17/09/2021 par Muntadher Aloda
This article sheds light on the most important challenges facing heritage buildings in southern Iraq, especially in the Provinces of Dhi Qar and Maysan that account for a number of historical buildings that belonged to Jewish and Mandaean families. Others belong to Christians and Muslims, similar to the buildings in the areas of Baghdad, Babylon, Basra, Diyala, and elsewhere.
Heritage houses, or historical houses as they are called in different languages, survive despite the migration of their original owners, and the various obstacles and challenges that stand in the way of the sustainability of these buildings. The memories of the local people have never lost sight of these beautiful monuments, which remained solid in the minds of their friends. Therefore, here we will address some of the stories that were obtained during the field survey that I conducted with a group of young archaeologists during October and November 2020 as part of a project aimed at documenting and archiving 40 heritage buildings in the Province of Dhi Qar and Maysan with the support of UNESCO and with official permission from the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.
Dhi Qar Province
Dhi Qar is a province located in southern Iraq on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It is about 360 km south of Baghdad and about 190 km north of the Basra Province. The Dhi Qar Provinceis characterized by its many archaeological sites: a book dedicated to Archaeological Sites in Iraq issued in 1970 indicates that there are more than 500 archaeological sites in the Province distributed across its districts and towns. Another recent study indicates the presence of about 1200 archaeological sites1, in addition to the wet places that are now called the Chibayish marshes, which were included in the World Heritage List in 2016.
Further, two important ancient cities have been included in the World Heritage List, the ancient city of Ur and the city of Eridu. They are considered two of the most important and well-known sites in southern Iraq as they bore witness to some of the oldest civilizations in the Middle East, including the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations. Prior to these civilizations, the two cities had also been settlement sites dating back to the Ubaid civilization around 3800 BC.
Another element that highlights the specificity of the Dhi Qar Province is its cultural and social diversity, with many families belonging to different religions and sects. The Province witnessed the presence of Jewish families, Sabean Mandaeans (as is highlighted by the presence of a a temple of Sabean Mandaeans called locally Mandi in an area called Mandi Al-Sabbah (مندي) الصبه) due to the presence of the temple 2) and a small Christian presence, in addition to Muslim families. These families were living in peace and security before the conflicts occurred in the middle of the 20th century. In addition, the successive wars led many of these families to migrate abroad, and the families who remained in Iraq represents a small portion only of that diversity.
Likewise, the Maysan Province, which is located in southern Iraq on the banks of the Tigris River (400 km south of Baghdad), also has its specificities. The field surveys that the Inspectorate of Antiquities and Heritage of Maysan shared with us indicate that there are more than 400 archaeological sites in the province. The latter is also characterized by the presence of many heritage buildings that belong to families of different sects and religions, including heritage buildings belonging to Christians in higher concentration than in the Dhi Qar Province due to the presence of two churches: the Mother of Sorrows Church (Image 1), which belongs to the Chaldean Catholic sect, and the Saint Joseph Church (Image 2), which belongs to the Syriac Catholic sect3. The project documented both churches as part of its activities as these represent an important element that highlights the peaceful coexistence in Maysan. The Mother of Sorrows Church welcomes worshippers and holds church services to this day (Image 3). In addition, Maysan is characterized by the presence of a population who adheres to the Mandaean faith, similar to what is found in the province of Dhi Qar.
There are other important places, some of which are still standing to this day and some of which have been demolished, among which is the Jewish Synagogue, located in the Al-Uzair district (73 km south of Maysan Province), which is located next to the shrine of the Prophet Al-Uzair (Image 4). There is another synagogue located near Saint Joseph Church and the Mother of Sorrows Church in the center of the Province but, unfortunately, only one wall remains of this temple.
