Wednesday 10 January 2018

Call for papers: IRAQ special section on the life, work and legacy of Ethel Drower

Ethel Stephana Drower (1879–1972) was a pioneer of the anthropological study of Iraq’s minorities, especially the Mandaeans. She travelled widely, published prolifically, and earned the respect of her informants as well as her academic peers, despite her lack of formal academic training. Yet, beyond J.J. Buckley’s Lady E.S. Drower’s Scholarly Correspondence (Brill 2012), she has been little studied and is largely unknown outside the specialist field of Mandaean studies.

2019 will mark the 140th anniversary of Drower’s birth and the 85th anniversary of the first issue of IRAQ, to which she contributed (E.S. Drower, ‘Mandean writings’, IRAQ 1 [1934], 171–82). We propose to celebrate the occasion with a special section devoted to assessing Drower’s life, work, and legacy, co-edited by Erica Hunter, Augusta McMahon, Eleanor Robson, and Mark Weeden.

We invite papers of 5,000 to 10,000 words addressing topics and issues that might include (but are not limited to) the following in relation to Ethel Drower:

  • women’s lives in Mandate Iraq
  • Iraqi folklore and anthropology
  • Mandaean history and culture
  • the Mandaic language

The deadline for expressions of interest is 1 March 2018. Please email an anonymised one-page PDF to the Editors at e.robson @ Expressions of interest will be reviewed by the Editorial Board, which will issue invitations to submit papers by the end of that month.

The deadline for submission of invited papers is 1st September 2018. Please follow the submission instructions. All submissions will be double-blind refereed and up to six papers will be selected for publication in IRAQ 81 (2019). Authors will be informed of the outcome by the end of December 2018.

The Editors of IRAQ
Eleanor Robson, Augusta McMahon, and Mark Weeden
January 2018

Monday 21 November 2016

Hatra lecture report

Hatra - An Arab Kingdom in Roman Times

Professor Wathiq Ismail al-Salihi
Wednesday 16 November 2016

hatra facade

For a full house at the British Academy, Professor Wathiq Ismail al-Salihi gave a lecture in memory of Mohammed Ali Mustafa, the "sheikh of excavators in Iraq", sponsored by Dr Sabah and Mrs Sumaya Zangana.

Professor Al-Salihi spoke for over an hour about the ancient city of Hatra, where he had previously directed the excavations of various monuments and buildings. Situated a good 100 km to the southwest of Mosul, Hatra is said to have been located along a relatively minor trade route and the existence of its tribal society depended on access to the available water resources through wells.

Throughout his talk Professor al-Salihi emphasised what he called the formidable fortifications of the city, whose defence system famously withstood the attacks of two Roman emperors, Trajan and Septimius Severus, before finally falling (around AD 240) to the Sasanians, who had established themselves as the major power in the region after defeating the Parthians. The circular walls were 3 m wide with mudbrick on foundations of hewn stone, and curtain walls of hewn limestone slabs were added. A large moat, 4-5 m deep and 8 m wide, surrounded Hatra. A bridge over the moat, supported by an arch, was leading to an entrance into the city. Close to the gate, the number of buttresses increased. According to later Arab authors, Hatra’s walls were protected by talismans. A gorgon head decorated the fortifications. A ballista (stone thrower) that was used in the defence against Severus was found near the North Gate.

In the gates, with their lateral opening, were niches containing statues of an apotropaic deity commonly identified as Heracles-Nergal. A relief of an eagle stood above legal texts concerning the death penalty as a punishment for theft: a thief from outside Hatra would be stoned to death, whereas a thief from within the city would die the enigmatic ‘death of the god’ (see also T. Kaizer, ‘Capital punishment at Hatra: gods, magistrates and laws in the Roman-Parthian period’, Iraq 68 (2006), p.139-153).

Many of Hatra’s monumental buildings were constructed during the long reign, in the first half of the second century AD, of the local lord Nasru. He left two images of himself, inscribed with his name, on the voussoirs of one of the iwans, the large vaulted structures that are so characteristic of Hatrene architecture and are dedicated to the members of the local triad (Maren - ‘Our Lord’; Marten - ‘Our Lady’; Bar-Maren - ‘the Son of Our Lord’) and to other deities such as Shahiru - the Morning Star. The later king Sanatruq, together with his son Abdsmya, was responsible for the magnificent temple of Allat. Musical scenes of what has been interpreted as Dionysiac ritual decorated the sanctuary on the inside. The two central reliefs depict the goddess herself. On the first, Allat is welcomed, riding on a camel, by a nymph holding a balance. On the second, the goddess is seated on the lever of this same balance, a symbol of her justice. King Sanatruq approaches the goddess, and a model of the temple is presented to her.

