An Ark for Iraq: phase 1

This online platform for Iraqi watercraft heritage is an output of An Ark for Iraq: a project which began in autumn 2018, with the support of the British Council’s Cultural Protection Fund (CPF). The first phase of this project (2018-19) centred on a series of boatbuilding workshops that engaged makers in three different Iraqi communities, creating a flotilla of 30 traditional boats of four main types. The project has pioneered the study of Iraq’s intangible and material cultural heritage, and specifically its vernacular maritime heritage – new fields of research barely explored until now, offering complementary perspectives on the knowledge of Mesopotamian history gained through archaeological research.

An ancient tradition

These boats represent a craft tradition sustained since earliest recorded history in the Tigris-Euphrates river system. Constructed largely from locally harvested materials, they are shaped by the ecology of their place of origin. Examples include the Guffa, a coil-basket coracle made from grasses and palm braced with pomegranate stems, and Tarada, war canoe of the Marsh Arab sheikhs, designed to cut through the reeds with its tall curved prow. These are visual icons of Mesopotamian culture, recognised by all Iraqis.

Project origins: the Ark Re-imagined

An Ark for Iraq was delivered by Safina Projects CIC, and developed from The Ark Re-imagined, an art project by Rashad Salim, which began in 2015 by asking what form the Ark of the Flood might have taken if it was based on Mesopotamian cultural heritage. Rashad imagined the Ark as a gathering of many ordinary vessels: a community bringing together what they have into a structure of unity that would enable them to survive catastrophe.

Endangered heritage

Through his initial fieldwork (2016-18) researching what remains of Iraq’s boatbuilding traditions, Rashad discovered that the country’s watercraft heritage was on the brink of extinction. Recent decades of conflict and trauma – including the displacement of communities and degradation of ecosystems – together with a globalising economy that replaces local materials with industrial imports, has left only a handful of craftspeople in each location who retain the knowledge of traditional boatbuilding techniques. In most cases these makers are no longer practising their craft and the techniques are not being passed onto the next generation.

Boatbuilding across Iraq

Our programme of boatbuilding workshops reconstructed four traditional boat types from different places: Guffa coracles made in Hilla, Babylon governorate, central Iraq; Meshoufs or wooden canoes, including the Tarada, made in Huwair, Basra governorate, southern Iraq; Zaimas or basketry canoes, also made in Huwair; and the Isbiya and Delil, wattle and daub barges made in Hit, Anbar governorate, western Iraq. Some of the last remaining boatbuilders in each location shared their skills with the younger generation, and oral history recordings helped to fill gaps in our knowledge of endangered boat types. Documentation of these workshops and conversations is showcased within this website.

A window into material culture

Through fieldwork that engaged with each community in depth for a period of months, the reconstruction and documentation of traditional boats became a catalyst for developing a broader understanding of the local material culture and intangible heritage. For example, we learned about regional trading networks, materials sources, ecologies, traditional products and tools, local terminology and songs. We studied not just the boats but the whole context in which they were created: the culture which sustained them and which they help to sustain. In this way the project is a starting point for wider investigations that have great potential for interdisciplinary collaboration.

Bringing people together through boats

Boat launch events, festivals, and training workshops using our flotilla of traditional boats have engaged over 500 people to date in four locations (Huwair, Chibayish, Hit and Hilla). These events are very special opportunities for people from all backgrounds and walks of life to experience the art and beauty of boats, and to access the river and wetland environments which are an essential element of Mesopotamian history, but were often no-go areas during times of conflict. These boats are national icons that have survived many past times of crisis, and still have the power to bring people together and generate pride in post-conflict Iraq.

Heritage for the future

Through future stages of the Ark for Iraq project, we aim to continue supporting the rediscovery of the endangered art of making traditional boats, in order to preserve Iraqi cultural heritage and foster opportunities for sustainable tourism, leisure and sporting uses of boats. In partnership with makers and local institutions, we are working to create hubs throughout Iraq to transfer endangered boatbuilding techniques to the next generation and to introduce new uses of traditional boats. We are also working toward publishing academic papers on the project’s discoveries about the traditional roles of boats, and insights into the classification and possible construction details of historical boats.