Iraq and fish

Culture Jan 09, 2023 2 min read

Iraq’s fishing techniques and culinary traditions are directly traced back to ancient Sumer. How Iraqis hold their fish resembles practices of Sumerian fishermen depicted on Sumerian paintings.

The value of the fishermen’s profession in Iraq and that of fish in Iraqi cuisine was demonstrated during the reign of Hammurabi (ca. 1750 BC) when fishermen were given some rights similar to those given to ministers. Hammurabi’s law code also made sure that “if a fisherman is captured during a royal campaign, he should be relieved and returned to his city”. Reading this one could easily argue that Hammurabi’s preferred dish was masgouf.

Grilled carp fish, known as Masgouf, the signature dish of Iraq. Photo taken at a shop in Baghdad, Iraq (2019). (Xinhua/Khalil Dawood)

Fishing has remained part of cooking in daily life in contrast to, for example, hunting. The types of fishing gear found on Assyrian reliefs as well as on Sumerian clay tablets and artifacts are still globally used. In particular the southern Iraqi marshes have been the homeland of fishermen for many centuries, as its rivers form an important source of livelihood and a vital source of food.

More recent policies such as Turkey’s ‘Southeastern Anatolia Project’ are to the detriment of the Iraqi fisherman. The Turkish project consists of 22 dams and 19 hydroelectric plants along the Euphrates River at the expense of Iraq, its biodiversity, water availability and the age-old profession of fishing. This has led to the drying of rivers and creates a worsening situation for fishermen as to why supporting such humble trades became extremely important.

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