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.
This episode is something new and special. It’s an experiment. Part of a mini-series we’ve been working on for a long time now. These special episodes take a lot of time and effort to put together. But I’m convinced they’re worth it.
One of the goals of Thin End of the Wedge is to offer a more inclusive version of ancient Middle Eastern studies. To amplify the voices of those we don’t usually hear much from. There’s one group of colleagues in particular who most of us never hear from. These episodes focus on them.
Our first guest is someone who is very well-known in Iraq for his work promoting cultural heritage. He has brought the galleries of Nasiriyah Museum to life with the sound of music and families. He shares his knowledge both through traditional in-person talks and virtually, with huge success on Facebook. He’s someone with a clear vision of what heritage means: the power of the past to help shape a brighter future. He combines passion with imagination and relentless energy.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
You’re welcome. Thank you very much.
Can you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?
I am Amir al-Zubaidi. I’m an archaeologist and also an excavator. I graduated from Baghdad University. And since 2003, I’ve been working as an archaeologist and an excavator. And I also worked with many organisations, many foreign missions. I was also a member of an excavation team, in an area called Tel Laham. Also, I .. actually I am passionate about archaeology and working in field work more than office work. Also I worked during 2008 and 2009 on a Sumerian site called Umm al-Aqarib. I worked there. We started an excavation at the site. And it is really important to me. I also worked on another site. It’s a Babylonian site called Tell Abu Thahab. Actually this is also in Dhi Qar. It’s near the marshes area. This was in 2011 and 2012. And this is another site. It’s not Sumerian. But it’s a Babylonian site.
Three years ago, I was made director of Nasiriyah Museum. And I’m working there now. And I think you will ask me a lot about this position, and also the museum. So I’m happy to answer any questions. And then one month ago, I received a promotion. And I got another position. I am the director of archaeological sites and the museums in Dhi Qar province. This is a new position from the Ministry of Culture in Iraq.
Well, first of all, congratulations.
Thank you very much, Jon. It’s really hard and difficult to hold this position, especially dealing with archaeological sites in Iraq. So I’m lucky to get this position.
So let’s start with Nasiriyah Museum. Could you introduce us to its history, its collection, and who visits the museum, please?
Nasiriyah Museum was built in 1969 by a Portuguese company called Gulbenkian. It is the second museum in Iraq after the museum in Baghdad. So it’s really big. It had a lot of archaeological objects. But after the events of 1991, which was the revolution against Saddam Hussein’s regime, and also some disruption or some events in 1991 … it had thousands of objects, but after the revolution by the Shia against Saddam Hussein’s regime,
as a punishment they took all the equipment, the objects, and took them to Baghdad Museum and then they closed this museum. Afterwards, they returned some of the objects and they reopened the museum in 2015. So it’s reopened now, with some objects back in it again now.
It has two floors. Only the first floor is occupied. I mean, we display archaeological objects in the museum only on the first floor. There are 7 halls with displays. And the halls are divided according to the historical periods. In the first hall, we start with the prehistoric period. The second hall contains the first Sumerian period. And the third hall includes the second Sumerian period. As you know, the Sumerian period is a very long period. It started in 3000 BC or 4000 BC. So it covers a very long time. So we have to divide these halls according to these periods.
And the fourth hall actually is about the period of the Ur III dynasty. It was founded or established by Ur-Nammu. And it’s from about 2100 BC to 2006 BC. And the other halls, they are dedicated to the Babylonian period, and the Assyrian period, and the Hatra period. And the last one, it’s for the Islamic period. Nasiriyah Museum contains really important objects, iconic objects. They’re really interesting and important objects.
Also included are human remains from Eridu. These skeletons were discovered at the site of Eridu, but they belong to the Ubaid period. They date to around 6000 BC. And also there are a lot of other objects dating to the Ubaid period. Thousands of objects, in fact. It’s a really diverse collection, and interesting, these objects from the Ubaid period. Also there are a lot of statues of Sumerian kings. They belong to the Sumerian kings, and some priests. And they are made from a lot of different types of stone. Different types actually. Also we have a real statue. It’s a statue of Ur-Nammu, and it’s made of bronze.
And also we have 42 stone objects in the museum that were used as seals. They are flat, stamp seals, and also cylinder seals. In the Hatra Hall, which we mentioned, it’s hall number six, we have big statues of this period too. These belong to the Hatra civilisation. They are really big. They fill a lot of space in the hall. And we have many tablets, Sumerian tablets, which contain a lot of writing on them. They talk about things like rituals, or teaching. You can see the methods they used for teaching cuneiform in antiquity, so they’re really important tablets.
This is just an overview of what is in the Nasiriyah museum. Just a brief summary.
Super, thank you. And who are the museum’s visitors?
