Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 12th March 2016

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Ark Re-Imagined to save Iraq’s cultural heritage

Rashad Salim in a guffa on the Tigris

Rashad Salim (R) in a guffa on the Tigris.

London - Noah’s Ark must have been built in ancient Mesopotamia with material and skills still found today in present-day Iraq and the Gulf region. This theory is explored by Iraqi artist Rashad Salim in his Ark Re-imagined project, which tries to raise awareness of the threats facing the region’s ancient maritime culture and traditional crafts.

Salim has long been engaged in efforts to salvage Mesopotamia’s unique cultural and navigation heritage. In 1977, he voyaged with the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl on a Tigris reed boat and in 2013 he joined an awareness raising flotilla of traditional boats that travelled down the Tigris starting in southern Turkey, site of the controversial Ilisu dam.

Salim cites recent research that indicates that 7,000-14,000 years ago Mesopotamia was a fertile inhabited valley extending from present-day Iraq, down through the Gulf to the Strait of Hormuz.

It was a time of radical environmental change when the Pleistocene epoch turned into the Holocene and, most likely, when the mythological great flood happened. “That means that the ark would have been built somewhere in that region,” Salim said.

In 2013, a team from the British Museum built a “round ark” based on a description of a boat found in a Sumerian cuneiform tablet but Salim is convinced that the “original ark” was not made with the techniques or materials the team used, such as wood, but of material worked with skills found to this day in the ancient Mesopotamia region.

“If there was a crisis (a great flood), people would not build something untried with material, tools and techniques they didn’t have,” Salim said.

“While travelling in traditional boats I had a vision of the ark, not as a singular boat, but as a gathering of different types of watercraft in a strong and natural pattern of unity: a unity of many vessels rather than a singular boat – the pattern of six around one.”

He added: “This is a key pattern in science engineering and Islamic art that are seen when things of the same diameter are gathered. It is a ubiquitous pattern in nature expressing itself in everything from honey bee cells to carbon molecules. It adorns the walls of Mesopotamia’s earliest temples and is even found in the great seal of the United States.”

The ark has traditionally been researched and imagined according to Western visions and interpretations.

“I am proposing an Arabian/Mesopotamian alternative… a rational ark acceptable to both Islamic and empirical sensibilities that could have been constructed with the technology and material of its original time and place,” Salim said, adding “an ark that can benefit present-day local (Iraqi) crafts and discover what we have evidence for but have forgotten.”

The artist will seek the skills of Iraqi craftspeople using techniques that go back thousands of years in order to create a large model of his “re-imagined ark”, which will sail down the Potomac, the Mississippi and Missouri rivers from May to July and down the Thames in September.

While international concern has been focused on the destruction of Iraq’s archaeological sites by the Islamic State, little attention is given to the loss of intangible cultural heritage, such as boat craftsmanship, Salim said.

In Iraq, notably southern Iraq and its unique marshlands ecosystem, this cultural heritage is most strongly reflected in architecture and construction of traditional boats, such as the tarada, kalak and guffa, in addition to associated industries, including basket weaving and products made from palm fronds-like mats – all components of the Ark Re-imagined.

Salim is adamant that Iraqis are losing their connection with the rivers and their traditional crafts are in danger of disappearing.

“Iraq was created by two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, which constituted the backbone of the country’s [economy]. At the turn of the 20th century, steamships were introduced by the British and the river trade was eventually overtaken by lorries and trains. Traditional boats that we can trace back through history and possibly pre-history have continued through the rises and falls of empires, but now we are losing them,” Salim bemoaned.

“The marsh Arab canoe has not changed its shape since Sumerian times. It has reached an aesthetic and functional perfection. But the marshes were drained, reclaimed then drained again and water is locally being diverted to rice plantations.”

Nonetheless, the artist is pinning big hopes on his Ark Re-imagined venture.

“I am witness to the last flicker of ancient watercraft and have discovered boats reportedly extinct. With this project, I will challenge reports that they are in terminal disappearance and aim to set in motion a resuscitation,” Salim said with the confidence and determination of a man on a mission.