Conflicts and demographic changes: The impact on social stability
In 1920, Iraq freed itself from the rule of the Ottoman Empire, which had destroyed the structures and cultural monuments in the most famous city centers in southern Iraq, after a series of fierce battles in the cities of Dhi Qar and Maysan between the Turks (the Ottomans) and the British. Following these events, Iraqi society lived during the 1930s and 1940s in a period of recovery that saw significant improvements to the standards of living at the economic, social and cultural levels4. It is during this period that many archaeological excavations took place in Iraq, notable among which which was the British excavation mission in the ancient city of Ur led by Sir Leonardo Woolley.5
However, this peaceful period did not last long as the country was dragged into a series of disturbances and conflicts, which resulted in chaos, wars, and the rejection of the other. These conflicts notably affected the idea of peaceful coexistence in Iraqi cities. These increasing problems, especially in the middle of the 20th century, led to the destruction of Iraqi society’s cohesion and the dismantling of the historical ties within it. Religious, ethnic, and political differences began to appear on a large scale in Iraq at that time, and many Iraqis began to migrate from their homes in search of safer and more stable areas that would allow them to live in peace. This migration wave also took place in the cities of Dhi Qar and Maysan, and many other major cities in the 1950s. Over the course of the past century, Iraq witnessed a societal disintegration, which led to the disruption of the urban organization of cities of southern Iraq.
At that time, many places remained witness to tragic memories that affected the multicultural melting pot that distinguished Iraq from the countries of the region at the time.
Although I had given them my speech,
Me they lumped with my city,
The utter destruction of my city they ordered,
The utter destruction of Ur they ordered,
In its walls, breaches were made—the people moan,
In its lofty city gates, which were accustomed to promenades, corpses were piled.
The Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur (Samet 2014)
Due to the instability of the situation in Iraq, many of these spectacular heritage buildings in the provinces of Dhi Qar and Maysan have been subjected to deterioration and threats. Buildings in these two areas lack protection from natural and human threats, which includes the weather condition such as dusty wind, rainfall causing flooding of the drainage system that damages the physical infrastructures of the houses, neglect of routine maintenance, and the accumulation of rubbish and dirt nearby. Moreover, some building owners do not pay adequate attention to the value of this heritage as they mostly use these heritage buildings to host businesses (Image 5). These threats and the deterioration that has occurred need to be highlighted and adequately considered by the community. In this context, the present documentation project of heritage buildings in Maysan and Dhi Qar, supported by UNESCO and as part of an initiative aimed for young professionals in the Arab world, was key in shedding light on the deterioration of this heritage and raising awareness of the local population about the importance of protecting it.
The project targeted 40 heritage sites which mostly encompassed undocumented buildings across the Dhi Qar and Maysan Provinces. The aim of this project was threefold: i) provide a dataset that serves as a step forward for raising awareness of the population and key stakeholders about the priority of protecting this multicultural heritage, ii) instill interest in the heritage houses’ values to the society, and iii) build peace.
The buildings include Shanasheel houses6, places of worship and engineering constructions that are the products of and belong to different cultures and sects, such as Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Mandaean sects in addition to public spaces such as bath buildings and cinemas. For the Dhi Qar sites, the list includes 21 buildings across three cities mainly: Nasiriyah (at the center), Al-Rifa’i, Al-Shatrah (North of Dhi Qar), and Suq al-Shuyukh (South of Dhi Qar), while for the Maysan sites, the list includes 19 buildings located in Amara (center of Maysan), Qal’at Saleh, and Uzair districts (South of Maysan).
The buildings that were recorded varied in terms of architecture, engineering, shape and design, as well as in building materials and the location of those buildings. Some buildings were built with bricks, wood, and plaster, and most of these buildings dated back to the beginning of the 20th century. Other buildings were built with bricks and plaster with iron and a little cement, and most of these dated back to the 1940s and 1950s and onwards. The nature and function of these heritage buildings vary. Some were schools where students of different religions and sects met, and some were temples where people practiced ceremonies, prayed, and upheld traditions which
belonged to everyone regardless of their religious or cultural backgrounds. As for private houses, now called heritage houses, some also acted as meeting spaces for the local population.
Mr Numan Khalil Matar (a famous Mandaean figure) indicated, on 4 November 2020, that:
« Most of the cities of the south when they were established were built of reeds and mud. Except for some buildings, most of which were owned by famous merchants in those areas, their homes adorn the centers of the cities of Dhi Qar and Maysan. »
Most of these buildings are now either in danger of being demolished or are already destroyed after their owners moved away and left the buildings abandoned. Regarding the remainder of these buildings, their functions have changed over time, as some have been turned into commercial shops as a result of the migration of their original owners and their purchasing by business owners. For others, the owner remains unknown.