Fourteen shrines were excavated elsewhere in the city, including no.XII to Nebu and no.XIV to Nanai. Finally, Professor al-Salihi showed images of a mural painting found in the North Palace, which he interpreted as an image of Aphrodite at her bath, as inspired by the Sixth Homeric Hymn.

Dr Lucinda Dirven thanks Professor Wathiq Al-Salihi at the end of the lecture

Dr Lucinda Dirven of the University of Amsterdam, editor of an important recent volume on Hatra (L. Dirven (ed.), Hatra. Politics, Culture and Religion between Parthia and Rome [Oriens et Occidens 21] (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2013)), gave the vote of thanks.

Ted Kaizer, Durham University (

Photos by Eleanor Robson

Saturday 19 November 2016

BISI Statement on Nimrud

Now that the Iraqi army has regained control of the ancient Assyrian capital city of Nimrud, the scale of the destruction by ISIS has become clear. It was known through an obscene propaganda video that in April 2015 the palace of Ashurnasirpal II, from the 9th century BC, with its contents of invaluable Assyrian reliefs was destroyed in a massive explosion. Now we learn that other buildings have been badly damaged and the ancient ziggurat has been levelled.

The British Institute for the Study of Iraq has a long association with Nimrud, having undertaken seminal excavations there from 1949 to 1963, and the President of BISI excavated there in 1989.

In this tragic situation BISI extends our greatest sympathy to our Iraqi friends and colleagues, and stands ready to provide any help that it can to the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage.

To learn more about Nimrud and BISI's long-standing involvement with the site, please visit the Nimrud Project website.

Professor Eleanor Robson, Chair of Council
Dr Paul Collins, Chair-elect of Council
Dr John Curtis, President

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Basrah Museum opens its first gallery

BISI is delighted to share this press release from the Basrah Museum and the Friends of Basrah Museum:

A new museum celebrating the rich cultural heritage of southern Iraq has opened its first gallery at a ceremony in Basrah today. The gallery, which displays artefacts from the Hellenistic period (c. 300 BC) through to the present, represents the first major milestone in an eight-year project involving the Iraq Ministry of Culture, the State Board of Antiquities and Friends of Basra Museum, a UK-based charity which was set up in 2010 to provide financial, project management and curatorial support to the museum.

The new Basrah Museum is housed in the former Lakeside Palace in a park by the Shatt Al Arab. It will be a major cultural resource, not only for the city of Basrah but also for Southern Iraq and the wider region. Galleries will focus on the area’s archaeology and history from prehistory down to the development of Basrah as a major trading port (from which Sinbad the Sailor is said to have set sail), renowned as a centre of scholarship, education, poetry and music.

‘This is a great day for Iraq’s cultural heritage,’ said Minister of Culture Faryad Raundozi. ‘It is an important example of how the international community can work with Iraqi experts and institutions to improve the way we conserve, celebrate and protect our past.’

Chairman of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage Qais Rasheed said: ‘We are delighted that Basrah now has a museum which can properly tell the story of this great city’s past. We will continue to add more artefacts to the exhibition and to build our collaboration with international organisations to better understand the region’s archaeological sites and to improve the training and support for researchers and students’.

Director of Basrah Antiquities and Heritage, Qahtan Alabeed said: ‘This is a very special day for us. It couldn’t have come about without the support of a great number of people – especially the Friends of Basrah Museum and their principal funders BP. I also want to acknowledge the dedication of colleagues in Baghdad and Basrah, which means we’re able to display many exhibits in public for the first time in years.’

British Ambassador Frank Baker said: ‘The Basrah Museum reminds us of the depth of the history of Iraq, and the great achievements of its people. It is also an example of what the UK and Iraq can achieve when they work together – so much time and energy has been put in by the Friends of Basrah Museum to reach this stage. My team and I look forward to visiting over the coming weeks, to see its use as a cultural and educational centre.’

