The ILUCIDARE Folks series is back! This time we are interviewing Shireen Younis Ismael, PhD in Urban Planning - Heritage Conservation/Lecturer at the University of Duhok - College of Engineering, and a member of the Steering Committee of Development in Amedi, Iraqi Kurdistan.
Dr. Ismael has dedicated a good part of her career to investigating the rich cultural heritage of Amedi and advocating for policies that prioritize conservation in order to keep this treasure alive. Her decade-long research and unwavering persuasion in raising awareness around this topic have resulted in Amedi being accepted to integrate UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites for Iraq in 2011, and nominated on the World Monuments Watch List in 2016.
To give you an idea of the challenge Dr. Ismael was (and still is) up against, her 2014 doctorate was the first Ph.D. in conservation ever accredited in Kurdistan. In spite of Dr. Ismael’s major achievements, Amedi still faces severe cultural heritage issues today, particularly around the conservation of its historical buildings. That is why Dr. Ismael will be leading the next ILUCIDARE event in the region, a capacity-building taking place in Autumn and Winter 2021.
But what makes Amedi such a special place? What are the most pressing challenges at the moment? And most importantly, how is the ILUCIDARE network contributing to overcome them? Let’s find out!
Amedi, an Iraqi treasure
Amedi is a hill historic town rich in heritage and natural beauty. Located in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, around 90Km to the northeast of Duhok, it is a deeply symbolic site for the Kurdish and Iraqi people. Best known as the powerful capital of the Bahdinan Emirate (1376-1843), Amedi's history probably begins during the Median period (c. First millennium BC). The ancient citadel is dramatically perched on top of a steep promontory surrounded by pristine hillsides. Archaeological remains, a characteristic urban morphology and building fabric, an elaborated medieval city gate, and distinctive community traditions are the cultural hallmarks of this important historic town.
The Amedi area is also renowned for its mix of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish heritage (Dr. Ismael tells us that it is possible to find a mosque, a church, and a synagogue within walking distance of each other!), as well as breath-taking natural landscapes. In 1970, several of the monuments within Amedi were registered in the Iraq National Gazette of Archaeological Sites. Other archaeological features, historic buildings and quarters, not yet part of this official list, as well as stories about the city passed down from generations by means of oral tradition (what we call intangible heritage), are testimonies of the great past of the city.
Since 2011, a small group of professionals from the University of Duhok, led by Dr. Ismael, has been working with limited resources as champions to protect Amedi’s cultural heritage. Even during chaotic times, they have implemented various activities ranging from basic documentation to priorities and needs assessment. Despite the social and economic difficulties and the state of the conflict in the region, they have leveraged the support of the local community and municipality, the Duhok Governor, and the Kurdish heritage authorities - all on board to protect Amedi!
Stepping stone: the ILUCIDARE coaching session
The first ILUCIDARE event held in Amedi in 2019 already tried to lift some stones (pun intended) and pave the way to enable the town’s potential for development through the preservation of its cultural heritage. An ILUCIDARE coaching session was carried out with a focus on eco-system innovations, as well as linking traditional techniques and crafts to the larger socio-economic context. The discussions that took place enabled the participants –officials from the Antiquities, Municipalities, and Governorates offices - to evaluate the local level of capacity, define local needs and heritage assets, and understand which components of heritage-led innovation and international relations are useful for the local context.
The ILUCIDARE coaching session was a preparation for the ILUCIDARE capacity building, taking place very soon, in Autumn and Winter 2021. The information gathered during the coaching session was used by ILUCIDARE partners to co-develop and set up the agenda for the next activities (capacity building). Among these partners is the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based non-profit that works to preserve cultural heritage sites – with a long experience in Amedi, namely in collaboration with the local authorities, their input and advice in dialogues on Amedi’s necessities and priorities proved essential.
The coaching session already accomplished a key purpose – raising awareness among local actors (government, municipality, residents) that the protection of heritage is an important step for the sustainable development of Amedi. Many of the participants supported the initiative, declared their interest in participating in the capacity building, and mentioned that it is something needed. So, what challenges can we expect the next phase of the project to address?
Challenges of cultural heritage protection in Amedi
“Preservation should be considered not as a burden, but as a resource for something else”
The challenges in Amedi are not so distant from those faced by many other towns around the globe: how to combine conservation needs with the economic development needs of the inhabitants. “Preservation should be considered not as a burden, but as a resource for something else”, says Dr. Ismael. However, intersectional factors remain that make the preservation of cultural heritage in Amedi particularly difficult to prioritize and materialize. Dr. Ismael is quick to identify the most pressing issues.
Firstly, there is a lack of skilled people among the working population to conduct actual conservation, which, again, stems largely from the meager importance given to the maintenance of traditional construction techniques. “We have only two or three families that have inherited these traditional techniques from their ancestors", explains Dr. Ismael. The transmission of knowledge works in an informal way, passed in discourse from one generation to the other. Since there are no records being kept of how to acquire or develop these skills, there is a risk that this traditional knowledge might soon be lost.