Yeah. It’s every week we have foreign tourists. They visit the museum. There is no week passes without seeing these people visit the museum. And we are very happy about that.We have the Americans. We have the British. We have the French. And we have the Italians too. And also many Chinese. So a lot of people from European countries, Asian countries, they visit the museum. Actually they come to visit the site of Ur mainly. And then they visit the museum, I mean Nasiriyah Museum. Or they go to the marshes. So the main destinations for tourists are the marshes, or Ur, or the museum.
Some of the British tourists—this is really interesting–they want to go to the site of Girsu, the ancient city. Which is because at Girsu a British excavation team, they dug and discovered really, I mean, magnificent results there. So people are interested to visit the city because the British team just did something really significant. And the people want to visit the site, because they announced something big there. So people just asked me to take them to this city, Girsu, I mean—it’s now called Tello, but in antiquity it was called Girsu—to visit the city. This site is not included in the tourist guides or the itineraries of their trip. It’s really not included. But they want to see it by themselves, because the British team has worked there.
I was working at Girsu when we went the other way. We came to visit the museum a couple of times, we really enjoyed our visit. It’s a lovely museum.
Now, you’re well-known in Iraq for your work engaging the public with heritage. Could you tell us what you’ve been doing, please?
Honestly, I don’t consider archaeological work as a job or a career. I get a salary every month. But it’s a passion for me. It’s a message and I’m the messenger of it. So it’s a project of my life. It’s not really a job or just a career with a salary. I’m trying to work for the public, to try to reach them to do this. I try to teach them to do this. I try to teach the public to love this culture, respect this culture and be passionate about it. And to think about how we can develop this civilisation or culture among us.
Actually, as you know, during academic studies, archaeology is like a tough science to learn. And it is really difficult to understand. It can also be quite dry. So we try to link this archaeology to real life, so to actually make it like stories. As we talk to our children about it, our older generation should just simplify the terms. As you know, it has difficult terms, specialist archaeological terms. And also names for historical periods, which are really difficult to remember. So we try to simplify them, make it easier. And make them like stories. Storytelling is a good way to reach children. They can’t remember a lot of special terms, so we should translate them to something more like stories.
Actually I am passionate about archaeology. I always give lectures at universities or colleges. What they think is the most interesting thing when I’m doing this is copies. I give electronic copies to the younger generation. So all the time now when I walk down the street, people recognise me or just point at me, “Oh, this is Amir. Amir, the archaeologist, the person who talks about archaeology”. So I’m really proud that I made it like everyone knows about archaeology. And everyone’s passionate about it. So I’m really proud of what I did so far. When I talk to the young generation actually, when I meet with them, I talk about not only the cultural side. I tell them that it is crucial, it’s absolutely crucial, that we protect these civilisations.
I give the example that it’s similar to a tree. When a tree has weak roots, the roots are near to the surface, not really deep in the soil. So when the strong wind comes, the tree immediately just comes up from these roots. But when the roots are really deep in the ground like for 30 years or 40 years, for example, it will be really strong. So I tell people it’s like that. We are similar to this tree with deep roots in the soil. We are all from one origin. So we meet all together; we meet in one origin. And this forms the roots. And the Sumerian roots represent us. That’s what I mean. It gathers us or makes us like one nation. So it unites us. So we have to protect this origin, these roots. And this is … it’s just an example.
This is our origin as Iraqis. The Sumerians are like our origin. We have to protect what we have already. We have to develop it, keep it fresh and alive. Not just let them die with other sciences or other subjects.
Okay. I wanted to ask about your goals. Were you trying to inspire visitors to come to the museum? Or were you taking the museum to people who couldn’t come, for example?
Yeah, exactly. It’s a tricky question actually. When I started my job at the museum, there were very few visitors to the museum. Few people knew about the museum. What is the museum? What is it, this Nasiriyah museum? So I just sat with myself and thought: I should have plans. How do I get people not to go to just the parks or the funfairs or the shopping malls, something like that? Why should I not work on bringing people to the museum? So that was my main plan, that’s what my main plan was. And I think I succeeded to bring people in. So they come and visit not just parks and funfairs, shopping malls, things like that. They visit the museum, and that’s what I achieved.
So it’s according to my plan, when the public started visiting the museum, I made the second floor into a workshop. We made it into a kind of small factory. We are making souvenirs there. And we also hold workshops there. Lots of things we are doing there. When families visit the museum, we give them these souvenirs to take away with them. It’s free actually; free of charge. The idea is to encourage them to repeat their visit to the museum, to be more interested in what we are doing, and to know more about the museum and our work. Actually we had made big—I mean, really huge—statues. They are at the entrance, at the gates of Nasiriyah Museum. They attract visitors to visit, and to take photos, to become curious about what’s going on here. They are really big, these statues. They are each … these statues, I mean … they are about five meters tall. And we didn’t take any funding from the Ministry of Culture for to do these statues. It’s all with the help of the craftsmen. They agreed to do it as a contribution.
