Iraqi heritage battered by desert sun, rain and state apathy – fr

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Iraqi heritage battered by desert sun, rain and state apathy – fr


Ain Tamr (Irak) (AFP)

One of the world’s oldest churches is collapsing in the Iraqi desert, another victim of years of conflict, government neglect and climate change in a country with a rich heritage.

After Pope Francis made a historic visit to Iraq in March, many Iraqis hoped tourist buses would flock to Al Aqiser Church southwest of the capital Baghdad.

But in a country that has been battered by consecutive conflicts and economic crises, the Church – like Iraq’s many Christian, Islamic, and Mesopotamian relics – has been left abandoned.

All that remains of Al Aqiser, which has stood in Ain Tamr for over 1,500 years, are crumbling bricks and red earth walls.

Archaeologist Zahd Muhammad attributed this to “climatic conditions, the fact that under Saddam Hussein the area was turned into a military firing range and the lack of regular conservation”.

The mayor of Ain Tamr, Raed Fadhel, said the interview was a question of budget.

“Such maintenance requires a huge amount of money, but we receive meager funds” from the federal government, he said.

About 60 kilometers (38 miles) further east, the Shia shrines of Karbala attract millions of pilgrims each year.

But those potential visitors fail to stop in front of Iraq’s many ancient churches, Mesopotamian towns and legendary pyramid structures in Babylon, a UNESCO World Heritage site, say locals and officials.

– Missed opportunities –

Abdullah al-Jlihawi, who lives in Diwaniya province, on the border of Karbala, told AFP that “foreigners care more about our heritage than we do.”

“Until the 1980s an American university conducted excavations here, there were a lot of job opportunities,” he said.

“Our parents and grandparents worked on these sites, but it all stopped in the 1990s” with the international embargo against Saddam’s regime.

Diwaniya Governor Zuhair al-Shaalan boasts of the province’s more than 2,000 historic sites and sees each as a potential economic windfall.

But nearly 20 years since the 2003 US invasion that overthrew Saddam’s dictatorship, promising democracy and prosperity, Iraqis are still waiting for an economic recovery.

Diwaniya is home to Nippur, the ancient Sumerian city and jewel of Iraq’s glorious Mesopotamian past with its temples, libraries and palaces.

Seven thousand years ago, Nippur, now in southern Iraq, was one of the main religious centers of the Akkadians and later the Babylonians.

Much of this site was looted after Saddam’s fall from power by armed bandits and many others destroyed by jihadists who captured parts of Iraq in 2014 until their defeat three years later.

“Investing in these sites would create jobs in our province, which is poor and offers few investment opportunities,” Shaalan said.

But there’s another problem beyond renovation and preservation, Jlihawi said. If they came, “where would the tourists go? ” He asked.

“There is nothing for them – the roads haven’t been paved since the 1980s, the utility poles date from the 1970s”, in a country with chronic electricity and water shortages.

Energy-rich Iraq has suffered from falling global oil prices and has struggled with rising prices, high unemployment and poverty, which doubled last year to 40% in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

– Turned to dust –

Historic sites in central Kirkuk province are also in a sorry state of disrepair and “neither the authorities nor private organizations are doing anything for heritage,” resident Muhammad Taha said.

He pointed to the 3,000-year-old citadel and the “qishla”, an Ottoman-era garrison, where pieces of mosaics have collapsed while sections of wall threaten to collapse.

Like Nippur, the citadel’s deterioration could mean it may not be promoted from the Tentative List of UNESCO Heritage Sites to the coveted World Heritage List.

Local authorities said frequent heavy rains hitting the mountainous region were to blame.

Iraq is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, according to the United Nations.

Galloping desertification in a country where the desert already covers 50% of the territory threatens human and animal life, and sounded the death knell for Mesopotamian sites as well as recent constructions.

Abdullah al-Jlihawi from Diwaniya recalled that between the 1960s and 1980s, the archaeological ruins “were protected by the green belt”.

But the trees that had blocked the wind were burned, destroyed by bombardments in successive Iraqi wars or cut down to make way for new towns.

Scorching summer temperatures above 50 degrees (122 Fahrenheit), dust storms and heavy winter rains have also taken a toll on Iraq’s heritage.

And many fear that sites built with bricks made thousands of years ago by Mesopotamian workers will soon turn to dust.

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