Iraq’s al-Ahwar Marshes become UNESCO World Heritage Site

Yesterday in Istanbul, Turkey, during the afternoon of the last day of the 40th session, The World Heritage Committee added eight new sites to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Among the added sites is the Ahwar of Southern Iraq: Refuge of Biodiversity and the Relict Landscape of the Mesopotamian Cities in Iraq.

A Marsh Village in 1974.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention describes the site as such: “The Ahwar is made up of seven sites: three archaeological sites and four wetland marsh areas in southern Iraq. The archaeological cities of Uruk and Ur and the Tell Eridu archaeological site form part of the remains of the Sumerian cities and settlements that developed in southern Mesopotamia between the 4th and the 3rd millennium BCE in the marshy delta of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The Ahwar of Southern Iraq – also known as the Iraqi Marshlands – are unique, as one of the world’s largest inland delta systems, in an extremely hot and arid environment.”

The marshes are located where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet. Despite being home to the Madan, or Marsh Arabs, as well as host to many different types of flora and fauna, the marshes have been continuously depleted for various economic and political reasons. The population dropped from an estimated 500,000 in the 1950s to a mere 20,000 and the total area was greatly reduced. However, following the 2003 American invasion, many of the dams were destroyed and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) did much to help restore the marshes.

Reflecting on the new UNESCO inscription today, Peter Wien, President of TAARII, said, “The inclusion of the Iraqi Marshes on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites is a milestone, not least in terms of an acknowledgement of the importance of cultural heritage preservation for the country on its way towards a sustainable future. Iraq is extremely rich in heritage sites of world renown, of which only a handful have been recognized so far. TAARII hopes that social and political developments in Iraq and the broader region will allow that this is only the beginning in a long line of new admission that highlight Iraq’s central position on a world heritage map.”

Katharyn Hanson, TAARII’s Executive Director, added, “This is really fantastic news!”

The Mesopotamian Site of Ur.

An Update from Mark Altaweel (2005 US TAARII Fellow)

2005:  Development of Ancient Settlements in Northern Iraq

I had received funds from TAARII to conduct an archaeological documentation project with Iraqi scholars in 2005. This project was highly successful in that it not only produced some valuable results that resulted in two academic articles and helped publish my book (entitled:  The Imperial Landscape of Ashur: Settlement and Land Use in the Assyrian Heartland), it also resulted in several other funded projects I went on doing in cooperation with Professor McGuire Gibson and Iraqi scholars from different regions of Iraq. These resulted in other publications and I continue to receive requests to assist Iraqi scholars with publication and Western scholars have greatly benefited from this as well.

Image of inscribed baked brick pavement from an official building at Khirbet al-Bughala (Photo credit: Mark Altaweel)

What was great about TAARII’s support is that it assisted Iraqi scholars to share their data and allowed us to have close cooperation between Western researchers and Iraqis during a very difficult time after the 2003 war. The TAARII grant also assisted effort in training some Iraqi colleagues on the use of GPS and satellite imagery, as I was able to demonstrate these approaches while working in Jordan in 2005 and 2006. I think in terms of impact, both scholarly and practically in helping Iraqi archaeology, the relatively small TAARII grant has delivered well above one would expect and has continued to benefit my research in leading to even larger grants and assistance to more Iraqi colleagues. Just recently I had mentored an Iraqi colleague to publish in a Western journal their archaeological results. This experience was based on this initial funding I had received from TAARII.

The following publications have benefited from this fellowship:

Altaweel, M. 2006. “Excavations in Iraq:  The Ray Jazirah Project, First Report.” Iraq 68: 155–81.

Altaweel, M. 2007. “Excavations in Iraq: The Jazirah Salvage Project, Second Report.” Iraq  69: 117–44.

Altaweel, M. 2008. The Imperial Landscape of Ashur: Settlement and Land Use in the Assyrian Heartland. Heidelberg: OrientVerlag.

Image of a relatively well-preserved Ubaid building from Khirbet al-Akhwein 1 (Photo credit: Mark Altaweel)

Ubaid pottery from Khirbet al-Akhwein 1 (Photo credit: Mark Altaweel)