Image Courtesy of Ziyad Matti

In Review: Al-Shaheed Monument, Part I

Competition Announcement Year
Construction period
April 1981 - July 1983 (27 Months)
Cost of the project
40 Million Iraqi Dinars (1983) $500 millions (Today)
Amanat Al-Asima / Mayoralty of Baghdad
Designers/Consultants for Architectural and Sculptural work
Ismail Fatah Al-Turk
Saman Asa'ad Kamal
Architectural Team
Saad Al-Zubaidi, Wijdan Maher, Ismail Kanna and Nada Zabouni
Engineering Consultant
Ove Arup and Partners International (UK)
Site Supervision Consultant
M + R International, Project & Development Consultants (Belgium) + Design Team
Contracting Company
Mitsubishi Corporation and Kajima Corporation (Japan)
In Review: Al-Shaheed Monument

Round City provides a historical reference of one of Baghdad’s most recognisable monuments

When the idea of Baghdad’s Al-Shaheed Monument, or Martyrs Monument, was conceived as a memorial in 1978, Iraq was different. In fact, the day the idea of a split dome representing martyrs was conceived, most Iraqis had a palm tree in their garden and knew someone who had a martyr in the family. Today, the reverse can be said: most Iraqis have several martyrs in their families and know someone who has a palm tree in their garden. Therefore, what Al-Shaheed Monument represents now is deeper to Iraqis than what it meant and represented four decades ago, and for this reason, social and cultural meaning cannot be separated from any discussion about this national monument. 

The monument has always been reviewed or described in a singular context – and one that is political – disregarding other more important contexts, and rarely giving appreciation to its design contribution, despite it becoming one of the most important and recognisable monuments in Mesopotamia, a land that has held the most recognisable monuments since the dawn of civilisation. The monument is also a successful attempt at modernising a traditional form, which can be described as pioneering worldwide. The feeling this monument evokes when you are inside is overwhelming and surreal, but this is, like the other details, rarely mentioned.   

In this short series of articles, Round City will cover the historical timeline, design development and current situation of the monument. All the information presented is based on interviews with the monument’s architect, Saman Kamal; the review of a number of publications, including Japanese design magazines and three official design reports published in 1979, 1981 and 1983 by the design team, the Japanese contractors and the Baghdad Mayoralty; published interviews by Dia Azzawi and Rafa Nasiri with the monument’s sculptor; May Muzzafar’s book Modern Art in Iraq: Al tawasul wal tamayuz for Ismail Fatah Al-Turk’s profile and Kanan Makiya’s book The Monument.

The Competition

The monument’s timeline starts with the 1972 Oil Nationalisation Act. Iraq’s oil revenues were now controlled by the state, and the nationalisation of Iraqi oil resulted in two years of international economic sanctions that were lifted in 1974 after the international oil crisis of the October 1973 War. In the same year, then-president Ahmed Hasan Al-Bakr launched  Iraq’s development plan, a large-scale scheme responsible for several of Iraq’s mega infrastructure and urban regeneration projects, including a number of cultural buildings such as theatres, cinemas, central libraries and museums in a number of cities across Iraq.

In 1978, the government added to its list of cultural projects a ‘Martyrs Memorial’ and cemetery, commemorating the country’s martyrs, and as a result, an open competition was organised with a brief to design the complex. 

The concept of a national martyrs monument is not common – states and authorities tend to erect monuments in the aftermath of wars. Examples include the Whitehall Cenotaph in London, which was built after World War I and now serves as the United Kingdom’s official national war memorial, and unknown soldier monuments, such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Virginia that was dedicated to US service members whose remains have not been identified, as well as Iraq’s Unknown Soldier Monument in Al-Firdaus Square designed in 1958 by the country’s highly respected architect Rifat Chadirji who was commissioned by the then Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim (the latter was demolished in 1982 and replaced by the infamous statue of Saddam Hussein that was toppled in the 2003 US-led invasion).

Iraq’s Unknown Soldier Monument by Rifat Chadirji (1959)

More than 10 artists and architects participated in the competition, including renowned Iraqi artist and sculptor Ismail Fatah Al-Turk* and the young architect Saman Kamal, who attended Al-Turk’s sculpting and ceramic lessons at Baghdad University in 1969. At the time the competition was launched, Kamal was designing Al-Turk’s house and studio, and their regular meetings sparked their partnership for the monument.

When the competition was launched in 1978 asking participants to formulate basic design concepts for a memorial for martyrs and a cemetery, both Al-Turk and Kamal were not very enthusiastic about participating. It was an open competition with a generic brief and the judging panel hadn’t been announced, giving the impression that the competition may end up being judged by an unqualified government employee and that it would lack professionalism.

However, the artist and the architect would speak about the monument competition often, and explore how martyrdom can be transformed into a design philosophy and then into an artwork and architectural feature. Their conversations inspired them to participate in the competition.

The Proposal

Six months after the launch of the competition during the second half of 1978, Al-Turk and Kamal submitted their proposal for the competition which was a monument and museum rather than a monument and cemetery. Their design philosophy was inspired by the idea of the glorification of the martyr, who they considered a donor more than a taker, and it emphasised the notion that martyrs are not casualties of war but forever alive, with their martyrdom the reason life continues on this land.

The initial design proposal assigned parts of the museum to martyrs of specific periods, all of which are in Iraq’s modern history: 35 percent of the space was allocated to the martyrs of Iraqi revolutionary movements and demonstrations, such as the 1920 revolt, martyrs of the republican period starting with the 14th of July 1958 group and those of Iraq’s wars up to October 1973 War were also to be commemorated. The remaining 65 percent of the space was allocated to the future martyrs of Iraq giving the museum flexibility in utilising exhibition spaces.

