Episode 64. Ali Kadhem Ghanem: Managing the site of Ur: transcript

0:13  JT

Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge, the podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.

0:32  JT

This episode is all about the site of Ur. Ur is one of the most iconic sites in all of Iraq. Images of objects found there are widely known, and often reproduced. Ur lies on the outskirts of the modern city of Nasiriyah. As you enter the city, you’re greeted by a large statue of a woman wearing a headdress like those found in the royal tombs, and playing a musical instrument like those found there. Travelling through the city at night, alongside the neon street lights in the shape of date palms, you find others in the shape of those same musical instruments, for example. Road signs point the way to the site. A visitor centre there hosts a range of cultural and civic events.

1:18  JT

Ur is so famous partly because of the spectacular archaeological discoveries made there in the 1920s. Unlike many sites in the region, Ur offers visitors impressive monuments. Most sites require a lot of imagination–as well as guidance from experts–to rebuild the ancient city from mounds of decaying mudbrick scarred by deep trenches of excavations past. At Ur, the remains of temples and royal tombs survive. Most impressive of all, the partially restored ziggurat dominates the skyline. Ur is a place that captures the imagination; one you never forget having visited. Recently images circulated on social media of a young couple celebrating their wedding in the shadow of the ziggurat; treasured memories in the ultimate wedding album. It has taken a lot of conservation work to preserve these architectural remains, and more needs to be done to preserve them for future generations.

2:21  JT

In the past, Ur was a key destination in Iraq’s tourist portfolio. This heritage tourism will play an important role in the country’s future, too, bringing much needed investment to the region. A steady flow of tourists already visits from near and far; occasional tour groups of foreigners intersperse with their Iraqi counterparts. Visitors can tour highlights of the site, walking along carefully boarded routes. New information boards offer helpful explanations and plenty of evocative images, including finds and archival photos of excavations.

3:00  JT

Another reason why Ur is so famous, and so important, is that it holds religious significance. It is believed to have been the home of the prophet Abraham: Ur of the Chaldees. One of the landmarks of Ur is a reconstructed building designated as the house of Abraham. This is a product of preparations for the planned visit of Pope John Paul, who wanted to visit Iraq as part of a wider Middle East tour to celebrate the year 2000. That visit was cancelled, but in 2021, Pope Francis did visit Ur. This was a high profile event that promised to promote the site nationally and internationally.

3:43  JT

I wanted to take the opportunity to ask the person responsible for managing this important site for his thoughts about Ur and the pope’s visit. This episode was originally recorded then. Despite the time that has passed, I think it’s still valuable to hear those thoughts. This interview was conducted by an Iraqi colleague, in Arabic, and translated for us by her. I hope you enjoy it.

4:18  LM

Hello, my name is Lina Meerchyad. I am independent scholar specialising in the fields of archaeology and languages of Mesopotamia, as well as a cultural heritage consultant and museum collections and curatorial specialist. I had positions as curatorial research associate and collection research associate at the Detroit Institute of Arts, in addition to serving as a research assistant at the American National Museum.

4:51  LM

This interview was recorded in September 2nd 2021. In this episode, our guest will speak about the management and the importance of archaeological site of Ur and all that concerns that site, especially in terms of its historical value, and current relevance. Additionally, this episode will provide insights into the preservation efforts and archaeological excavations, as well as the cultural activities and forthcoming projects that will take place in the area. The ancient city of Ur is located near Nasiriyah in the province of Dhi Qar in the south of modern day Iraq. But it’s well known for its historical significance and archaeological richness. Ur was a famous Sumerian city state that flourished at the end of the third millennium BC, and it was a major centre of trade, culture, and political power in ancient Mesopotamia. Excavations at Ur have revealed valuable artifacts and examples of advanced Sumerian architecture, including great ziggurat of Ur, a massive stepped temple dedicated to Nanna, the Mesopotamian moon god.

6:14  JT

So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.

6:28  LM

Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. I will be your host for this special episode. Could you please tell us who are you and what do you do?

6:40  AK

In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful. I am Ali Kadhem, an archaeologist and an excavator at the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. And I’m the manager of the archaeological site of Ur.

6:56  LM

Yes, thank you. Why is Ur an important historical site?

7:02  AK

Ur is an important city, not only for the Mesopotamian culture, and Iraq, but also for the entire world. The city of Ur has a long history, dating back to over 5000 BC. Ur was a small village. Then the settlement developed in the area and reached the height of its prosperity at the time of Ur the third, or during the Third Dynasty of Ur around 2112 BCE. The founder of that dynasty was king Ur-Nammu.