Sir Terence Clark Chairman of the Trustees of the FOBM, said: ‘This is the culmination of years of quiet persistence on the part of the Trustees and the Museum staff. All of us at FOBM recognise the global importance of Iraq’s cultural heritage and have been determined to do what we can to support those in Iraq who are working to see it properly managed.’

BP was the principal donor to the project, with a grant of $500,000. Michael Townshend, BP Middle East’s Regional President, said: “In every region in which BP operates we look to support and protect the local culture and heritage. When we were approached to support the establishment of this new museum for Basrah, we wanted to help. We are glad that the people of Basrah will now have a museum which celebrates their rich cultural history.”

The opening is followed by a two-day conference at the museum, organised by the British Institute for the Study of Iraq. After that, work will continue on the refurbishment of the rest of the museum. It is hoped that it will set a standard for the whole country, with facilities for school parties and contents tied to the Iraqi national curriculum. New educational programmes, supported by the British Council, will be introduced in October to local schoolchildren.

Editorial note
The Friends of Basrah Museum is a UK-registered charity established in 2010 to raise funds for the Basrah Museum and to provide support to its Director, Qahtan Alabeed. The trustees are Sir Terence Clark, Dr John Curtis, Liane Butcher, Clare Bebbington, Dr Lamia al-Gailani, Dr Salah al-Shaikly and the Hon Alice Walpole.
As well as FOBM and BP, the project has been supported by The British Institute for the Study of Iraq; The British Museum; Petrofac; The Charlotte Bonham Charitable Trust; HWH Associates; Bur Alaman; IPBD Ltd; Control Risks Group; Field Energy Services; Pulse Brands; and private individuals.


Clare Bebbington, Friends of Basrah Museum – tel: +44 7403006106

Wednesday 6 July 2016

Joint submission to the Chilcot Enquiry

Back in January-February 2010, Peter Stone of UK Blue Shield co-ordinated a joint submission to the Chilcot Enquiry. The submission is referred to in paragraphs 801-826 of the Chilcot Report, published today, but I can't find it on the Iraq Inquiry website. As a contributor to, and editor of, that report (though not a signatory — I was Vice-Chair of BISI's council at the time), and as it was always meant to be a public document, I thought I'd post it here, along with the cover letter and press release issued with it, on 17 February 2010.

These documents were submitted on behalf of:

  • UK National Commission for UNESCO
  • British Academy
  • British Institute for the Study of Iraq
  • Council for British Archaeology
  • European Association of Archaeologists
  • Institute for Archaeologists
  • International Council on Monuments and Sites UK
  • International Council of Museums UK
  • Museums Association
  • National Trust
  • Nautical Archaeology Society
  • Society of Antiquaries of London
  • UK & Ireland Committee of the Blue Shield.

Friday 6 May 2016

Investigations at Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, aka Charax Spasinou 

Robert Killick was awarded a BISI Research Grant to conduct preliminary investigations at Charax Spasinou. You can find out about the first season of survey in the report below.

Few names from the ancient world resonate quite so loudly in the modern era as that of Alexander the Great. When in spring 2015 we were invited by the State Board for Antiquities and Heritage to work at a city founded by Alexander, we could scarcely refuse. One year on, we have just completed our first season of survey at Alexandria-on-the-Tigris, known later as Charax Spasinou. That we were able to respond so swiftly to the request is entirely due to the generous support of, among others, Baron Lorne Thyssen-Bornemisza at the Augustus Foundation, the State Board for Antiquities and Heritage, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and, of course, BISI itself.

Along the ramparts at Charax Spasinou

Alexander sailed down the Eulaeus River from Susa in 324BC, and came to its confluence with the Tigris. At that time, access to open water and the Gulf was also close by. The strategic advantage of the place was obvious, and so Alexandria-on-the-Tigris was founded. Unfortunately, Alexander didn’t realise just how prone to flooding the entire region was (and in fact remained so until the construction of the Hindiya Barrage in the 1950s). After devastating floods, the city was twice re-founded, once as Antiochia in 166BC and again in 141BC as Charax Spasinou. As the latter, it became the capital of the Kingdom of Characene and a major trading emporium, exchanging goods with India, Palmyra, Petra, and onwards to Rome.

