Iraq - Background information

People and culture


Samarra Minaret Iraq by wo yu liang, ShutterstockIraq’s magnificent, ancient archaeological sites have acted as a magnet for visitors to the country throughout the centuries. It is a land where clay tablets, cylinder seals, painted murals, ziggurats and ruins of temples and palaces shed light on life in ancient times. The deciphering of cuneiform script in the 19th century advanced greatly the study of these ancient sites and was paralleled with a better understanding of biblical, Old Testament texts which had motivated many archaeologists and explorers. As fresh sites were discovered, more and more cuneiform tablets were uncovered leading to yet more knowledge. In this guidebook we describe many sites in later chapters, so this chapter on archaeology discusses the subject in general terms.

It is the romance of these ancient places that has inspired travellers, archaeologists and historians for so many years. To visit that most ancient site, Tell Ubaid, most probably sited on the ancient line of the now-receded Gulf, and to see on the ground small sherds of Tell Ubaid pottery with its distinctive greenish colour and painted black stripes is to be transported back over 6,000 years to the beginnings of the long journey to our present cities and way of life. This isolated, windy, desolate place needs to be seen by all.

Fast forward to 800–600BC, and quoting from Austen Henry Layard’s 1851 abridged book Nimroud and its Ruins.

‘In the middle of April I left Mosul for Baghdad. As I descended the Tigris on a raft, I again saw the ruins of Nimroud, and had a better opportunity of examining them. It was evening as we approached the spot. The spring rains had clothed the mound with the richest verdure, and the fertile meadows which stretched around it, were covered with flowers of every hue. Amidst this luxuriant vegetation were partly concealed a few fragments of bricks, pottery and alabaster, upon which might be traced the well-defined wedges of cuneiform characters ... my curiosity, had been greatly excited, and from that time I formed the design of thoroughly examining whenever it might be within my power, these singular remains.’

Today, how many of us would love to travel down that part of the Tigris by raft and view an unexcavated mound of such proportions as we flow past? The site of Nimrud can still inspire such romance and now the palaces and temples are revealed with the Temple of Ishtar at the foot of the great ziggurat which stands proudly over the ruins. You can imagine Agatha Christie washing excavated pots and sherds in the dig house which still stands there, while her husband, Sir Max Mallowan directed excavations. In the spring the flowers still persist making this just as Layard describes.

I have my own special memory of Nimrud, despite my many visits. I recall visiting the site with my tour group and being met by Sayid Muzahim, the resident archaeologist and discoverer of the famous golden Nimrud treasure. He climbed out of a trench at the Ishtar Gate and, somewhat excitedly, showed me the two remarkably small (for Assyria) carved bulls guarding the Gate. I was not allowed to take photos, but Muzahim asked me to convey his photos and drawings to ‘Dr John at the BM. Now, some years later, the two bulls are a centrepiece of the Nimrud display in the new galleries in the Iraq National Museum for all to see.

Read more about the archaeology and history of Iraq.


Except for the narrow strip of land providing access to the Persian Gulf (the Arabs call it the Arabian Gulf) known as the Shatt Al-Arab, Iraq is landlocked, with Iran to the east, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to the south, Jordan and Syria to the west and Turkey to the north. With an area of 441,839km2, it is slightly larger than Sweden. Iraq’s landscape is dominated by two rivers, the Tigris (1,850km long, of which 1,418km are in Iraq) and the Euphrates (2,350km long, of which 1,213km are in Iraq). The two rivers are separated from each other by 400km of open plain when they emerge from Turkey’s Taurus Mountains and flow into Iraq. The Tigris flows southwards, the Euphrates to the southeast. Near Baghdad they are separated by a mere 32km. At Querna in southern Iraq, reputed to be the site of the Garden of Eden, their waters join the Shatt Al-Arab.