7:34  LM

Can you tell us what tourists can see at the archaeological site? Please give us a brief description of the city of Ur.

7:42  AK

The current site of Ur is vast and great. The centre of the city is around 400 hectares. The site contains a large number of archaeological monuments. The most important is the ziggurat of Ur, considered as one of the most complete ziggurats in the old civilisation of Iraq, and it still exists to this day. The site also includes a group of temples such as the Edublamah temple, the Ninmah temple, and the temple of the god Enki. In addition, in the area, there is a palace that was used for the management of the city, as well as the Royal Cemetery, which includes tombs of King Shulgi and Amar-Sin. These tombs, which date back to the Ur III period, are among the unique cemeteries of ancient Iraq. The site also has numerous residential areas.

8:39  LM

Is there a brochure or a booklet given to the visitor upon entering the site?

8:45  AK

Yes, there are some printed booklets available. For example, we have a small brochure that contains information about the site during the maintenance port, and an Arabic brochure with a list of archaeological monuments included. Also, there is a folder or booklet written in Arabic and English, in which the tourist is informed about the details of the site as archaeological features.

9:12  LM

What does Ur mean now to Iraqis? In another words, how important is the city to Iraqis these days?

9:20  AK

As you know, Lina, Ur is an important city and well-known to Iraqis. But nowadays there are more interested in Ur. Also with the aim to underline Ur as a city of civilisation, history, and antiquities and to attract tourists to the site, there is interest at various levels, particularly from institutes and political and community individuals. Especially after the Pope’s last visit. I am very certain that this interest in the city of Ur is not only for the province of Dhi Qar, or the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, but also from the political parties and the government of the country in general. The goal of all this is to illuminate the city appropriately in international forums and events.

10:15  LM

Now, we will talk about the excavations in the site of Ur. What are the most recent excavations in the area?

10:25  AK

As for the excavations of Ur, the first season began under Sir Leonard Woolley in 1922 to 1934. After that, the excavations were stopped for a while, but resumed in 2012 by a team from the University of Stony Brook, and lasted five years or seasons. Currently, there is a contract to continue excavations by a team from the University of Pennsylvania. The team has already started conducting some surveys. Inshallah, we hope that the digs will begin in the coming months.

11:04  LM

What about preservation works? Are there any current preservation and restoration works for the archaeological site of Ur?

11:13  AK

The first maintenance work in the city of Ur was carried out in 1961 through 1962 by an Iraqi team under the supervision of Taha Baqir. Then, another restoration work was done in 2000 and 2001 by the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Currently, we are in the process of preparing some surveys and reports. And we hope that in the near future, we will restore and preserve the royal tombs, the ziggurat and the temple of Edublamah.

11:49  LM

What is the future of tourism in the region? Is tourism flourishing or active nowadays?

11:56  AK

Actually, the best time of tourism in Ur and the rest of the archaeological sites in Iraq is from October to April. The period from October to April or May, is the golden season of tourism in the city of Ur. We welcome tourists from Dhi Qar and other Iraqi provinces, as well as foreign visitors.

12:19  LM

What are the cultural activities at the site?

12:23  AK

Yes, some of the activities organised in the city of Ur are, for example, evening events to discuss cultural and educational topics; entertainment events and musical performances are also arranged. Another activity is, for instance, two days ago, we had a half marathon or a competition on the occasion of Dhi Qar province day. It was a bicycle race eight kilometers from Ur. The starting point of the race was from the city of Nasiriyah, and the end point was at the site of Ur itself. Other educational activities and events were also held to integrate the local community in Ur.

13:08  LM

How are these events arranged?

13:12  AK

As the manager and supervisory committee member of Ur, all the arrangements are made by me. I will be contacted to arrange and manage all the details with institutions and individuals interested in organising a cultural event in the area. And I help facilitate all the necessary procedures as well. We do all of that to underline the importance of Ur and attract tourists.

13:41  LM

Now let’s talk about the last visit of Pope Francis to Ur. If possible, give us some details about this visit and what happened.

13:51  AK

Yes, concerning the visit of Pope Francis, I was contacted as the manager of Ur by the Prime Minister, and the Presidency of the Republic offices. We then formed a joint committee of which I was a member to prepare and organise the logistic procedures of the Pope’s visit to Ur and we all worked together; me and other specialists preparing the place for the visit. We are grateful that we were able to present this ancient site properly. I believe that the entire world has seen a significant visit to Ur. The visit was very successful, by all accounts.