The remains of Charax Spasinou (modern Khayaber) lie some 40 km north of Basra. The ramparts rise to four metres above the plain, complete with bastions at regular intervals. To the south, the old course of the Eulaeus River is clearly visible and we estimate that the remains of the city are spread over an area of about five square kilometres. Debris from the Iraq-Iran war still litters the archaeological site and some areas have been badly disturbed by old military installations. Erosion, agricultural activity and looting continue to be threats.

Working at such a large site presents some interesting challenges. How do you survey and map such a large area, for example? Even with our modern surveying instruments, this would be a lengthy and arduous task. Fortunately, the use of a drone combined with mapping software provided a solution. Flying at a height of 100 metres, our drone took 5,000 photographs over nine days, covering an area of some eight square kilometres. These images are now being compiled into a digital elevation model which will be used to generate topographical maps, including a contour map and shaded relief maps.

Finding out how much archaeology is left at Charax after two thousand years of repeated flooding was another challenge. Here geophysics came to our rescue: armed with a caesium magnetometer, one of the world’s leading experts, Dr Joerg Fassbinder, with his team from the University of Munich, surveyed over eight hectares in ten days. The results were beyond expectations: entire districts of the city were revealed below the surface, including substantial public buildings and residential houses. The orthogonal plan produced by the survey clearly reflects the original lay-out of the Hellenistic city, one which was retained in succeeding periods.

The Hellenistic town grid and large buildings are clearly visible on this geophysics plot

An evaluation trench placed across one of the district boundaries found a ditch with mud-brick walls running parallel on both sides. A puzzling feature was a row of Parthian torpedo jars set upside-down in a solid layer of clay. The tips of the bases had been deliberately and neatly cut away, leaving entry holes at the top. Two further evaluation trenches found walls belonging to two of the large buildings that showed most clearly in the magnetometer survey.

A row of Parthian torpedo jars lining a ditch 

The logistical challenges of working at Charax are substantial, but these preliminary results have more than repaid the effort. Our mission for the future will be to implement a comprehensive research and excavation strategy that will do justice to this important Alexandrian city.

Robert Killick
Honorary Fellow,  Manchester University

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Cultural Protection Fund: a positive ministerial response

I'm happy to report that we've received a reply to the collective letter sent last November, which outlined BISI's, and others' views on how the government's proposed Cultural Protection Fund should work, in support of the UK's promised ratification of Hague 1954.

The letter, written by Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, reads in full:

Thank you for letter of 24 November 2015 to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sports, The Rt Hon John Whittingdale MP. I am responding as the Minister responsible for this policy area and I apologise for the delay in replying.

We are delighted to receive you and your colleagues’ support for our plans to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention and its two protocols, and for the Cultural Protection Fund.

The Department is firmly committed to introducing new legislation to enable the UK to ratify the 1954 Hague Convention and its two Protocols at the earliest opportunity. We believe that doing so will ensure the UK and its cultural experts and practitioners in the field are seen to be not only serious about cultural protection, but world leaders in this area.

On 25 November 2015, as part of the Spending Review, we were delighted that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced £30million in Official Development Assistance funding for the establishment of our Cultural Protection Fund. Planning is currently underway towards implementing the Fund with the expectation of accepting grant applications in the spring.

We have sent out our consultation document to you and your co-signatories, and would warmly welcome your views on the Cultural Protection Fund. Your expertise would help inform its further development. In addition, we are holding a stakeholder workshop on 11 February which I believe a number of your co-signatories are attending.

I have taken Peter Stone’s points and your support of them into serious consideration - and it is precisely such strategic thinking and expertise which we are seeking with our consultation. I agree entirely with the principles behind the points on combatting duplication of effort; on the need for training; proactive prevention; emergency response; and long term support. These points cohere with the principles of the Fund as outlined in our consultation document, and correspond with the outcomes I announced at the Cultural Protection Summit of 28 October 2015, namely: cultural heritage protection, training, and advocacy and education. Indeed, the British Museum’s Iraqi Rescue Archaeology Programme, a pilot programme of the Fund, is already adhering to these aims, and we will be encouraging grant applications from other programmes and organisations who can provide services pursuant to these outcomes.

We will be providing further information about the Cultural Protection Fund and on the Government’s approach to ratifying the Hague Convention in the spring of this year.

Thank you again for your support and your offer of assistance in this area. I do very much hope that you will respond to our consultation document and am delighted that some of the signatories have made to time to come along to our workshops.

Best wishes,

Ed Vaizey MP
Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy