritage.

Webinar at the University of Oxford

On 17 March 2020 I gave a webinar for the Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project, based at the Universities of Oxford, Leicester, and Durham. I described the role of intangible cultural heritage in the revival of tangible heritage, using historic City of Najaf as a case study. The discussion with experts following the webinar was very fruitful.

Research visits

Dr Ali Naji in Letchworth Garden City, March 2020

Dr Ali Naji in Letchworth Garden City, March 2020

On 21 March 2020, I visited Letchworth, the world’s first Garden City, with Yasmin Shariff, the Director of Dennis Sharp Architects. Letchworth was created as a solution to the squalor and poverty of urban life in Britain in the late 19th century. The garden city movement is a method of urban planning in which self-contained communities are surrounded by “green belts”, containing proportionate areas of residences, industry, and agriculture. It shows how the life of local communities can be modernized while keeping their cultures and traditional way of life.

To increase my knowledge of tangible heritage and how it can be used to improve the lives of people, I visited three cities: London, Cambridge, and Liverpool. Apart from London’s four world heritage sites, there are many places inside Zone 1 that maintain their cultural characteristics such as buildings facades and streets. The same thing can be seen in Cambridge, where the buildings and streets are the same for hundreds of years, while six areas in the historic centre and docklands of the maritime mercantile city of Liverpool bear witness to the development of one of the world’s major trading centres in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I learned that in order to keep the cultural heritage in any city, which is still full of human activities, it is necessary to give priority to infrastructure. For example, London, a city of about 18 million people, needs an effective public transport system for daily travel to take pressure off car use. The University of Cambridge is a good example of the use of heritage buildings in new functions, encouraging people and authorities to be aware of the conservation of those monuments. The world heritage site in Liverpool represented by the docks was used for tourism and it was the identity of the city at the same time. Recently, its heritage value was threatened because of the new development project (Liverpool Waters) in the harbour. This is a good example of the sensitivity of the over-commercial use of heritage sites.

While in London I also visited the British Museum, the Science Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Sir John Soane’s Museum, as well as the History Museum of Catalonia when in Barcelona. While all very different in their aims, they share the idea of inter-generational communication of heritage.

Chapter in Handbook of Sustainable Heritage

As an outcome of this Visiting Scholarship, with UCL archaeologist Dr. Caroline Sandes I will co-author a chapter of the new Handbook on Sustainable Heritage, to be published by Routledge and CRC Press. Titled “Najaf, Iraq: developing a sustainable approach to threatened heritage”, it will examine the problem of threatened heritage in Najaf and how a more holistic approach, particularly involving the city’s intangible cultural heritage, will help to work towards a more sustainable conservation program that will encourage and involve local inhabitants to protect Najaf’s important heritage.

Dr Ali Naji in Liverpool, March 2020

Dr Ali Naji in Liverpool, March 2020

Teaching medieval history in Baghdad and Sheffield

Nahrein Network24 September 2019

Professor Maher Al-Helli is an expert in medieval history at Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad. Throughout April and May 2019 he held a Nahrein-BISI Visiting Scholarship in the History Department at the University of Sheffield. We are enormously grateful to our colleagues in the Sheffield History Department for making him so warmly welcome.

Here Professor Maher writes for us about his experiences.

Developing university teaching skills for the effective study of medieval history: The subject of history and cultural heritage as a model

Prof Maher Al-Helli with Sheffield University colleagues Prof Martial Staub, Dr Danica Summerlin and Dr Casey Strine, as well as the Nahrein Network’s director, Prof Eleanor Robson

I spent a lot of time at Sheffield University, where I met with Prof. Martial Staub, my supervisor in the History Department. I got many ideas from him through his assistance to me in teaching the Middle Ages to the History Department’s student. We exchanged information about the ways and means of developing skills in university education.

  • I attended a lot of Prof. Martial’s lectures, in topics such as Empires – Crusades, the Holy Roman Empire, the Social and Political History of Iberia and Latin America, Internal Crusades, Black Sea Empires, Ethnicity and Empire and Peace of Religion.
  • Also, I attended many lectures with professors such as Social and Political History of Iberia and Latin America – Islamic Spain (Prof. Phil Swanson), War of the Roses (Dr. Elizabeth Goodwin) and How Involuntary Migration Created Ancient Israel ( Dr. Casey Strine).
  • I got great benefit from Sheffield University Library, where I found many English-language history books near to my speciality. I collected a lot of paper and electronic
  • I attended a lot of seminars in Islamic and medieval history.
  • I gave a lecture to the students in the history department under the title: Ancient and medieval history of Iraq.
  • I did a course in English language and I got a certificate of participation from The English Language Teaching Center and Learn for Life/Enterprise.
  • I wrote an article in the Arabic language about new ways and means of developing skills in university education.
  • I worked on translating the book by Hugh Kennedy: Muslim Spain and Portugal: A political history of al-Andalus (1996) and I will complete it soon.
  • I formulated a joint project between Mustansiriyah University and Sheffield University to hold an academic conference in Baghdad next year, 2020.