14:32  LM

What is the significance of the Pope’s visit?

14:36  AK

Interest in the city has increased since the visit of the Pope, but I would like to discuss another topic. After the visit, it became necessary for us to prepare the city of Ur for tourism and work hard to make this mission possible. This visit opened great horizons for the province of Dhi Qar and the Ministry of Culture, and drew attention into this important archaeological site. Thus, the supreme committee was formed by the central government of the Prime Minister’s office, and the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers. And a working group was organised to help rehabilitate the city of Ur and establish a tourist city. And we are now in the three months of ongoing meetings in Baghdad to study the establishment of the tourist city, which will be a sustainable city. We have already located a place Ur about two and a half or three kilometres from the fence of the city of Ur. We have chosen this area, so it would not distort the view of the city of Ur itself.

15:47  AK

The size of the tourist city was determined to be no less than 600 acres. 600 acres is a large area. It will be supplied inshallah, with places that tourists need, such as hotels, houses, kiosks, and other services related to archaeology. For example, an administrative office and Antiquities Department, and laboratory, warehouses or a storage area, as well as some residences for foreign excavators. In addition, there is a donation from an Iraqi person to build a church and a mosque in the tourist city. A place for this project has been determined. We are about to launch the project shortly. Certainly, there is great interest in this ancient site, which is essential to stimulate tourism in Ur and Iraq.

16:42  LM

Are there any other future projects that will take place in the region?

16:47  AK

Yes, on the other hand, there is an archaeological interest in the city of Ur. We are currently rehabilitating the city for tourism: new cafeterias, lounges, restrooms, and wooden walkways will be constructed, and other services that tourists need. We also will create a website for the city of Ur online. It will include information on archaeological finds discovered at Ur and digital books, and publications. All the details will be in Arabic and English, so that the tourist who cannot come to the city of Ur can visit the site through the website. Everything about Ur is available through this website. In addition, at the site itself, we are doing introductory panels for the archaeological monuments in English and Arabic, which will be made in a modern and international way. These panels contain a QR code so that in the absence of a tour guide, visitors can link their mobile with this code. They can enjoy their visit by watching and listening to the archaeological information provided by the platform. They can also select the language of their choice: Arabic, English or any other language.

18:10  LM

How will these websites be arranged or created? Will they be arranged by certain institutions from outside Iraq?

18:20  AK

It’s a collaborative effort between us and the organisation that developed the website. And in fact, it has already been designed and will be delivered to us, inshallah, in the coming days. The website was designed by Italians with the participation of Iraqis who provided information and details in Arabic. A large number of materials and documents were produced by Iraqis. This project is funded by the European Union. And the organisation which supervised its implementation is the Bridge to UPP organisation.

19:00  LM

Now, let’s move on and talk a little bit about yourself and your thoughts. When and how did you become interested in the archaeology of Iraq?

19:11  AK

In fact, the start was between 1982 and 1983. Back then, when I was a student in high school, in the province of Dhi Qar in Nasiriyah, there were many school trips and tours, whether to Dhi Qar Museum or the archaeological site of Ur. Since then, I have been impressed by the world of archaeology, the city of Ur and the archaeological discoveries in the Dhi Qar Museum. From that time on, I have been fascinated with history, civilisation and archaeology. This tour to Ur remained in my mind. So I had been to this important site more than once. And most importantly, the great explanations from our professors who accompanied us and the tour guide at the archaeological site. All this was only beginning for me to become very interested in civilisation, cultural heritage, history, and antiquities. That’s what got me into this. I mean, archaeology.

20:14  LM

Very interesting. Thank you. What advice would you give to someone who wants to become an archaeologist?

20:21  AK

That’s a broad question. Anyone interested in becoming an archaeologist would essentially have to take courses in archaeology, and then a bachelor’s degree in archaeology. So here in Iraq, after we graduate, we can work as archaeologists and excavators. I mean, your specialty is your job. But through my work experience with foreign missions and universities, I have noticed the importance of other specialties besides excavation work. In Iraq, an excavator from my generation, from the ’80s, and the next generation, and even the ones who work before us–for example, our professors–must be familiar with other sciences associated with the field of archaeology.

