A new UNESCO publication pays tribute to Iraqi cultural heritage

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© UNESCO

Far less known in the Western world than Mecca, the Iraqi city of Najaf, a sacred site for Shi’a Muslims 160 km south of Baghdad, is also visited by millions of pilgrims every year. At a time where conflict has dramatically escalated in the country, a new UNESCO publication pays tribute to the spiritual and educational relevance of this city, while helping it maintain its identity and safeguard its unique role for millions of believers.

The city most likely began life as an isolated, water-scarce burial mound west of the Euphrates, where Imam ‘Ali, considered by the Shi'a the rightful successor of Prophet Muhammad of whom he was the cousin and son-in-law, is believed to be buried. A holy shrine was erected in the eighth century CE to worthily hold his remains. This shrine became the heart around which Najaf started forming and growing into the learning centre and buoyant pilgrimage city it is today. 

Najaf: The Gate of Wisdom invites readers to discover the city’s history, urban plan and religious architecture as well as the faces and rituals populating its streets and Grand Bazaar. The book also gives unprecedented access to the city’s many and well-renowned libraries, seminaries and schools where precious manuscripts are being preserved, and where the teaching of Islam is being imparted in a way that reinforces interfaith dialogue and access to high-quality education for women. 

As the book also shows, the funerary aspect of the city still contributes to its reputation. In the north and north-west of Najaf lies Wadi al-Salam (‘Valley of Peace’), the largest cemetery on earth. Shi’a Muslims worldwide aspire to be buried next to ‘Ali in the hope of sharing his eternal light and wisdom. As a result, some 200 burials are performed on a regular day in this place where crypts can hold up to fifty bodies and whose boundaries the eye cannot seem to grasp. But such a resting place is barely adequate these days. As The Wall Street Journal reported early July, plots are running out and many are being stolen, illegally resold or improvised to receive an increasing number of victims of violence. 

Like many other cities in the world, Najaf is faced today with problems of demographic growth, infrastructure development, physical conservation, internal equilibrium and functioning, all of which is pushed to a limit by the millions of pilgrims who visit annually and require services. For several years now UNESCO has been working intensely on the protection and conservation of the Iraqi tangible and intangible cultural heritage, including through a number of initiatives in Najaf. But while UNESCO was working on this publication, conflict in Iraq increased radically, suddenly giving this book an altogether different meaning. 

This publication, made possible thanks to the generous contribution of the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, echoes the many appeals of Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova to stop intentional destruction of religious and cultural heritage sites in Iraq. It also supports the Emergency Response Action Plan agreed upon in July between UNESCO and Iraqi and international cultural heritage experts to ensure the implementation of international agreements on the protection of cultural heritage from armed conflict, deliberate destruction and illicit trafficking. Last but not least, it is a testimony of the heritage and significance of a city where pilgrims and students from many countries gather to share knowledge and a common history.