When he first glided through the Euphrates as a child in his grandfather’s “tarada,” a traditional Mesopotamian boat, Jaafar Jotheri had no way of knowing that nearly four decades later he would wind up working to bring knowledge of Iraq’s maritime heritage to a new generation of university students.
“We are surrounded by maritime heritage,” says Jotheri, an assistant professor in geoarchaeology at the University of Al-Qadisiyah, “so why are we not teaching it? We need our students to learn more about it.”
Traditional boats like the tarada are iconic in Iraq and represent a tradition of maritime craftsmanship that persisted on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers since earliest recorded history—until successive conflicts over the past four decades ruptured the intergenerational paths of handing down knowledge of these crafts and pushed them to the edge of extinction.
Relative to archaeological studies on land, Iraq’s maritime heritage has received little attention. (See the related articles “Archaeologists Plan Post-Islamic-State Future in Iraq” and “Hopeful Vision Rises from An Ancient Iraqi Site.”)
But that is beginning to change through the work of academics like Jotheri, who is co-developing the country’s first maritime heritage curriculum unit, and fieldwork by pioneers like the Iraqi-German expeditionary artist Rashad Salim, who has sought to capture and preserve the knowledge of the dwindling number of craftspeople who still build ancient Iraqi boats.
Preserving Traditional Knowledge
By safeguarding maritime crafts and traditional ecological knowledge, Salim hopes to revitalize Iraq’s riverine culture and help Iraqis engage with a central part of their past.
Although Salim’s fascination with boats is longstanding, it was in 2013, while participating in the Tigris River Flotilla from southeastern Turkey to the marshes of southern Iraq to raise awareness about the ecological threats facing the Tigris, that his interests and studies collided into their current trajectory.