21:08  AK

For example, as an archaeologist, my main work is excavations. But it requires me to become familiar with other sciences. Even some basic knowledge, for instance, conducting an archaeological survey and utilising other equipment and techniques, such as photography. This will enable me to communicate with experts, such as surveyors, engineers, or geographers who work with me in the archaeological field. In other words, understanding their work is essential for better communication. That said, the successful archaeologist must have sufficient knowledge of other sciences and techniques that can be used in the archaeological domain. Likewise, a genuine passion towards the job means that an archaeologist cannot be creative in this field, like other sciences, if he does not like his specialty. This passion will lead them to be more creative, truthful and serious at work.

22:12  LM

Can you give us a reason to be optimistic about the future?

22:16  AK

As regards the future of antiquities in Iraq? Yes, there is an interest. A great interest in this matter. It is true that we lack funding for our projects. But in the past few years, we have seen interest from educational institutions. For example, universities, the Antiquities authority, the Ministry of Culture, and higher government agencies. There has been a strong interest in listening to our demands, and addressing the needs of our archaeological sites, especially those on the World Heritage List. There are other sites on this list. For example, the city of Hatra and Assyria and Mosul in northern Iraq, but have some problems. Several parties, whether academic or political, express concern about these archaeological sites, and the need to restore the situation as it was before, and as a safe tourist site.

23:15  AK

Considerable attention has been given to Ur, too, especially after many repeated visits by government officials, as well as the Pope’s visit, which was important for the site. Thus, since this visit is up to today, there have been frequent meetings organised monthly every 20 days by the central government. The participants are of a high level: the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers, the local government and the Mayor’s Office of Dhi Qar, and other departments and authorities, and myself as a representative member of tourism in the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. During the meetings, we discussed ideas on how to maintain the site and make it memorable for the world, especially as we approach the seasons of tourism by foreigners and locals. The rate of tourism has significantly increased in comparison to previous years, especially after the last visit of the Pope. Finally, to sum up, there is considerable interest and real efforts to improve the city of earth by the province of Dhi Qar.

24:24  LM

Very good. That’s really great. This was the last question. Is there anything you would like to add?

24:31  AK

Yes, I would like to add that Ur is a global historical site. Therefore greater attention should be given to the city of Ur through international institutions and organisations, and not rely on our local efforts alone. I can assure you that what has been recovered from the site is enormous. Approximately 30,000 clay tablets, thousands of other artistic pieces, models, and archaeological artifacts. Therefore, it would be difficult to find a university worldwide without special publications related to the city of Ur. So I hope that these international organisations would contribute to the development and revitalisation of Ur by continuing to rehabilitate and sustain the site. In fact, as a local government and the Ministry of Culture, we are still working on this matter, and we’ll be preparing surveys and reports. However, there is a lack of funding for this project.

25:35  LM

Very beautiful. In the end, I would like to express my sincere appreciation for your time and for the interview and the insightful details provided regarding Ur. I had a really great time with you.

25:50  AK

Thank you. God bless you, Lina.

25:53  JT

I’d also like to thank our patrons: Enrique Jiménez, Jana Matuszak, Nancy Highcock, Jay C, Rune Rattenborg, Woodthrush, Elisa Rossberger, Mark Weeden, Jordi Mon Companys, Thomas Bolin, Joan Porter MacIver, John MacGinnis, Andrew George, Yelena Rakic, Zach Rubin, Sabina Franke, Shai Gordin, Aaron Macks, Maarja Seire, Jaafar Jotheri, Morgan Hite, Chikako Watanabe, Mark McElwaine, Jonathan Blanchard Smith, Kliment Ohr, Christina Tsouparopoulou, TT, Melanie Gross, Claire Weir, Marc Veldman, Bruno Biermann, Faimon Roberts, Jason Moser, Pavla Rosenstein, Müge Durusu-Tanrıöver, Tate Paulette, Willis Monroe, Toby Wickenden, Emmert Clevenstine, Barbara Porter, Cheryl Morgan, Kevin Roy Jackson, Susannah Paulus, Eric Whitacre, Jakob Flygare, Jon Ganuza, as well as those who prefer to remain anonymous. 

27:12  JT

I really appreciate your support. It makes a big difference. Every penny received has contributed towards translations. Thanks of course to the lovely people who have worked on the translations on a voluntary basis or for well below the market rate. For Arabic, thanks in particular to Zainab Mizyidawi, as well as Lina Meerchyad and May Al-Aseel. For Turkish, thank you to Pinar Durgun and Nesrin Akan. TEW is still young, but I want to reach a sustainable level, where translators are given proper compensation for their hard work.

27:50  JT

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