Secondly, there are significant differences of opinion on the importance of conservation among residents and government institutions, which makes it difficult to make decisions regarding the allocation of public funds in this area. "People have different opinions - some are pro historic buildings, some are against it, and they prefer new buildings with new materials”, Dr. Ismael reveals. Amedi's one-square-kilometre area means space is at a premium, which requires constant reconciliation between the maintenance of historical buildings and the financing of new infrastructure projects.
The political agenda around rebuilding and reconstruction is also impacted by the state of the ongoing conflict in the region. Although Amedi has not been directly hit by these destructive attacks, other towns in its perimeter have. In this scenario, governments and international organisations focus more on infrastructure building rather than conservation issues. “Water networks, electricity - these basic needs of the people are their first concern, and conservation takes a secondary role”, Dr. Ismael explains.
Finally, advocacy efforts are made all the more difficult due to a lack of organizational infrastructure in the region. For a long time, Dr. Ismael has been the only one advocating for heritage conservation in Amedi and admits to often feeling isolated in this quest. There are no local heritage institutions in the region, and no ongoing conservation projects either. Nevertheless, Dr. Ismael remains optimistic and sees the problem not in whether there is potential for conservation to uplift Amedi, but rather in the ways that this potential is being communicated to the relevant stakeholders.
"What we need is a role model inspirational project that works"
Even if the community understands the relevance of heritage preservation from a historical point of view, it is harder to visualize how this effort will result in tangible opportunities for the future development of Amedi. Dr. Ismael believes that “what we need is a role model inspirational project that works - one good example to show the benefits of heritage preservation, how it can attract tourism and create jobs”. This creates a dilemma – if there is no such project to prove the value of heritage preservation, no investment will be made; however, in order to make such a project happen, investment is needed in the first place.
Solving the puzzle: ILUCIDARE actions to strengthen heritage capacity in Amedi
The question remains: how can ILUCIDARE work around these challenges and leverage heritage preservation to empower the city of Amedi and its people? Dr. Ismael shared with us some valuable thoughts on this matter, including concrete actions to help take conservation in the region to the next step. Although there are no quick fixes, we must start today if we want to reap the benefits of conservation in the future. According to Dr. Ismael, the answer starts with addressing education first.
Placing conservation as a priority in the political agenda in the region takes, first and foremost, forming a new generation of architects specialized in conservation issues. During her experience as a professor at the University of Duhok, Dr. Ismael has found that conservation receives very limited attention in the universities curriculums: “Architecture and urban planning departments don’t stress the importance of preservation in urban design. We need to add this layer to our curriculum”. This is an opportunity for the ILUCIDARE network to step in and use its network to support the review of the academic curriculums.
Another way that the ILUCIDARE network can help is through funding research. Dr. Ismael can think of various investigative perspectives to show how the conservation of traditional buildings can contribute to the greater wellbeing of the population. For instance, the research could focus on “the compatibility between the traditional building techniques and materials with their own environment”. Stone, the primary material of traditional buildings, is particularly good at absorbing, storing, and radiating heat; making it a great choice for improving the energy efficiency of households during Amedi’s long and harsh winters and contributing to solving environmental sustainability issues.
Another angle worth exploring through research is the economic opportunities generated by conservation.
"Amedi is full of potential for the development of tourism"
To what extent can investment in the preservation of historical buildings boost job creation? How can conservation efforts improve the touristic attraction of the city? Dr. Ismael reports that “Amedi is full of potential for the development of tourism attraction because it is surrounded with a lot of natural tourism spots known not only in Iraq but internationally". The Sulav Resort, for instance, a well-known natural park with a waterfall, lies only 3 km north of Amedi. However, Dr. Ismael points out that a recent study found that “only 10% of the people who are visiting Sulav also visit Amedi”.
Day by day, Dr. Ismael regrets to see Amedi losing its tourist attraction, “because the historical stone buildings are often covered in a cement layer, and there are no specific guidelines to protect the landscape. There is also no tourism service in the city prepared to receive tourists”. However, Dr. Ismael is confident that, once enough research is conducted and made available, the results will prove the value of conservation. And, when the government sees proposals backed by data, they will be better informed and well-equipped to understand the powerful opportunities that heritage conservation can unlock.
Towards a sustainable future for the protection of cultural heritage
What we have heard so far from Dr. Ismael leaves us with the lingering feeling that there is much yet to be done in Amedi - and that the solution must take into account the needs of the population. This is why the next ILUCIDARE activity, the capacity-building, was designed around the following central idea: to drive local actors toward the reinsertion of traditional architecture as an important cultural asset, an anti-seismic tool, and an ecological choice toward a better sustainable future and toward innovation.
The activities planned include lectures on traditional construction technologies and their importance for sustainability, ecology, and anti-seismic prevention, as well as practical exercises on traditional construction techniques. The purpose of this capacity building is to form local government actors who can in the future propose more sustainable choices for conservation and reconstruction in historic centres, and start a conversation about the protection of heritage and sustainable development in Kurdistan.
It will take collaborative action and a strong commitment to enabling actors to take the leap, and give heritage preservation a chance - but ILUCIDARE is up for the challenge!
Find out more about Amedi:
ILUCIDARE Folks is a series of conversations with people encountered as part of ILUCIDARE activities, which was created to share inspiring and enthralling profiles and stories. Read more!