By: Michael D. Danti
The Situation Today
Following decades of quiescence, these are exciting times for archaeology in the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government). And over the last four years, American archaeologists and cultural heritage experts have witnessed firsthand the rapid development of the cultural heritage situation in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Kurdish heritage experts are undertaking ambitious research and conservation projects across Erbil, Sulaimaniya, Dohuk, and Halabja Governates. At the same time, the KRG Directorate General of Antiquities, headed by Mala Awat (Abubakir O. Zainadin), has provided enthusiastic support for international cooperative agreements. Salaheddin University’s Department of Archaeology boasts a burgeoning portfolio of programs, most notably Dr. Numan J. Ibrahim’s excavations since 2010 at the multiperiod mound of Kilik Mishik within the Erbil city limits. The Erbil Directorate under Nader Bubakir Mohammed is expanding capacity with new cooperative agreements and an expansion of the Erbil Museum.
On the Erbil Citadel, the High Commission for Erbil Citadel Revitalization (HCECR), headed by Dara Al Yaqoobi, has inaugurated a program of archaeological investigations under the directorship of Dr. Abdullah Khorsheed Qader. The KRG recently added a new Directorate within Erbil Province in the district capital of Soran — formerly a regional antiquities center. Soran’s Director, Abdulwahhab Suleiman, has been highly active in preservation and documentation efforts and has developed new cooperative agreements to face growing demand. The Sulaimaniya Directorate, headed by Kamal Rasheed Raheem, has been proactive with several cooperative agreements and excavations on the hilltop site of Sitak, and the Sulaimaniya Museum, under Hashim Hama Abdullah, has been redesigned and refurbished. In Dohuk Province, the site of Tell Somel has been the subject of investigations led by Dr. Hassan Ahmad Qasim of the Dohuk Directorate of Antiquities with supporting research from international partners. This is hardly a comprehensive listing of projects in the KRG but it illustrates the rapid pace of development. Meanwhile, foreign archaeologists have flocked to this fascinating and secure region as geopolitical factors have curtailed fieldwork opportunities elsewhere. The American Schools of Oriental Research is well represented, particularly in Erbil Province, with a number of associated projects. Jason Ur (Harvard) directs The Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey, while Jesse Casana (University of Arkansas) is working in the Sirwan region. Glenn Schwartz (Johns Hopkins) is excavating at Kurd Qaburstan, and the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute is digging at Surezha under the direction of Abbas Alizadeh and Gil Stein. The ASOR-affiliated University of Pennsylvania/Boston University Rowanduz Archaeological Program (RAP) has just completed its second season of excavations and surveys under my direction. From our standpoint, the first half of 2014 brought unanticipated challenges. Amid the regional turmoil, what is the current condition and future of heritage management in the KRG? A certain degree of uncertainty obscures our view, yet the KRG and its partners continue to make great strides forward in culture and the arts.
In recent months, the “Islamic State of the Iraq and the Levant” or ISIL (aka ISIS or DAISH) invasion of northern Iraq added to an already difficult refugee crisis in Kurdistan and has sparked several border clashes and attacks around Kirkuk and other hotspots. The KRG provides a much-needed safe haven for displaced persons and refugees from neighboring Syria and Iraq, and this will doubtless present future challenges. The ISIL capture of the Baiji refinery, north of Tikrit, precipitated region-wide fuel shortages. When we left Erbil on July 2 drivers were waiting four to five hours to fill their tanks — fuel prices had skyrocketed. While the fuel crisis complicated running RAP’s digs and surveys, our problems were clearly insignificant amid the ongoing humanitarian crises next door in northern Iraq and Syria. Budget disputes between the KRG and the Iraqi government in Baghdad, in part linked to KRG oil exports to Turkey and Iran, have sadly left some KRG employees with IOUs on payday. KRG officials, led by President Masoud Barzani, are increasingly discussing breaking away from the Republic of Iraq. The seemingly inexorable move toward independence will doubtless affect Kurdistan’s cultural heritage apparatus. Kurdish heritage already occupies a fundamental role in the political transformation.
Red Letter Year
The multinational Erbil Citadel Revitalization led by Dara Al Yaqoobi represents the centerpiece of a sweeping vision for Kurdistan highlighting cultural heritage and tourism.To that end, UNESCO’s inscription of World Heritage Site status for the magnificent citadel on June 21 marks a major milestone. The preservation and rejuvenation of this 8,000 year old citadel mound — ancient Arbela — and historic neighborhood at the heart of the modern city will provide a cultural hub for the surrounding boomtown. Even for the casual observer, the citadel’s symbolic significance is hard to miss given the enormous Kurdish flag flying above it. Ongoing preservation efforts are mitigating the decay of the historic citadel enclaves — its houses and narrow alleys that are seemingly taken from a page out of the Arabian Nights. Visitors will soon enter the citadel to visit its cultural attractions through a new, historically accurate citadel gate replacing the controversial Saddam-era gateway that was sadly built at the expense of an historic precursor.
Eyes on the Future
The burgeoning demand for heritage management in the KRG necessitates ongoing training and professional development in the latest techniques in conservation, preservation, and archaeological method and theory. The Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage, headed by Dr. Abdullah Khorsheed Qader, facilitates professional development and training for students and experts alike throughout Iraq and beyond. During our stay in Kurdistan, the Institute supported three US-funded cultural heritage management programs implemented by Boston University, the World Monuments Fund, and the University of Delaware.
The visit of US Consul General Joseph Pennington to the programs highlighted the unifying powers of cultural heritage on the international stage and the great capacity of international partnerships to affect the preservation of our shared cultural legacy. The pace of change in Kurdistan is dizzying, and political instabilities in neighboring regions add uncertainty, yet through it all the KRG continues to make great progress.
Michael D. Danti is Assistant Professor of Archaeology at Boston University.
Links: McGuire Gibson, “Archaeology in Iraq: A Bonanza in the North, Fitful Starts in the South, and the Iraq Museum Reviving,” Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 222, Summer 2014