Factors that threaten the safety and sustainability of these buildings are numerous, as it is possible to see physicochemical factors such as heat, humidity, and rainwater clearly on the walls of the buildings, causing the collapse of many parts of the house, especially the ceilings due to wood decay. Other biological factors such as the presence of birds and their nests inside buildings and the accumulation of their droppings directly threaten the integrity of the building. White worm has also infected the wooden poles, especially ceiling poles. Many human factors have also accelerated the deterioration of these heritage buildings, such as the migration of the original inhabitants of the area, the lack of interest of the concerned organizations and institutions, and urban expansion. In addition, certain groups in Iraq demand to illegally own homes belonging to minorities. Some witnesses mention that many buildings were demolished and that their properties were confiscated.
Another real challenge is the adoption of incorrect and unscientific methods during maintenance and repairs. Among these procedures, some residents modify certain parts of their buildings, which constitutes great harm to the building in the future instead of attempts to preserve it. This goes against the principle outlined in Iraqi Law No. 55 of 2002 in Article 3 – Point 2 that prevents the owner of the land on which the heritage site is located from materially disposing of it or taking any action that changes its features. However, these practices are made possible by the fact that most of these buildings were not previously registered as heritage buildings. Further, specialists determined that a building must be at least 100 to 200 years old to be considered a heritage building, which poses a serious challenge to the preservation of more recent heritage sites.
The increasing deterioration of heritage buildings in these two provinces, as well as general neglect and acts of sabotage to which they are exposed due to human conflicts, does not only constitute an attack on physical structures. UNESCO considers these heritage sites to be constitutive of national identity. Further, these can represent an effective means to prevent future conflicts. Heritage sites bear material, mental, and scientific value for societies; these encompass core concepts that carry memories from the past and that can be vehicles for future goals that tie all residents together. This will be made possible by instilling a spirit of heritage in the hearts of societies and enabling people to maintain a historical link that enhances their understanding of the past, present and future based on this important collective resource.
Shanasheel Jawad Kazem
There are many examples obtained during the field survey of heritage buildings in Dhi Qar and Maysan. One of the most important heritage buildings was in the province of Dhi Qar, which can give us an initial understanding of the importance and nature of what we have presented. Mr Jawad’s house (Image 6), which is still located in a city center, is considered the last Shanasheel house of the city center and, perhaps, of the province. The house is one of the oldest known buildings, as it bears the sequence number (6) among the few houses built in the early 20th century, according to the words of Mr Jawad, the current 70-years-old owner of the house. The house was rented many times, but after the 1970s, the house became a commercial center for the sale of iron and ceramics by Mr Jawad who continues to work to this day.
Mr Jawad stated that he owns an Ottoman real estate deed and the house number sequence that he obtained when buying it from the previous owner of this house named Saleh Raouf Al-Tahhan. However, when reviewing the real estate document, it was found that the house was purchased through the Iraqi court in the 1990s.
One of the witnesses indicated that this house was built by one of the merchants working in Nasiriyah, and it is considered one of the heritage buildings that belonged to the Jews in the city. This house was a meeting place for all the merchants of different sects (Jews, Muslims, Mandaeans) coming to the city for work. It was also designed in a very meticulous way, taking into account the privacy of the family in order to isolate them from the public spaces and guest rooms.
On 5 September 2020, Mr Jawad indicated that he had become unable to work and inhabit the house at the same time because of his old age and that he was considering selling the house. He mentioned that although:
The problems faced by the house of Mr Jawad are found in abundance in the Maysan Province, which was characterized by Jewish presence as attested by the shrine of the Prophet Al-Uzair (or Ezra in other translations), as well as the synagogue that still exists in the Al-Uzair district. It is very easy to find heritage buildings, including Shanasheel buildings, in the city center of Al-Amarah (Maysan). These are the buildings that still adorn the center of Maysan Province, especially near its heritage market that was built in the early 19th century. Most of them belonged to Jews, as many witnesses told us during the interviews.
