Cultural Heritage Preservation

Cultural Heritage Preservation

Preserving the cultural heritage of today’s Middle East is essential to the Abraham Path mission. We believe that we can connect history with the present day by walking trails, documenting the evolution of rituals and practices, and celebrating the diversity of traditions that enrich this region. From Abraham’s legendary walk through ancient Mesopotamia and the hospitality he showered on strangers he and his family met, to traditions of embroidery in the Aramaic-speaking Syriac Catholic community of the Nineveh Plains. From ethnic minority agricultural practices along the Tigris River, to multi-generational families of olive oil soap-makers on the Jordan River. And from recipes requiring eggplants from a tiny town in Syria to Bedouin songs extending from Sinai to the Arabian peninsula. Together with the tangible heritage of ancient cities and storied kingdoms, these comprise the mosaic of human history that was and is the soul of the region we call “the Middle East.”

With 2022-2023 funding from the ALIPH Foundation, API is focusing on peoples and cultures of the Kurdistan and Nineveh Governorates of Northern Iraq. Cultural identities of this region date back through centuries of civilizations, with differing linguistic and ethnic communities, shifting political systems, and wide-ranging religious traditions. The stories that emerge from this diversity over time, from sacred mountains and family shrines, to songs of heroism and a grandmother’s signature recipe, have been threatened by war, dictatorship, diaspora, and neglect. API will bring these stories to the world so we all may experience the cultures and histories of the lands that locals so dearly call “home.” 

Home is a theme with which retired API Fellow Stephanie Saldaña began her cultural heritage pursuit. Beginning with the API-funded Mosaic Stories project in 2016, Saldaña pioneered research and storytelling in northern Iraq and Syria among people surviving conflict. In 2023 she expects to publish a book (her third) based on this source material, focusing on displaced Iraqis and Syrians who fled their homelands and built futures abroad as farmers, pharmacists, bakers, songwriters, and textile designers elsewhere in the world.

Wounded Tigris

API Fellow Leon McCarron's first project with the Abraham Path was to walk all the trails that Abraham Path had catalyzed in the region by 2016. His book on that adventure, The Land Beyond, A Thousand Miles on Foot Through the Heart of the Middle East, was published in 2017. Since then McCarron has led the development of API’s flagship project: a long-distance walking trail in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Additionally, in 2021, with former Fellow Emily Garthwaite, he spent three months paddling down the Tigris River, from source to sea, documenting the ecology, cultures, and challenges to the river’s health.

Company of Many

2021 API Fellows Lisa Dupuy and Daniel Maissan set out on a quest, aptly named Meeting Abraham, in 2019 to engage with people named Abraham or Ibrahim at each of their stops across Southwest Asia. The project began as an effort to transcend the often inaccurate tropes of the Middle East. Maissan and Dupuy strove to document - in text and photo - the communities they encountered in Jordan, Turkey, and Iraqi Kurdistan. In 2021, the project evolved into Company of Many, gathering “short stories of a bigger picture” to share ideas and experiences without limiting themselves to Ibrahims.

API researcher Sister Makrina Finlay, Ph.D., is undertaking one of the first attempts to research and articulate the principles of xêr, an Ezidi practice best understood as a good religious deed that brings blessing. Examples of xêr range from baking bread to honoring the dead to visiting the holy temple of Lalish and the shrines in Shingal (also known as Sinjar). Until the genocide in 2014, the practice of xêr was woven so finely into the fabric of religious and social life that, for Ezidis, it needed no further explanation. However, the destruction of shrines, where many forms of xêr had been practiced, as well as the realities of displacement and poverty, have upset not only the physical structures that made communal life function; they have also upset the infrastructure of xêr

This project will explore the basis and various forms of xêr, work with Ezidis as they adjust to their new circumstances, and articulate how xêr has been and can again become a source of strength, religious comfort, and unity.

Fahad Shammo (left) and Sr. Makrina Finlay (right) outside Sheikh Mand Shrine (photo by Anisa Mehdi)

Sister Makrina is visiting shrines, attending significant feasts and festivals, and engaging with Ezidi community members in Northern Iraq. The project will provide material for eight short films that demonstrates xêr as the basis of Ezidi society and religion. Results of these research and preservation efforts will be preserved as films to share with the global community.

Dressing Bakhdeda

The Assyrian Aid Society is researching and producing a series of short films focused on the traditional practice of embroidering dresses within the Syriac Catholic community of Baghdeda (also known as Qaraqosh), Iraq. Featured in the films will be the single surviving man who weaves the fabrics and three women textile workers. Interviewees will talk about their family history, how textile designs evolve, the role of the market and agriculture in production, and the impact of the ISIS invasion on this heritage. The dresses of Baghdeda consist of intricately embroidered fabrics with scenes of churches, weddings, and traditional farming, adorned with written Aramaic. These textiles are equivalent to texts and narratives containing important historical and cultural information about the city. They have become a veritable library of the city’s past and emerging present. Results of these research and preservation efforts will be preserved as films to share with the global community.