Every two to three weeks, I bring some bands to play music. And some composers for the audience. And they play songs with … with some composers with the ‘oud … and they play songs with the ‘oud music to attract families to the museum. So they can enjoy the atmosphere there. And also, we sometimes put on plays for the children, some historical playing, something like that. So children can also enjoy those activities. Actually I got in trouble with the authorities. Why am I doing this? It is not allowed. Why are you doing that in the museum, Amir? It is not allowed, because it was without permission. Sometimes I … it’s just an idea of mine, and a plan. Just something to make the museum more attractive. A way of putting on something special to attract families here. And I was very successful in doing that, although I did get in trouble for doing it.
Wow, that sounds great. I haven’t seen the statues in place there. I’ve seen photographs of them, but I haven’t seen them in real life. I really like to see them for myself.
Yeah. It’s sculptural work, Jon. And the size: they’re 3000 tons, and 5 metres tall. And it’s really new. We only just did this.
When you to children or families, or you make a Facebook post, what are people most interested in? What do they like?
I think they see the love of our country, that comes out through my work … through what I’m doing. So that’s what we do. We actually give through our work the love of country. Because for Iraqi families, as you know, they didn’t see anything in recent years. Just force, occupation, corruption, wars. So we tried to give them another face of Iraq. The bright side of Iraq. A different side of life. And they liked it. They found Iraq through this, through our work. I told them, it’s not just a museum. It’s a kind of a factory. It’s making a new generation that loves this country. And it also makes them passionate about this country. Yeah, that’s what my work is about. And that’s what it means.
Wow. That leads on to my next question. Maybe you could say a bit more about this. You know, people in Nasiriyah have had to live with so many challenges in recent years. I wanted to ask what role heritage plays in civic life for the people of Nasiriyah today?
It’s a really, really beautiful question. It’s actually a really good question also and sensitive. As you know, we are archaeologists, not like historians. Since three years, actually, I didn’t receive a penny from the Ministry of Antiquities and Culture or any ministry, the Nasiriyah government, or any other organisation. All my funding comes from the people; it’s public funds. It pays for everything–the equipment, the furniture, all the work inside the museum. It’s all from the public. So that’s how the engagement works. I mean, that’s how people in Nasiriyah engage with their heritage in my area. I didn’t receive anything at all, not a dinar, from the government. All of my funding is from the public. All of our work. Yeah. When teachers and students, even young pupils actually, give money from their own pockets … their own money … to the museum to buy some equipment and furniture for the workshop, and for the museum, that actually does show that people appreciate their heritage. And also respect their heritage. And really try to help us build this heritage again. And also discover a lot of new things, find out what’s happening in Nasiriyah Museum. So that, that’s the engagement between heritage and people in my area, or in my city.
You mentioned that there are foreign archaeological expeditions in the Dhi Qar. So is there anything that they could do to help with your work in terms of maybe talking to the public or visiting schools or something else?
Yeah, actually, foreign teams in Nasiriyah don’t really play a big role in engaging people, with the public. So I spoke with them many times. I asked them if they can, I mean, offer some help some to engage with the public, with talks for the public maybe, or maybe do something fun. And they offered to me that they can engage with people or help in some way. So they accept that. They were really happy and eager to engage with the public. And they said that they will do everything they can, as much as they can, to help people to understand their cultural heritage. And they will give talks and maybe organise fun activities. And we have a lot of missions, I mean foreign missions: the French, Italians, British, they will come in October and start their work. My policy is to link these foreign teams with the public and with our city. So I think when they start work on their projects in October, I’m hoping they will be successful if they do these things in the future.
Okay, that’s great. I wonder if we could move on to your new role. So you’re in charge of archaeology in the province of Dhi Qar. Could you tell us what that job involves, please? What is your work?
Now I am responsible for all the archaeological sites and objects in Nasiriyah province. And according to Professor Henry Wright from Chicago University, Nasiriyah is not just a small city. So it’s a kind of world museum, an archaeological museum. It’s not just for Nasiriyah, it’s for the world. It includes maybe 1200 archaeological sites, which is really, really huge. These are big sites. I mean, they are major sites, and also interesting sites. So it’s really not a small job I’ve got. It’s tough, and also an important role I am in now. As you know, Nasiriyah province includes the site of Ur. Pope Francis visited Ur on the sixth of March this year. Following on from that, we hope that Ur will become a centre for Christian pilgrimage in the future. We are really looking forward to this. We got a promising project from the government, with the prospect of funding in the future, to do a lot of work there. And to develop the area to receive tourists. As you know, tourism is now a kind of industry. And it’s really good for Iraq, if they can develop this area, so that it can receive visitors more easily in the future. It can offer economic benefits for Iraqis, if they can invest in this area to promote tourism.