For centuries the silt of the rivers, deposited in the valleys through which they flow, has ensured the fertility of the soil. The rivers’ waters are also essential for irrigation. Floods, most common in March, April and May, have caused serious problems for centuries, as Sumerian legends and the biblical story of the flood tell us. In 1954 Baghdad was devastated by a flood that killed thousands and resulted in an estimated US$50 million worth of damage.

Lake Dukan Kurdistan by Eric LafforgueLake Dukan, Iraqi Kurdistan © Eric Lafforgue

Iraq is made up of the snow-clad mountains of the north and northeast (which account for 20% of the land area); the desert (whichaccounts for 59%); and the flat lowland alluvial plain in the south, famous for its unique swamps and marshlands. This area was once the home of some 250,000 Marsh Arabs, also known as the Madan, whose unique lifestyle dated back to 3000BC, the time of the Sumerians.

Today, the Marsh Arabs are returning to their traditional way of life as Saddam’s drainage of the marshes is being reversed. The Kurds, meanwhile, inhabit the mountainous region, a thin crescent around the upper rim of the country extending from Dohuk to Erbil and Suleimaniyah, with magnificent snow-clad peaks ranging from 1,000m to more than 3,600m near the Iranian and Turkish borders. The mountains of Kurdistan Iraq form a natural barrier between Turkey and Iran and are a traditional area of refuge from the heat of the plains. On the lower slopes the temperate climate and plentiful rainfall make the growing of fruit, vegetables, grain and tobacco possible. The rest of the country’s population is concentrated along the Tigris and Euphrates, whose waters are the lifeblood of the country.

Finally, the desert, where Bedouin live off their herds of camels, goats and sheep, has been described in a geography textbook as ‘an area so desolate and uninviting that even a rattlesnake would feel lonely there’.

People and culture

Culturally Iraq has a very rich heritage and today, despite Iraq’s political hardships, literary and artistic pursuits flourish, especially in Baghdad, where Western artistic traditions (including ballet, theatre and modern art) are juxtaposed with more traditional Middle Eastern forms of artistic expression. Music and cinema are again becoming popular. The country is known for its poets and poetry still thrives in Iraq with 20th-century Iraqi poets, such as Muhammad Mahdi al Jawahiri, Nazik al Malaika (one of the Arab world’s most prominent woman poets), Badr Shakir al Sayyab, and Abd al Wahhab al Bayati, renowned throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Iraqi painters and sculptors are among the best in the Middle East, and some of them, such as Ismail Fattah Turk, Khalid al Rahhal, and Muhammad Ghani, have become world renowned. Iraq is known for producing fine handicrafts and the government is endeavouring to preserve traditional arts and crafts such as leather and copper work. The architecture of Iraq is seen in the sprawling metropolis of Baghdad, where the construction is mostly new, with some islands of exquisite old buildings and compounds, and elsewhere in thousands of ancient and modern sites across Iraq.

Saz Iraq by Eric LafforgueA child playing a saz © Eric Lafforgue

Music is important to Iraqis. Traditional Iraqi music is informal and largely improvised, the life of asong being marked by the changes introduced by succeeding generations. The ability to improvise and embellish a melody still constitutes one of the standards by which a performer is judged. Well-known traditional instruments include the oud (similar to a lute), the rebab (similar to a violin), the riqq (a type of tambourine) and the darbuka (a hand drum). Famous oud players include Munir Bashir, Salem Abdul Karim, Nasir Shamaa, Ali Emam and Riad Hoshabr.

The story of Iraqi art starts with the splendid Mesopotamian civilisation and its Sumerian glazed-brick architecture with colourful designs dating back to 4500BC. Throughout the centuries, art has reflected the values and taste of the society from which it has emerged. When the Assyrian kings of ancient times ruled in 1400BC, art was an official profession that ensured the rulers’ exploits were glorified and immortalised. The ‘professional’ Assyrian artists created statues of winged bulls that once guarded the palace portals and city gates, and recorded the life of their kings in magnificent, larger-than-life murals depicting hunting, wars and battles.

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