These buildings are also at risk of undergoing destruction and improper use in Maysan. This is the case of the Shanasheel house of Mrs Lamia (Image 7), which is believed to have belonged to a Jewish family. However, after the forced displacement of Jews, the house was bought by the mother of Mr. Fadel Abbas (the husband of Mrs Lamia) and the ownership of the house was transferred to the family. The house owners are pleading to all relevant organizations to buy the house which is currently at risk of being destroyed.
Despite the great difficulty in communicating with people, including in terms of gaining a better understanding of the history and details of heritage buildings in Maysan, the team obtained some information about the meaning of these buildings for the local population and the memories they hold that remains firmly rooted in their minds.
Ghassan Shalash (over 70 years old) is a well-known historian and writer in Dhi Qar who lives in one of the traditional houses. We were able to hear his voice as well as the voice of his Jewish, Christian, and Mandaean friends, and how they coexisted in peace. Ghassan Shalash said that there was no difference between one person and another and that he still remembered them every day and communicated with them and their children to strengthen the spirit of peace in their hearts, despite their distance and migration outside of Iraq several decades ago.
Mr Haider Hussein Daoud, who is more than 75 years old and the owner of the oldest bookshop in Maysan Province (Image 8), indicated on 20 November 2020 that everybody lived together in the city, side by side, as friends. The city was a melting pot of multiple religions and sects:
These memories were confirmed by Mrs Laila (Image 9), one of the oldest teachers in the city of Nasiriyah at the time, who passed away after we interviewed her and following the completion of the project activities. She pointed out that her students were among the most wonderful students and that she still remembered them from time to time, as they were from different religious and sectarian backgrounds.
This perception was reiterated at Qala’at Saleh School (Image 10), which is the school built in 1925 by order of the British officer Sir Stanley Maud. The old school records dating from 1925 highlight this idea of acceptance of the Other and peaceful coexistence that was characteristic of Iraq at the time, as the records indicate the presence of students from the Mandaean, Muslim, and Jewish religious backgrounds.
Near the Qala’at Saleh School is located one of the most beautiful heritage houses designed in the well-known Shanasheel style, which dates back to the beginning of the 1930s (based on the information we received during the field survey). Mr Abd al-Salam (71 years old) stated that his father, Mr Jaber al-Hassan, was the first mayor of the Qala’at Saleh area (the district administratively affiliated to the Maysan Province), and that he had in-depth knowledge about heritage houses. For example, Mr Abd al-Salam narrated to his son that the two houses near the Qala’at Saleh School belonged to two Jewish brothers named Heskell and Shumail who were merchants originated from the city of Qala’at Valid. It is worth mentioning that we were able to find records in Qala’at Saleh School and documents bearing photographs and signs of the sons of Heskell, who were among the students studying in that school. Qala’at Saleh School is now suffering from the danger of demolition after several iterations of inadequate and unscientific maintenance and restoration operations which have damaged the building.
In addition, Mr Yassin Muhammad (Director of Qala’at Saleh School) stated that, in 2012, an official permission was obtained from the Iraqi Public Authority for Antiquities and Heritage to demolish the school building under the pretext that the school building is at risk of collapsing, which poses a danger to the teaching staff and students. However, the school continues to operate until now while there are many appeals, including from students, to restore this important building.
It appears that the tragic fate of Ur which stopped being inhabited during the 5th century BCE is being repeated. Cultural demise and demolition threaten heritage sites that are considered among the most important historical places in Iraq, and there is currently no solution looming on the horizon. Wars, conflicts, disputes, and political and ethnic differences are destroying Iraqi heritage, which is further exacerbated by the economic crisis and local and external financing of cultural buildings in Iraq. This deterioration, alongside a weak Public Authority for Antiquities and Heritage, renders the loss of many heritage buildings inevitable. In addition, heritage preservation planning on the part of local and foreign organizations is not entirely accepted by the Iraqi population as the choice of preserving some heritage buildings instead of others is deemed arbitrary. This is coupled with the fact that heritage protection projects in Iraq often give priority to archaeological sites, thereby marginalizing heritage buildings that bear witness to Iraq’s contemporary history. Therefore, an emergency intervention is needed in order to restore the concept of cultural heritage protection in Iraq with international and local participation to protect what remains of Iraqi heritage for future generations.