Could you explain about this role in more detail, please? You know, on a practical level, day to day basis, what kinds of tasks do you have to do? Are you in charge of making site development plans? Or are you in charge of excavating, for example? What kinds of thing does someone in this role do?
On the practical side, my main role actually, since I started this job, was to prevent the smuggling and stealing of archaeological objects. I met with the tribal and local people, and I attended many meetings with them. I attended many meetings so we could talk about how we can protect these sites. And also how we can protect these sites from smuggling activities by the mafias. We agreed to work together to protect the sites. And if we talk with the government … I mean, on the government side we need actually troops to protect the sites. The local people and I, we can’t do that ourselves. And we will work together to prevent looting. We made progress in this way. It’s working now. So this is what happens on the practical side for me at the moment. I also got funds from the government to build a protective barrier around some archaeological sites now in Dhi Qar. And I’m hoping that I will get more funding in the future to build a lot more barriers. I mean, they are not a simple fence, but with wires, to surround the archaeological sites, so we can protect them effectively. And working with local people. So we have many plans at the moment. I have already built a security fence around some sites, and I am waiting for more funding to put fences around more sites.
Also, I have an agreement with the University of Dhi Qar and the archaeology department there that we can make a training course for undergraduate students there. It’s under my supervision. So we will do that in the future. And we will train students not just in the college, but also in field work, or field trips. This is our plan at the moment.
I have another project that’s really interesting and fun at the same time. It’s about the game of Ur, which was discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley at Ur, and is now in the British Museum. I have an agreement with a factory in Nasiriyah to make 500 copies. We will give them as prizes to people who are really talented, talented students, who win some competitions we will arrange, something in the city and the government of Dhi Qar. So it’s really interesting and we are working on it right now.
Wow, interesting. I was going to ask about your priorities and the challenges you face. But from what you said, I guess the answer is that looting them sites is the big challenge, and protecting those sites the priority. Is that right? The most urgent, the most important thing?
It’s a really big job. I mean, it’s challenging. We have almost 150 guards to cover more than 1000 archaeological sites. Which is not enough. So some of them are really without protection. So it’s really a tough task for us. I’m happy. And I can say that now I convinced the people, the local people, about the importance of cultural heritage and archaeology in Iraq. It was a big challenge. And my priority now actually is to convince the government of the importance of archaeology and culture in Iraq. That’s what I’m trying to do now and it’s really tough.
What are your hopes for the future?
Actually, my big hope–I hope that I can make Nasiriyah museum into something like the Louvre museum or the British Museum. The city deserves more. And it’s because it’s the beginning of everything in the world. So it deserves more. So I hope to make Nasiriyah an international tourist city that everybody can visit. Just like they visit the Louvre museum or the British Museum. So this is my hope. And that the museum will be not just for Iraqis, but also for the world.
Thank you very much, indeed, Amir. Thank you so much for talking to us.
Thank you. Thank you very much, Dr Jon, for giving me this chance to speak with you and also your efforts to make this happen. Thank you so much. I’m really happy to speak with you. And thank you very much for hosting me.
Wow, that’s brilliant. Thank you. You’ve been so generous with your time. You’re a very inspirational person, and it’s been a real pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much indeed.
I’d also like to thank our patrons: Tyler Russell, Enrique Jimenez, 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, Michael Katsevman, Mend Mariwany, Kathryn Topper, Zach Rubin, Sabina Franke, Sophus Helle, Shai Gordin, Aaron Macks, Jonathan Stökl, Maarja Seire, Jaafar Jotheri, Morgan Hite, Chikako Watanabe, Mark McElwaine, Heather Baker, Sukanya Ramanujan, Laura Battini, Jonathan Blanchard Smith, Vanessa Richards, Kliment Ohr, TT, Christina Tsouparopoulou, Andwer Senior, as well as those who prefer to remain anonymous.
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.
And thank you for listening to Thin End of the Wedge. If you enjoy what we do, and you would like to help make these podcasts available in Middle Eastern languages, please consider joining our Patreon family. You can find us at patreon.com/wedgepod. You can also support us in other ways: simply subscribe to the podcast; leave us a five star review on iTunes or your podcatcher of choice; recommend us to your friends; follow us on Twitter: @wedge_pod. If you want the latest podcast news, you can sign up for our newsletter. You can find all the links in the show notes and on our website at wedgepod.org. Thanks, and I hope you’ll join us next time.