5 Ways To Explore Iraqi Heritage Sites From Home

Ancient artefacts and sites of heritage are prone to calamities, both natural and manmade. Recently, the world has witnessed some unexpected incidents which have damaged sites such as the fire to the 200 year old National Museum of Brazil and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Notre Dame Cathedral in France. Restoration is often slow or at times impossible. Cultural sites embodying hundreds of years of history and heritage are prone to damage, regardless of whether they are protected, simply due to the natural corrosion that comes with age.

There is a growing need and movement to use technology to preserve cultural heritage by digitising them into timeless relics. Doing so makes them accessible to more people around the world and preserves their historical importance in the face of potential risks. This also ensures that heritage sites, collections and museums are still accessible for future generations – an aspect key to heritage preservation.

In Iraq, the damage from ISIS, recurring wars, and simply neglect have posed serious risks of catastrophic loss. However, several institutions have used technology to preserve several sites in Iraq, allowing for accurate and precise iterations of the site at risk, as well as providing channels for virtual and remote access for people to globally appreciate the treasures of Iraqi heritage.

Below are some initiatives that have digitised key cultural and religious heritage sites in Iraq. These have been growing in number over the years, so if you ever stumble upon a similarly cool initiative that has allowed you to visit another Iraqi heritage site, please don’t hesitate to let us know

1. Take a Stroll in Babylon’s Ruins

Once home to one of the seven original wonders of the world, the site of Babylon was recognised by UNESCO in 2019 and inscribed on the World Heritage List. The World Monuments Fund (WMF), along with Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), has been working since 2008 on conserving the fragile archaeological remains of Babylon. The site was documented, condition surveys completed and conservation plans developed. 

CyArk’s Babylon Virtual Tour

The digital scanning of Babylon that came through this project and subsequent drawing documentation allowed SBAH to work with CyArk, a non-profit dedicated to digital documentation tools for cultural heritage. Today, CyArk allows you to explore Ishtar Gate ruins accompanied with descriptions of various aspects of the ruins with informative explanations of engravings and symbols. 

Visit Babylon now: https://www.cyark.org/projects/babylon/overview

2. Cyber Travel to Karbala

In 2019, we talked about ways that technology can enhance your arbaeen visit to Karbala. With travel becoming limited with the pandemic, many miss their annual or bi-annual visits to Karbala’s Imam Hussain (a.s) shrine. While not as exciting as using tech to enhance your trip in-person, visiting Karbala virtually could help with the blues that come with not being able to travel freely. In addition to again preserving the heritage and precisions of the shrine, the virtual tour has allowed the Ataba Hussainiya to digitise the shrine for people around the world. With the usual crowds in the shrine, it may be a good idea to calmly explore the spots in the shrine you wouldn’t usually have the time and ability to do in person. 

Virtual Tour of Imam Hussain (a.s) shrine

Visit Karbala with a click of a button: https://app.imamhussain.org/tour/

3. Discover the Art and Soul of Mosul

Most of us have only heard of Mosul in the news as a place that has suffered under ISIS. However, the city holds memories and a heritage that dates back to the 25th Century BCE. In partnership with the Iraqi community radio station, Al Ghad radio, Google Arts and Culture recently launched its initiative to shed light on the art and history of Mosul, as well as support contemporary Mosulian artists. 

The digitised tour of Mosul allows you to discover Mosul’s Old City using street view and explore at-risk heritage sites, including Mosul’s first mosque and one of it’s oldest churches. In addition, you get to know some of Mosul’s people, its artists, and their paintings. An insider perspective is also given on the lives of women and children during and after the war to shed light on the stories of the people behind the statistics in the news.

Al Nouri Minaret – Google Arts and Culture

Explore Mosul today: https://artsandculture.google.com/project/mosul

4. Visit Najaf On Screen

Normally, Najaf would see hundreds of thousands of visitors and pilgrims visit Imam Ali (a.s)’s shrine. While the narrow alleyways leading to the shrines may not be as populated, the shrine’s official website provides the chance to virtually explore the shrine and give people around the world an opportunity to visit. It is a good chance to explore parts of the shrine you may not have known of and visit the shrine from the angles that are usually too crowded to reach! 

Virtually tour Imam Ali (a.s)’s shrine: https://www.imamali.net/vtour/


5. Virtually Hike Kurdistan’s Mountains

Home to heritage sites such as Erbil’s Citadel inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2014 or Shanidar Cave dating back up to 65,000 years ago, Kurdistan’s cities of Erbil, Sulaimaniya and Dohuk hold many treasures worth exploring. Zoom Kurdistan created by virtual tour creator Rezan Zenal allows you to not only explore heritage sites, but walk through some of the streets and markets, learn about new spots such as restaurants and parks, and discover the region’s beautiful nature and mountains. 

Discover Kurdistan here: https://www.zoomkurdistan.com/

Technology has the potential to revolutionise how both citizens, visitors and Iraqis in the diaspora connect with the country’s history and heritage, providing insight into Iraq’s past. Ironically, modern and future technology may be the key to bringing us closer to the past and seeing Iraq beyond its recent political struggles. 

Khamael Al Safi

Khamael is passionate about understanding the work of startups and the stories of entrepreneurs, particularly those in Iraq. She is also passionate about helping young people build employability skills for the job market and has taught subjects in entrepreneurship, organisational behaviour and psychology to undergrad and postgrad students in London and Dubai. Having worked in consulting for both the private and public sector in the Middle East, she has been involved in training and advisory on corporate governance and accountability, as well as building open, trustworthy data ecosystems.

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