The Design Philosophy

The transformation of the idea into form started when the designers endeavored to express the monument’s belonging to local heritage by applying the form of the dome as the architectural item and considering the martyrs memorial as the living symbol of Iraq’s heroes.

In the Arab-Islamic world, the dome is considered a powerful spiritual and monumental feature, and it is often associated with holy places. In several known examples of Islamic architecture, the dome was used as a rich enclosure for tombs of people of distinguished faith or public status.

This theme was then accentuated by splitting the dome into two halves to symbolise the act of martyrdom and expose two symbolical elements: the sculpture of a martyr’s body wrapped in the Iraqi flag and the continuous spring of a “waterfall pond” symbolising the “givingness of martyrs” that flows to the underground level.

Splitting the dome abstracts the power of the act of martyrdom

In the early stages of the design process, the 40-metre-high dome was conceived as gold plated, inspired by the form, proportion and colour of Iraqi domes. And the abstraction of the gold-plated dome through the splitting was intended to create a spiritual relationship between the open structure and the sky: through the space of the divide, the soul of the martyr was free to emerge from underground and transcend to the sky.

However, following a simulation by the contractor Mitsubishi/Kajima, a Japanese construction firm that worked on the monument, and later confirmed by the structural consultant Ove Arup, the temperatures in front of the split dome would reach 120 degrees Celsius during summer as the reflection of sun rays from the concave parts of the gold surfaces would create a microclimate of unbearable temperatures. In lieu of the new information, Al-Turk and Kamal opted for blue ceramic tiles.

To complement the monumental appearance, a circular flat platform symbolising the openness of the desert formed the base upon which the whole composition rests was designed, defining the space via the use of a huge horizontal element. The museum was placed underground, beneath the platform. From afar, the vertical and horizontal elements were meant to resemble the appearance of old Arabian cities.

A view of Najaf

The monument’s outstanding contribution to architectural design was in its modernisation of a highly developed traditional form without simple importation, all while maintaining consistency with social and cultural traditions. The split dome of Al-Shaheed Monument represents one of the most successful attempts in the revitalisation of traditional architecture into contemporary forms.

Design and Construction

In mid-1979, official approval was given to further develop the proposal and Al-Turk and Kamal were commissioned to carry out the design development, sculptural and engineering works, and the setting up of their own team. An independent team was formed consisting of architects Saad Al-Zubaidi, Wijdan Mahir, Ismail Kanna and Nada Zibouni.

In December 1979, the design report was published followed by paperwork preparation to invite international contractors to oversee the implementation of the project. At the same time the project was also included in the list of mega projects to be completed for the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Baghdad (which was later moved to New Delhi in 1983).

The competition brief did not specify a site for the participants to work on other than stipulating that it should be located on the Al-Rusafa, or eastern side of Baghdad (as the new Unknown Soldiers Monument by Khaled Al-Rahal and Italian architect Marcello D’Olivo was to be erected on the Al-Karkh side). Thus, the basic concept of the monument in the competition proposal and the first design development report were proposed using a large undefined site that did not include a lake surrounding the monument.

This changed, however, when the head of the masterplan department in the Mayoralty of Baghdad took the designers to a former clay quarry used to extract mud for the manufacturing of clay bricks. With open pits stretching six metres below ground level, the new site was perfect for Al-Turk and Kamal’s proposal, which placed the project’s museum below ground underneath the dome. Later, the rest of the clay quarry was connected to the nearby water canal, creating the lake that surrounds the Martyrs Monument and Museum.

The construction contract was awarded to Mitsubishi Corporation/Kajima Corporation (Japan) and site works started in April 1981 following many months of design detailing and technical studies. Ove Arup International (UK) was awarded the structural consultancy contract, and site supervision was given to both M+R International, Project and Development Consultants (Belgium) and the design team. After 27 months of work and 40 million Iraqi dinars (equivalent to half a billion US dollars today), the Martyrs Monument was completed in July 1983.

Al-Shaheed Monument – Image Courtesy of Ziyad Matti

For historical accuracy, it is worth mentioning that the idea of building a memorial for the martyrs of Iraq was developed in 1978 and two years before the start of the Iraq-Iran war. 

End of part I

*Ismail Fatah Al-Turk (1934 – 2004)

Iraqi painter and sculptor, Ismail Fatah Al-Turk was born in Basra, and he graduated from the Baghdad Institute of Fine Arts in 1956 with a Bachelor of Sculpture. There, he was taught by pioneers of Iraqi modern art such as Jawad Saleem (sculpture) and Faiq Hasan (painting). In 1958, he received a Post Graduate Diploma in sculpture from the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma and in ceramics from the Accademia di San Giacomo also in Rome. In 1964, he returned to Baghdad where he began teaching at the Baghdad Fine Arts Academy where he taught for 30 years.

Al-Turk held six exhibitions for sculpture and five exhibitions for paintings in Rome, Baghdad and Beirut. He executed a number of murals and sculptures for public display in Baghdad, including the bronze statues of the Iraqi poet Maruf al Rusafi, the Abbasid poet Abu Nuwas and the Abbasid painter and calligrapher Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti; the old Arab medicine mural in Baghdad Medical City; a bronze mural on the facade of the National Re-Insurance Company; the Al-Farabi statue in the Al-Zawra Park; the Tigris and Euphrates monument for the Conferences Palace, and a bronze relief for the facade of the Ministry of Industry. He died in 2004 in Baghdad.