Iraq's heritage battered by desert sun, rain and state apathy - GulfToday

Iraq's heritage battered by desert sun, rain and state apathy


A view of the Al-Aqiser archeological site in Ain Tamr near Karbala in Iraq.

One of the world's oldest churches is crumbling deep in Iraq's desert, another victim of years of conflict, government negligence and climate change in a country with a rich heritage.


After Pope Francis made a historic visit to Iraq in March, many Iraqis hoped that busloads of tourists would flock to Al Aqiser church southwest of the capital Baghdad.


All that remains of Al Aqiser, which has stood in Ain Tamr for more than 1,500 years, are crumbling brick and red earthen walls.


Ain Tamr mayor Raed Fadhel said upkeep is a question of budget.


Some 60 kilometres (38 miles) further east, Shiite shrines in Karbala attract millions of pilgrims each year.


iraq2 Iraq's numerous Christian, Islamic and Mesopotamian rich heritage relics have been left to weather away. 


But these potential visitors fail to stop by Iraq's numerous ancient churches, its Mesopotamian cities and the fabled "ziggurat" pyramid-like structures of Babylon, a UNESCO World Heritage site, residents and officials say.


Missed opportunities


Abdullah al-Jlihawi, who lives in Diwaniya province bordering Karbala, told AFP he believes that "foreigners care more about our heritage than we do".


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 centres of the Akkadians and later the Babylonians.


But there is another problem beyond renovation and preservation, Jlihawi said. If they came, "where would the tourists go?" he asked.


iraq3 A view of the ancient citadel of Iraq's northern city of Kirkuk.


"There's nothing for them -- the roads haven't been paved since the 1980s, the electricity poles are from the 1970s," in a country with chronic shortages of electricity and water.


Returned to dust


Historical sites in the central province of Kirkuk are also in a sad state of disrepair and "neither authorities nor private organisations are doing anything for heritage", said resident Muhammad Taha.


He pointed to the 3,000-year-old citadel and the "qishla", an Ottoman-era garrison, where chunks of mosaics have crumbled while sections of wall threaten to crash down.


Like Nippur, the citadel's deterioration could mean it might not be promoted from UNESCO's Tentative List of heritage sites to the coveted World Heritage List.


Local authorities said frequent heavy rains that batter the mountainous region are to blame.


iraq4 A view of the Al-Aqiser archeological site in Ain Tamr near Karbala in Iraq.


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


Scorching summer above 50 degrees (122 Fahrenheit), dust storms and heavy winter rains have also dealt blows to Iraqi heritage.


And many fear that sites built with bricks made thousands of years ago by Mesopotamian labourers will one day soon turn back into dust.

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