Archaeology at UP: Unique Surveys Seek Treasures of Islamic Culture Heritage

A tea break during the survey of the ancient city of Old Makhmur: Czech archaeologists Karel Nováček (on the left) and Lenka Starková with Kurdish site guards and soldiers.
Wednesday 14 December 2016, 8:37 – Text: Milada Hronová

Unique sites from the Islamic era standing in the shadow of famous antique monuments in Iraqi Kurdistan have been explored in surveys by Karel Nováček, a Palacký University archaeologist. His survey, unparalleled on the European scale, brings forward specific data on Mosul architecture, vanishing from our sights in the aftermath of the war.

Originally a Medieval archaeologist with specialisation on Czech lands, Nováček became interested in the archaeology of Middle East after his scholarship in Cairo, Egypt.

More information on rare historic sites

“This journey in 2000 became an extraordinary motivation for me. I started to look for another opportunity to find a job in this part of the world. I started coming to Iraqi Kurdistan and since 2006 I have dedicated all my research to the Islamic era,” says Karel Nováček from the Department of History, UP Faculty of Arts. He refers to the period between the 7th and 19th centuries, during which however the majority of the local population remained Christian.

According to him, the Islamic era is today very attractive among archaeologists and resonates with the work conducted by other scientific teams in Kurdistan and the entire Middle East, which collaborate with the Czech team. The four-member team, which includes a specialist on the use of satellite images in archaeology, is a European pioneer among those who take an interest in Medieval Islamic architecture. “Those who had travelled to Mesopotamia usually studied the Assyrian era, the Bronze Age, or even older periods. The latest layer of settlement was of interest to barely anyone. And this is how information on almost two dozen vanished cities, still visible in the terrain, was lost to the world,” underlines the UP archaeologist, who has been collecting data on the unique historic structures in Iraqi Kurdistan for eleven years now. He and his team make expeditions out of their base in Erbil and explore sites which might conceal a historical masterpiece, with their hunches based on the satellite images.

“The satellite image reveals the size of the archaeological site, its approximate age and condition. Then we use GPS for further orientation, followed by a basic survey and documentation of what can be seen on the surface,” says Nováček about how they proceed in the terrain. Not all sites are accessible to archaeologists. The region has been stricken by war and some of the city ruins are located in the area of Central Tigris, inaccessible on a long-term basis. Similarly, they cannot approach the largest city of Northern Iraq, Mosul, whose destruction is being mapped by the archaeologists only via satellite imagery.


Digital models: the future of Mosul architecture

The architectural relics of Mosul, the most important city of Northern Iraq, have been mapped by archaeologists for many years, but none expected such a devastating turn of events.

“I have been visiting Kurdistan every year for many years, but I have never set foot in Mosul. More than three dozen historical buildings of innumerable value from the first half of the 13th century have fallen victim to the attacks by the so-called Islamic State, and all evidence points to the fact that Mosul’s unique architecture will not survive,” claims the archaeologist Karel Nováček. His frustration over the annihilation of the specific Shi’ite architecture is immense.

“The architects who built these structures were mostly Christian. They had extensive experience with Christian architecture and transferred such features to Mosul. In only this way could Mosul’s specific architectural world have been created. Today, most of the buildings have been destroyed, and they have not been even properly documented,” explains Nováček. Not only Mosul, but the whole global culture thus loses an architectural phenomenon which has no parallel. “The documentation of Mosul buildings is scattered in various collections, often private; only a small portion appears on the internet. We are trying to collect everything we can. We have been thoroughly documenting the destruction of the city. We have examined private collections and used the estates of researchers who had visited Mosul before us. We also contact people who come from Mosul and used to work or still work there,” says the archaeological rescuer from Palacký University.

They have recently returned from their mission in Kurdistan. And before they once again set out for the places of extraordinary architectural gems, they will process and evaluate the data which Mesopotamia is so abundant with. Some of the outcomes of their many years of work should become available by the end of 2016, when Oxford University Press publishes a monograph on Czech surveys into the vanished Iraqi cities in Southern Kurdistan. The public will certainly appreciate the exposition within the project Architecture in Danger that will be a virtual reconstruction of the city of Mosul. The exposition full of digital models and computer simulations will be launched in collaboration with the Czech Academy of Sciences in February 2017.


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