Young Iraqis row a flotilla of traditional wooden boats down the Tigris River in Baghdad, celebrating an ancient nautical heritage in the now drought-stricken country.
Once a common sight across Iraq’s southern streams and marshlands, the elongated boats with tapered bows and sterns known as meshhouf have been around “since the time of the Sumerians”, said event organiser Rashad Salim.
But the elegant watercraft have long been vastly outnumbered by modern, motorised vessels and are threatened further as Iraq’s waterways suffer from droughts linked to climate change.
Iraq must save “from extinction an essential facet of our civilisation which has existed for four or five millennia”, said Salim, co-founder of Safina Projects, which works to preserve Iraq’s traditional boating culture.
Salim, 62, is a painter, sculptor and eco-artist with a taste for adventure who in his youth joined famed Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl on a long sea voyage in a traditional Iraqi reed vessel.
Five years ago, Salim set out to find Iraq’s last meshhouf makers, locating them in Huweir on the edge of Iraq’s famed Mesopotamian marshes, where eventually he would place orders for the construction of new vessels.
Salim then went to nautical clubs and helped create teams that would teach young people how to navigate the gondola-like vessels.
The flotilla on the Tigris in Baghdad was a landmark event in Salim’s efforts – 18 of the boats took to the water on a spring afternoon as part of a cultural festival.
Seven meshhouf clubs have been founded in Baghdad, the central province of Babylon and parts of southern Iraq, with funding from Britain and the Aliph Foundation, which works to protect cultural heritage in conflict zones.
Iraq is still recovering from decades of dictatorship and war, but it faces an additional peril. The United Nations ranks it as one of the world’s five countries most affected by some effects of climate change.
Iraq endures blistering summer heat and frequent dust storms. Declining rain as well as upstream dams have reduced the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers where ancient civilisations flourished.