Anonymous donor gives £11m to London’s UCL to fund study of ancient Mesopotamia

Additional funding will support teaching and research of the region’s heritage, history and languages

An Iraqi woman walks on June 15, 2020 towards the Great Ziggurat temple, a massive Sumerian stepped mudbrick construction dedicated to the moon god Nanna which dates back to 2100 BC in the ancient city of Ur that falls now in southern Iraq's Dhi Qar province, 375 kilometers (235 miles) southeast of Baghdad. - The location of the city of Ur, where the Bible says Abraham was born, is one of Iraq's oldest archaeological sites of the ancient region of Mesopotamia. (Photo by Asaad NIAZI / AFP)
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An anonymous philanthropist gave more than £11 million ($15m) to University College London to support the teaching and research of the heritage, history and languages of ancient Mesopotamia.

The funding will build on the UCL-led Nahrein Network. This seeks to end the systematic exclusion of researching and remembering Middle Eastern history in Iraq and the wider region.

The network also seeks to tackle the effect of major population growth – particularly in the context of instability, poverty and unemployment among young people.

The donation will fund Nahrein’s work for the next decade.

UCL’s president and provost Dr Michael Spence said it was “a seminal moment in the decolonisation of knowledge production in Iraq and other regions in the Global South”.

The Nahrein Network has until now been funded by the UK Research and Innovation Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Global Challenges Research Fund.

UCL’s head of history, Prof Eleanor Robson, said ancient Mesopotamia had only really been the subject of academic interest since the 19th century, with most studies coming from a western perspective.

“This outstandingly generous donation will help transcend barriers associated with a fragile, post-conflict state and ensure Iraqis can reclaim their ancient heritage as local history – with all the social, cultural, economic and educational benefits that can bring,” she said.

“Since 2014, the destruction of heritage sites throughout Syria and Iraq has received widespread publicity, with talk of a ‘race against time’ to preserve what remains.

Print by Gilbert, 1881. | Location: Babylon, Mesopotamia. (Photo by Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)
Experts said ancient Mesopotamia had only really been the subject of academic interest since the 19th century. Corbis via Getty Images

“International projects have invested millions in the documentation, digitisation and conservation of threatened and damaged buildings and archaeological sites across the Middle East.

"However, only a few of these projects focused on the interests and impact on the ground for local people in their communities. It is the longer-term impact on them that is the priority for the Nahrein Network," Prof Robson said.

The additional resources are expected to strengthen work between UCL and Iraqi universities.

"This new funding will strengthen the work of Iraqi researchers and heritage experts to address the impact of decades of conflict, war and neglect. It will provide an important resource for Iraqi researchers, universities and civil society," said Dr Mehiyar Kathem, who will soon become the deputy head of the Nahrein Network.

Circa 700 BC, Soldiers of the Assyrian army besieging a city, using a battering ram, on a wall-carving, Mesopotamia. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Circa 700 BC, soldiers of the Assyrian army besieging a city, using a battering ram, on a wall-carving, Mesopotamia. Getty Images

Dr Rozhen Mohammed-Amin of Sulaimani Polytechnic University in Iraq said he planned "to carry out innovative interdisciplinary research and capacity building in digital cultural heritage and digital architecture in Iraq".

“These cutting-edge and promising research areas are barely heard of, undertaken, or even understood in the country,” she said.