Art work by Deema Al-Yahya

In Review: Al-Shaheed Monument, Part II

Ismail Fatah Al-Turk
Saman Asa'ad Kamal
Saad Al-Zubaidi, Wijdan Maher, Ismail Kanna and Nada Zabouni
Ove Arup and Partners International (UK)
M + R International, Project & Development Consultants (Belgium) + Design Team
Mitsubishi Corporation and Kajima Corporation (Japan)
In Review: Al-Shaheed Monument

In the second part of the Al-Shaheed Monument series, Round City explores the social, cultural and creative impacts of the monument on the city of Baghdad.

For our holistic review of Al-Shaheed Monument, which started with uncovering the historical timeline in part I, exploring the social, cultural and creative meanings is now necessary to better understand the overall success of the monument and its journey to becoming one of the most recognisable and relatable icons in Iraq.

Framing an analytical approach to understanding Al-Shaheed Monument requires a brief definition of monuments in general: monuments are structures erected to commemorate an event or individual(s). Varying in size, they can range from being a life-size statue made by a single sculptor to the tallest, longest or biggest building in a country or city, marking the territory’s economic success or political dominance. Monuments can involve hundreds of professionals in the process of their making.

Monuments can also have a transformative impact on their location through planning, on people by reflecting shared aspirations, and on culture through meaning.

Baghdad‘s Al-Shaheed Monument has succeeded in becoming a part of the city, people and culture. And although the aesthetic aspect of the monument plays a major role in its success, there are other aspects that need to be considered when reviewing this monument, and they are the timelessness of the monument’s meaning, the collaborative approach of its creation, its identity, and its location and accessibility.

Martyrdom in local culture

Martyrdom, is the ultimate act of selflessness as it is the giving of oneself for and idea of a belief. For many Iraqis, Al-Shaheed Monument became more relevant over time as the number of martyrs multiplied since the day the monument was conceived.

This lasting relevance is unusual for Iraq, a country that has many examples in its modern period of monuments being destroyed after a change in regime. The first example of this in modern Iraq was after the end of the monarchy and, as a pattern, continued typically as one of the first acts of a new regime, reflecting the ruling class’ understanding of art as a mere temporary propaganda tool and not a historical reference to specific periods in a nation’s history. Thus, because of the enduring relevance of the idea of martyrdom to the nation, the theme of Al-Shaheed Monument became timeless.

The integrated creative approach

Al-Shaheed Monument’s creativity and monumentality should not be reduced to only the symbolism of its split dome. Creativity here presents itself on several levels: the obvious creativity is the abstraction of the split dome, while the intangible creativity is the integration of the various fields and specialisations that brought the monument to life.

Limiting the sculptor’s role to the design of the above ground elements of the monument (the dome, flag and waterfall) and the architect’s to the below ground elements (the museum) undervalues the collective effort, and results in a misunderstanding of the design process. Conversely, acknowledging the integrated approach does not undermine anyone’s contribution or mastery.

Monuments of such large scale like Al-Shaheed require the integration of different fields and in this case art and architecture during the design phase, as neither architectural nor sculptural education can prepare one to achieve such monumentality at such a scale without the integration of both fields. For this reason, Al-Shaheed Monument presents an excellent example of this collaboration, which was bolstered by thorough research and advanced technology provided by the contractor and structural consultant.

Ismail Al-Turk, Hisham Al-Madfai, Saman Kamal and Saad Al-Zubaidi with the wider implementation team

In 1980, Mitsubishi’s studies of the dome and its planned cladding changed the use of tiling materials from gold-plated tiles to blue ceramic tiles backed with a carbon fiber reinforced concrete. The latter is extremely light and was used for the first time in the world based on a suggestion by the structural consultant Ove Arup International.

Heat gain was forecasted, and ventilation openings were made in the dome to ensure it does not affect the steel structure inside. Both the tiles with their backing and the steel frame were prefabricated in Mitsubishi’s factory in Japan and assembled in Iraq. All these studies and research efforts by the contractor contributed to the timelessness of the monument because when viewed within Baghdad’s urban context, it gave the impression that it was recently built. 

Read more about the reasons behind the change of dome cladding from gold plated tiles to ceramic in Al-Shaheed Monument, Part I.

Interestingly, the blue tiles are not only one shade of blue. Following the decision to use ceramic tiles, the designers visited six different mosques and took samples from each to determine the shade of blue used in Baghdadi mosque domes. They later realised that each mosque uses a different shade of blue. Thus, each of the dome panels comprises around 30 tiles in six different tints of blue arranged randomly, giving the dome undeniable “Iraqiness” through the unique blue colour.

The six different tints of blue

The creativity, design approach and overall aesthetic of Al-Shaheed monument became a source of inspiration to a number of public buildings in Iraq. Regardless of their aesthetic qualities (or lack thereof), these buildings either attempted to investigate the modernisation of an architectural element in an approach similar to Al-Shaheed’s or were direct copies, which is a testimony to its impact on the architectural and artistic community. Unfortunately, these works did not appreciate the integrated effort and they lacked architectural and artistic understanding.

