Preserving the Past: the Mapping Mesopotamian Monuments Project

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By: Helen Malko

Since the appearance of the so-called Islamic State or Daesh in Syria and Iraq, the world has been faced with a vicious attack on cultural heritage aimed at erasing the rich and diverse history of the people in this region. Local and international scholars have been working to document and assess the damage inflicted on archaeological and historical sites through various projects that grew in response to Daesh’s activities.

However, the destruction and looting of cultural heritage sites and monuments in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, has a longer history rooted in the aftermath of the US invasion of the country and the complete destruction of its infrastructure in 2003. For many years, security worries and chaos prevented archaeologists and heritage specialists from onsite documentation of the heritage sites. It was not until a few years ago when slowly Iraq became accessible once again for archaeologists, and documentation with a possibility for future conservation could begin. It was with this in mind that the idea of the project Mapping Mesopotamian Monuments was born.

Zainab Bahrani, the Edith Porada Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Art and Archaeology at Columbia University started Mapping Mesopotamian Monuments in 2012 as a means of countering the erasure of the past and the continuous destruction of sites and monuments in the region. This project provides digital records for standing monuments and facilitates future conservation work to preserve Mesopotamian cultural heritage as both a local heritage and a significant part of the global cultural heritage.


Amadiya, ca. 12th century A.D., Iraq.

Amadiya, ca. 12th century A.D., Iraq.

Monastery of St. Mar Audisho ca. 17th century A.D., Iraq.

Monastery of St. Mar Audisho ca. 17th century A.D., Iraq.

Lalish ca. 12th century A.D., Iraq.

Lalish ca. 12th century A.D., Iraq.

Qyzqapan 6-7th century B.C., Iraq. All images courtesy of Mapping Mesopotamian Monuments. Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University. All rights reserved.

Qyzqapan 6-7th century B.C., Iraq. All images courtesy of Mapping Mesopotamian Monuments. Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University. All rights reserved.


Through onsite recording, photographing, and status and condition evaluations, this project hopes to preserve historical monuments of all eras, ancient to modern. Professor Bahrani directs an international team of archaeologists, art historians, and conservators that have already begun to document standing monuments and architecture across Iraqi Kurdistan in Dohuk, Erbil, and Suleymaniyeh and in South-Eastern Turkey. A work in progress, this monument survey hopes to include the rest of Iraq into the south in the next field season.

Mapping Mesopotamian Monuments is focused specifically on monuments and architecture, and by design has no historical, cultural or religious boundaries. The documentation is inclusive because the project aims to record the remarkable history of this region, a diversity of peoples and religions that is now being deliberately and violently erased. The first field season took place in 2013 in Iraq when Professor Bahrani and her team documented ancient Mesopotamian monuments and rock reliefs, early Christian and early Islamic architecture, churches and monasteries, mosques and madrasas, Yezidi sanctuaries and shrines, ancient bridges and aqueducts, Ottoman era buildings and early twentieth century buildings. The second season of fieldwork, conducted in May-June 2015, focused on documenting rock reliefs, historical monasteries, and mosques in South-Eastern Anatolia. The team documented the extensive circuit walls and towers of Diyarbekir, the ancient mosque with its re-used classical capitals and columns. They also studied and documented several rock reliefs dating to the Neo-Assyrian era and some early Christian monasteries.


The Great Mosque of Diyarbakir ca. 11th century A.D. (originally built in the 7th century A.D.), Turkey.

The Great Mosque of Diyarbakir ca. 11th century A.D. (originally built in the 7th century A.D.), Turkey.

Rock relief of Tiglath-Pileser I ca. 12th century B.C., Turkey.

Rock relief of Tiglath-Pileser I ca. 12th century B.C., Turkey.


While mapping monuments and architecture geo-spatially, the team members use a range of technologies including photogrammetry, perspectival stills, and 360° immersive panoramic records. Images and panoramas are then processed and uploaded to the project’s website along with site description, history, and condition reports and preservation status. The website also provides historical images and drawings for each monument and building, enabling comparisons and analyses. Mapping Mesopotamian Monuments has to date an archive of thousands of images that the Columbia team has made on site which explore the multiple layers of the rich landscape of Mesopotamia. This work is funded and supported by a multi-year grant from Columbia University’s President’s Global Innovation Fund, awarded to Professor Bahrani in 2012.

Although the initial proposal and plan for the project, and the first season of fieldwork preceded the recent targeting of museums, monuments and archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria, the work has now taken on a more urgent nature. The significance of the long-term project has been unfortunately borne out by the appalling recent events in Iraq, Syria and South-eastern Anatolia, all of which belong to the area archaeologists refer to as Greater Mesopotamia, the ancient lands of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Heritage sites, historical architecture and monuments are in grave danger throughout the region, but it is not only antiquity and archaeology that are in peril.

As they continue to be destroyed as a means of erasing the presence of communities of people and their history, the project that began as an archaeological-historical survey, is now even more urgent record of endangered history. Cautious of the current circumstances in the areas covered by the project, all images and panoramas as well as historical and archaeological information related to the documented monuments are currently curated in a closed archive. However, the team welcomes collaboration with other projects that are working to preserve cultural heritage in the Middle East.

Helen Malko is a Research Associate Scholar in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University.

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