I also visited London city 20th-31st May, where I saw the most important collection of archeology and heritage in the British Museum and found some rare books in The British Library.

  • I also met Prof. Kennedy at SOAS and visited The Nahrein Network at University College London.
  • I visited a lot of museums in London such as the National History Museum, Science Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum.
  • In the end of the research trip, I visited The British Institute for the Study of Iraq at the British Academy and discussed possible future programmes of collaboration.

I am happy to have visited the United Kingdom because I gained great professional benefit from the experience. I hope to I visit the UK again soon, for a longer time.

 

 

Mosul University Library at the British Library

Nahrein Network20 August 2019

A Visiting Scholarship Q & A with Mohammed Jasim

Mohammed Jasim (centre) with BL colleagues Eleanor Cooper, ..., and Daniel Lowe, and Nahrein Network director Eleanor Robson

Mohammed Jasim (centre) with BL colleagues Eleanor Cooper, Marcie Hopkins, and Daniel Lowe, and Nahrein Network director Eleanor Robson

Earlier this summer, Mr Mohammed Jasim Aal-Hajiahmed spent the first month of a BISI-Nahrein Visiting Scholarship at the British Library, hosted by Daniel Lowe (Curator of Arabic Collections) and many kind colleagues. Thank you very much to all of them!

Although Mohammed is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Barcelona, until October 2018 he was the Director of Mosul University Library. He is still closely connected to Mosul University and the library team, and his expertise in English means that he is able to liaise very effectively between the UK and Iraq.

At the end of his placement, we asked Mohammed to tell us about what he had learned during his time in London, and what he wants to do with it.

Nahrein: What were the main benefits of your scholarship?

Mohammed: There were many benefits! Here are ten—

  1. I learned how the digitization process works at one of the world’s leading cultural institutions, the British Library.
  2. Throughout my placement I learned how to set up a digitization unit at Mosul University Library, which should be one of the priorities at this time.
  3. I shadowed as many people as possible at the BL and got an idea of everybody’s work, which in turn helps us rebuilding our library collection as we are starting from scratch.
  4.  I set up a network with different people who represent institutions and universities which help get support for Mosul University Library.
  5. I looked for partnership opportunities with UK libraries: SOAS and UCL libraries are good examples where there is potential for future work.
  6. I gave a talk to BL staff about the situation of Mosul University Library before and after ISIS which was a good message to everybody who can be of support.
  7. My talk  helped BL staff understand better the issues that Mosul University Library is facing. Now we can address any problems we have to the right person at the BL and they will understand.
  8. Thanks to tens of meetings with specialists, I now understand a lot more about important topics related to library work, such as metadata, preservation, electronic library systems, etc. This will help us a lot as we are building up our collections again.
  9. Through my placement at Boston Spa for three days, I learned how can we provide newspapers with suitable environments to protect them.
  10. I was able to contact the right person about the important issue of reactivating Mosul University Library’s OCLC account.

Nahrein: What was the main highlight of your scholarship? 

Mohammed: The main highlights were:

  • Learning how to digitize and document recovered materials and how to set up a digitization unit at Mosul University Library.
  • Beginning to discuss partnership with SOAS library and further steps needed.
  • Networking as we are trying to get support for Mosul University Library.
  • Throughout our meetings we were able to work on various practical issues related to Mosul University library, such as the OCLC account, access to e-materials, etc.

Nahrein: What were the main things you learnt from the British Library?

Mohammed: I actually learned a lot from the BL as I shadowed a lot of people there and spent good time in most of its departments. However, the most important ones were:

  • I got an idea about library e-systems and discussed the possibilities of applying some of them at Mosul University Library.
  • I learned how to preserve and digitise manuscripts.
  • I learned how to train library staff and share expertise with them. I also learned how to distribute the tasks amongst the staff.
  • I learned how the BL buys resources for the library and how to deal with donated special collections.
  • I also learned how to work with public libraries in the same region.

Nahrein: How has the scholarship helped you in your work in Iraq?

Mohammed: It helped me a lot as we are trying to rebuild our library collections after the destruction and burning caused by ISIS’ occupation of the city of Mosul. As I mentioned earlier, I learned how to set up a digitization unit at our library, especially the equipment needed and the training required. I will apply what I learned from my placement at the BL to Mosul University in general and to Mosul University Library in particular, sharing what I have learned with my colleagues at Mosul University Library.

Nahrein: What will you do to continue your research in Iraq?

Mohammed: Again, I will share the experience with the library staff and work on what I have achieved during my placement, especially with regard to partnership opportunities, access to e-materials, training opportunities for the library staff and following up the expected support for the library from the people I met. All that will be in coordination with Mosul University and the library’s administration.


We’re all looking forward very much to welcoming Mohammed back to London and the British Library in a few months time for the second half of his Visiting Scholarship placement.