Accessibility and visual proximity

Baghdad has witnessed several public art and architectural commissions that have reshaped its skyline, but not all of them are accessible to the public. The best example of this is the Unknown Soldier Monument. The idea of its inception occurred at the same time as Al-Shaheed Monument in 1978, and it was completed in 1983. The difference between the two is that while the Unknown Soldier Monument was built in the government’s quarter (now the Green Zone), next to ministries and palaces, for the unknown soldiers who died fighting for the country, the parents of said unknown soldiers are often stopped and questioned if they try to visit or take photos of the monument while on the nearby main road. Al-Shaheed Monument, on the other hand, is greatly accessible, and this, along with its location, has played a key part in the society’s acceptance and adoration of it. 

Al-Shaheed Monument sits in close proximity to Baghdad’s old centre as well as its most densely populated area. Edged by two major roads, it is also on route to Baghdad’s three main universities and sports facilities. The split dome and the emerging flag hugged by the two main forms is a daily scene enjoyed by tens of thousands of Iraqis every day. Therefore, while many monuments and cultural institutions in Iraq are ‘for the people’, yet are inaccessible, Al-Shaheed Monument can be seen every day, and it is often filmed, photographed and experienced indirectly and directly.

Al-Shaheed’s relation to the city and the persistent visuals of it from different points further set the tone for those arriving to the structure’s premises.

Al-Shaheed Monument as seen from the Turkish Restaurant building near Baghdad’s Tahrir Square. Photo taken during the October 2019 uprising

The design narrative

Within the monument’s grounds, the designers aimed to give onlookers and visitors a unique experience and a reminder of the scale of the martyrs’ sacrifice by setting up an abstracted scene that can be seen, heard and felt. Arriving to the monument via Palestine Street slowly reveals the two halves of the dome – an illusion created by the movement around the monument. As the visitor reaches the main entrance, the dome’s split becomes completely visible, and as one approaches the platform, the monument’s three main elements – the dome, the flag and the waterfall spring – partake in a synchronised narrative.

Ismail Fatah Al-Turk inside Al-Shaheed Monument in 1991

This narrative begins with the act of martyrdom – an act so strong that it causes the split in the dome. Between the halves, and as a consequence of the act, the soul of the martyr rises from the ground to the sky in a spiritual journey. Here, we see a sculpture of a martyr’s body wrapped in the Iraqi flag emerging from underground, illustrating the rooted relation between the martyr and their land.

The flag wrapped body leaves the ground from a seven-metre-wide opening. The flag is three metres below ground and five metres above ground and consists of a bronze-wrapped steel structure. The flag was remade twice from acrylic – the first time was in 1991 after “Allahu Akbar” in Saddam Hussein’s hand writing was added to the Iraqi flag and the second remake was after the removal of the three stars from the Iraqi flag and change of the script to Kufic.

At the same time, the spring water overflows from the platform level to the level below, expressing the givingness of the martyrs who have sacrificed their lives. The water symbolises this givingness, as well as the continuation of life on this land as a result of the martyr’s sacrifice. 

Water utilisation here is impressive: the sound of water falling is predominant in the area between the halves of the dome, and it isolates the visitor from their surroundings, helping them focus on what’s within the dome. 

The coordination of the three elements perfectly captures the spirit of the monument in its totality on the staircase next to the waterfall spring: here, just a few steps down from ground level, visitors can look up at the monumentality and scale of the dome, witnessing the martyr’s body wrapped in the flag leaving the ground, while listening to the water falling. Everything but these three elements falls into oblivion.  

The monument contains two other elements, which are located below the platform: the dyke and the name stones. The dyke’s representations are several as mentioned by the designers in their design report, but the most noticeable is its abstraction of the battlefield context. 

The second below ground element is the name stones. These are the three-kilometre-long walls behind the dyke that have thousands of martyrs’ names engraved on them. The outside granite walls and the inside marble walls have more than 150,000 names on them, which were engraved between 1988 and 1993. The walls also contain impressions of palm trees and other Iraqi symbols that were engraved during the construction of the monument.

What is unique about the name stones is that these walls were engraved manually rather than mechanically. This decision presented a unique opportunity for several calligraphists, crafts students and young sculptors (who are now well-known artists) to practice their profession at a high level.

From the opening of Al-Shaheed Monument until 2003, it was one of three main ceremonial venues used by the state. However, after the 2003 US-led invasion, Al-Shaheed Monument became barracks for a section of the 1st Armored Division of the US Army, and it was closed for the public. As with many other landmark sites occupied by the US forces, Al-Shaheed Monument fell into disrepair and was greatly damaged due to the heavy military use. Additionally, some elements have disappeared, such as the bronze wreath that once surrounded the flag sculpture and an imposing swimming pool was dug for the leisure of forces occupying the monument.

End of Part II