Airplanes swoosh over Al Najaf International Airport in Iraq, bringing pilgrims to one of the most important Islamic shrines, the presumed tomb of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib, a successor of the Prophet Muhammad. However, the pilgrims are unlikely to notice another significant site. Below them once stood the late ancient and early Islamic cultural metropolis of al-Ḥīra - the "Atlantis of Iraq." An interdisciplinary team from TU Berlin, the Museum of Islamic Art, and the Orient Department of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) has recently succeeded in more precisely locating settlement remains using magnetometer prospection to look below the surface. Targeted excavations and precise mappings will begin in spring 2022. Funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), the team hopes to gain a better understanding of life in Antiquity and the Early-Islam Era as well as during times of political and religious unrest.
"Between the 4th and 7th centuries, al-Ḥīra was the cultural center of the Lakhmid dynasty, south of the modern Iraqi cities of Najaf and Kufa on the lower Euphrates River", explains Dr.-Ing. Martin Gussone of the TU Berlin Chair of Building Archaeology and Heritage Conservation. Gussone is the project lead together with PD Dr. Martina Müller-Wiener of the Museum for Islamic Art. "The city was inhabited until the 10th century and, as a myth, was of great importance for the early Islamic city foundations and architectural development. Its magnificent palaces were extolled in famous poems of the time."
Today, the historical settlement area is encompassed by the two rapidly growing cities of Najaf and Kufa in the northwest and Abu Sukheir in the southeast, and is in serious danger due to construction and infrastructure projects, many of which have already seriously damaged the tell [an ancient mound in the Middle East composed of remains of successive settlements].
During the first project phase (2015– 2018), researchers conducted an archaeological survey while also implementing geophysical and photogrammetric methods to more precisely understand the location and expanse of the settlement area. Visible structures and concentrations of brick rubble and ceramics were surveyed by GPS and surface finds collected. The DFG originally awarded additional funding to the current three-year follow-up project in 2020. However, due to the pandemic, researchers were unable to conduct large-scale magnetometer prospection as well as archaeological and construction research in Iraq until late October 2021. The data are currently being evaluated to determine where to begin excavating in the spring.
The researchers are accustomed to overcoming hurdles. Not only the pandemic but also necessary security measures have restricted their work. Due to the ongoing war, it was impossible to conduct any research for a long time. But local interest in the work is high. Martin Gussone: "Our cooperation with the antiquities authorities in Iraq is very good. Our project benefits from the longstanding close collaboration between the DAI and Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. Joint work on documenting the material evidence is important to preserve the sites. We hope that archaeological priority areas will be established to protect what remains of the historical heritage."
Despite these adversities, the quality of the collected data is excellent, according to Gussone. Among other things, additional sites and floor plans of rooms, towers and a presumed church were identified. "The hill Tell K3 encompassed a dense, urban district with large buildings. It appears to be one of the primary settlement centers of ancient al-Ḥīra."
To bring new light to the shared Christian and Islamic history, it is also worthwhile learning how the buildings were repurposed in light of political and religious turmoil. Iraqi emergency excavations at the airport site have already uncovered the remains of two church buildings believed to be of late antiquity, which Dr.-Ing. Ibrahim Salman (DAI) more closely examined. Changes to the buildings and their liturgical furnishings could offer a better understanding of their temporary function as, for instance, an episcopal, parish, monastery, or family church or about the urban surroundings of al-Ḥīra.
"At the beginning of our work, knowledge about the settlement was primarily characterized by quasi-mythical, historical traditions. Now we are expecting to gain not only a detailed architectonic understanding of the settlement areas and other buildings during the upcoming excavation. We also hope to get further information about the shape and history of this important settlement."
Project title: "Al-Hira in Late Antiquity and the Early Islamic Era – Processes of Urban Transformation in a Trans-Regional Contact Zone" A joint project of the Chair of Building Archaeology at TU Berlin (Prof.-Dr.-Ing. Thekla Schulz-Brize), the Museum of Islamic Art (PD Dr. Martina Müller-Wiener), and the German Archaeological Institute/Orient Department (Dr. Dr. Margarete van Ess)