Iraqi Kurdistan then and now through photographs
London - Return to Kurdistan is a mix of contemporary photographs by London-based Richard Wilding and historical images taken in the 1940s by Anthony Kersting, a photographer with the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the second world war. The old black-and-white prints are displayed on one wall in the gallery in London’s Courtauld Institute of Art opposite to Wilding’s recent photographs.
The historic images from the archive of Kersting’s work held in the institute’s Conway Library are shown with the photographer’s brief but informative notes, written on the back of each image and reproduced alongside it.
Kersting (1916-2008) was posted to a photographic unit in Egypt in 1941, developing and enhancing reconnaissance photographs. While there he travelled in the Middle East taking photographs. Those he took in Iraq are of immense historical value, as many record buildings and sites, including the mosque of Nebi Yunis, which have been destroyed. Kersting visited Kurdistan in northern Iraq in 1944 and 1946.
“Kersting and I have both photographed the Erbil citadel dating back at least 6,000 years. He took many photographs of the Yazidis, a group that follows an ancient religion with many unique rituals and customs and who were specifically persecuted by Daesh,” Wilding said using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (ISIS). “I have photographed the Yazidi shrines at Lalish near Mosul, including the entrance to the shrine of Sheikh Adi, which was also shot by Kersting.”
“We have both photographed the Assyrian canals built by King Sennacherib to take water to Nineveh, which many archaeologists now believe was the location of the famed hanging gardens of Babylon,” Wilding said.
“Kersting visited Khinnis, where the starting point of one of these canals is marked by reliefs of Assyrian kings carved into the rock. I also recently travelled further down this canal towards Nineveh to Jerwan where the canal was carried over a valley by an aqueduct.”
Both Kersting and Wilding photographed the region north of Erbil, though Wilding also photographed locations not found in Kersting’s photographs such as the Rawanduz gorge – the ‘Grand Canyon’ of the Middle East, north-east of Erbil. Further south, the city of Sulaymaniyah is considered to be Kurdistan’s cultural capital, home to many artists and writers. Wilding believes Kersting knew of these places but was limited by the time restraint imposed by his leave from RAF duties in Cairo.
“Additionally, much of my photography south of Erbil has been to record the more recent legacy of Saddam Hussein’s brutal suppression of the Kurds, including the chemical weapons attack on Halabja, part of the Anfal campaign, which resulted in the death of up to 180,000 Kurds,” Wilding said.
Reflecting on similarities and differences between Iraqi Kurdistan now and in the 1940s, Wilding pointed out that in Kersting’s time the streets of the Erbil citadel were bustling with people and market stalls but today the citadel is empty, its residents resettled while it undergoes extensive restoration. Just one family has been left living in the citadel to hold on to its claim to be the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city.
During Kersting’s time in Iraq there were sizeable Jewish communities in many towns and villages. The majority of Kurdish Jews left Iraqi Kurdistan in the early 1950s. The tomb of the Jewish prophet Nahum in Alqosh, which Kersting photographed in 1944, has been damaged and is in a vulnerable position close to the front line in the war against ISIS.
Kersting photographed the Christian communities in and around Mosul, including some of the world’s oldest monasteries. The fourth-century monastery of Mar Behnam was destroyed by ISIS in 2015. Many of these Christian communities are displaced, the residents living in camps across Iraqi Kurdistan.
In Mosul, Kersting photographed Nebi Yunis, one of the twin mounds of ancient Nineveh reputed to be the burial place of the Prophet Jonah. It was destroyed by ISIS in 2014. Other places Kersting photographed in Mosul have also been confirmed as destroyed or damaged.
Return to Kurdistan is organised by Gulan, a charity set up in 2008 to promote Kurdish culture, with the Courtauld Institute of Art. In May 2016, Gulan took the Return to Kurdistan exhibition to Iraqi Kurdistan, where it was shown in the cultural centre inside the Erbil citadel and at the Talary Saray Sulimani, once a police station built by the British in Sulaymaniyah.
The Courtauld Institute of Art is a centre for the study of art history and home to the Courtauld Gallery. It is digitalising the entire collection of Kersting’s work starting with his images from Iraq, Syria, Essex and Coventry.
Return to Kurdistan at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London runs through April 29th.