Education programs can improve the procedures for protecting heritage buildings in the form of curricula to familiarize schoolchildren, university and higher education institute students with the importance and value of these places. These curricula could feature examples of important cities that are quite distinct from others due to their cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity. In addition, the Iraqi Antiquities and Heritage Protection Law of 2002 needs amending as this law does not take into account the post-war developments that threaten the safety and protection of Iraqi heritage, especially the special paragraphs dedicated to protecting Iraqi historical and heritage buildings. Further, improvements are needed in terms of facilitating financing operations as the Ministry of Culture and the State Board for Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) suffer from a lack of funding and weak capabilities. This could be achieved through cooperation on international and local programs in agreement with the Ministry and SBAH, whose task it is to support projects aimed at preserving and protecting Iraqi heritage.
I would like to thank the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and all UNESCO staff who granted me this opportunity and provided me with financial and technical support over the course of the project. I would also like to thank the State Board of Antiquities in Iraq and the Heritage Offices of Dhi Qar and Maysan for their support, which also enabled me to obtain all permissions required to conduct field tours and visit the targeted sites to accomplish this project. In addition, I would like to thank all my team members, colleagues, volunteers, trainees, and locals who supported and participated in the activities of the project.
1/ For more information see: 1- Al-Dafar. H. (2015). Shadow States: The Archaeology of Power in the Marshes of Southern Mesopotamia. Stony Brook University. 2- Al-Hamdani. A. (2019). “Let Us Dig It. the Story of Abu Tbeirah in the vicinity of Ur” in Abu Tbeirah Excavations. I. Area 1. Edited by L. Romano and F. D’agostino, Sapienza University Press. Rome. P 9-17.
4/ Hamidi. J. A., Ahmed I. K. History of Contemporary Iraq. Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. University of Al Mosul. Faculty of Education.
5/Ur Online. “Woolley’s Excavations. A collaboration between the British Museum and the Penn Museum with the lead support of the Leon Levy Foundation”, available at: http://www.ur-online.org/about/6/. For more information, see the series of publications of Ur excavations by Sir Leonardo Woolley
6/The word “shanasheel” is commonly used in the Iraqi dialect to describe one of the most characteristic elements of traditional architecture in the Arab region, also known as “mashrabiya” in different Arab countries or “jaali” (from Hindi). It typically refers to an exterior timber element of the building. For more information see Old Basra Conservation and Development Plan (2018), as part of a project funded by the European Union and an implemented by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme in Iraq (UN-HABITAT) and the United Nations Development Fund.
- Al-Dafar. H. (2015). Shadow States: The Archaeology of Power in the Marshes of Southern Mesopotamia. Stony Brook University.
- Hamidi. J. A., Ahmed I. K. History of Contemporary Iraq. Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. University of Al Mosul. Faculty of Education
- Hammer. E. (2019). “The city and Landscape of Ur: An aerial, satellite, and ground reassessment”. The British Institute for the Study of Iraq. Journal Iraq. Pp1-34.
- Keall. E. J. (2014 & 2015). “Nippur in the Parthian Era: Toward a historical geography of the Khabur triangle region in old Babylonian times. Part II (Douglas Frayne).” The Canadian society for Mesopotamian studies. Notes from the field. V9&10. PP. 67-70
- Samet. N. (2014). The Lamentation over the Destruction of Ur. USA. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data.
- United Nations Human Settlements Programme in Iraq (UN-HABITAT) (2018). Old Basra Conservation and Development Plan.
- Ur Online. “Woolley’s Excavations. A collaboration between the British Museum and the Penn Museum with the lead support of the Leon Levy Foundation”. Available at: http://www.ur-online.org/about/6/.
- سلوم. سعد.( 2014 ). المسيحيون في العراق، التاريخ الشامل و التحديات الراهنة. الطبعة الاولى. مؤسسة مسارات للتنمية الثقافية و الاعلامية. بغداد/ بيروت.