Iraq’s archaeological treasures are threatened by climate change

DUBAI: In January, the drought that has plagued Iraq for three years caused the water level of the Mosul dam in the north of the country to drop to its lowest level since it was built in 1986. But, while the water receded, something unexpected emerged from below the surface.

To the amazement of onlookers stood the ruins of a 3,400-year-old city of the Mitanni Empire that once occupied the banks of the Tigris.

However, the colony, located in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region, only emerged for two months before sinking into the waters again. Archaeologists had to race against time to excavate as much of the site as possible while it was exposed.

Working intensely for six weeks, the team uncovered more than 100 clay tablets engraved with cuneiform script dating back to the early Assyrian period.

The British Museum and Iraqi archaeologists conduct excavations at the ancient city of Girsu, the capital of the Lagash Kingdom, in Dhi Qar in November 2021. (Getty Images)

A team of German and Kurdish archaeologists were able to date the site to the Bronze Age, around 1550 to 1350 BC. They believe the settlement could be the ancient city of Zakhiku, once a bustling political center.

While undoubtedly an exciting discovery, the same extreme weather events that caused water levels to plummet are also damaging ancient sites in other parts of Iraq, often referred to as the ” cradle of civilization”.

Scientists believe recent instances of extreme weather around the world, including flash floods in Europe and dust storms in the Middle East, are evidence of man-made climate change that will only get worse. and become more common unless carbon emissions are reduced quickly and dramatically. .

What is less well understood is the impact of these extreme weather events on World Heritage sites. What is more certain is that in the Middle East and North Africa, a dreadful mix of desertification, drought and climate change is damaging artifacts and excavation sites and undermining conservation efforts.

In Yemen, for example, intense rains are damaging the mud-brick skyscrapers of the walled city of Shibam, a UNESCO World Heritage site dubbed “Manhattan of the Desert” by British explorer Freya Stark in the 1930s. .

At the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bagerhat in southern Bangladesh, salt water from severe flooding caused by heavy rains is damaging the foundations of the city’s many Indo-Islamic mosques.

In Egypt, high temperatures, heavy rains and floods are damaging the ancient masonry of monuments in Cairo, Luxor, Alexandria and elsewhere.

Granite that was once pink in color has turned pale pink or even light gray over the past 15 years, Abdelhakim Elbadry, a restoration expert who works at the Karnak temple, told Reuters. “In every archaeological site here in Luxor, you can witness the changes.”

Meanwhile, in central Iraq, high winds have eroded many hilltop sites that are still difficult for safety-conscious archaeologists to access.

According to a study by UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Program and the Union of Concerned Scientists, climate change has become one of the most significant threats to historic sites and monuments.

The 2016 joint report, titled “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate”, examined the growing climate vulnerability of these sites and its likely impact on global tourism. According to the UN, Iraq is the fifth most climate-vulnerable country in the world.

Iraqi men remove chunks of cracked earth from the swamps running through the town of Al-Azeir in southern Iraq. The wetlands of southern Iraq have almost entirely disappeared. (AFP)

“We have three factors that affect cultural heritage in terms of climate change: dust storms, rising temperatures and salinity – the salt in the ground,” said Jaafar Jotheri, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Al- Qadisiyah in Iraq, at Arab News.

“Most of the sites are outside desert cities, such as Ur. Dust storms affect not only people and other life forms, but also heritage buildings. Dust accumulates inside the site, affecting its structure, just as high winds create cracks and destroy surfaces.

Additionally, extremely high temperatures during the day and cooler temperatures at night cause bricks in old structures to expand and shrink, creating cracks.

Then there is the problem of increased salinity. “People living in or outside cities, including farmers, are increasingly dependent on groundwater because there is no fresh water in the rivers anymore,” Jotheri said.


* Climate change is now a major threat to World Heritage, according to UNESCO.

* Southern Iraq swamps among most vulnerable, warns UN.

“The groundwater is saltier. We take groundwater and use it for daily life as well as irrigation, so we increasingly expose all kinds of surfaces to salt and salt water.

“The more we use salty groundwater, the saltier the exposed surfaces will be. People use the drains, but salt also builds up in the drainage channels and reaches the foundations of heritage buildings, creating cracks in bricks and walls.

Only recently has Iraq come to terms with what many consider to be telltale signs of man-made climate change. “The weather was mild, the sandstorms were less violent and less frequent, and we had fresh water, so we didn’t need to use groundwater,” Jotheri said.

Suspected climate change has also taken a toll on Iraq’s natural features. Entire lakes have disappeared, such as that of Sawa, nicknamed “the pearl of the south”, located in the governorate of Muthanna, near the Euphrates.

The once verdant wetlands in the south of the country, which had been dried up by Saddam Hussein and then flooded after his fall, are disappearing again, this time due to changing weather conditions.

Bedouin communities who had lived in these areas for generations were forced to leave. “We are losing everything in Iraq, our natural landscape, our heritage and our traditions,” Jotheri said.

In November 2021, the World Bank warned that Iraq could experience a 20% decline in water resources by 2050 due to climate change.

In May, the Iraqi News Agency reported that the number of dusty days had risen from 243 to 272 per year over the past two decades, and that the country could experience up to 300 days of dust storms per year d 2050.

“In the past two months, I have personally witnessed more than a dozen sandstorms in such a short time,” said Lanah Haddad, regional director of Tarii, the University Research Institute in Iraq, at Arab News.

“Desertification and the increasing number of sandstorms affect the erosion of excavated sites or heritage buildings, which are already in ruins and have not yet been restored.”

Mark Altaweel, Professor of Near Eastern Archeology at the Institute of Archeology at University College London, is convinced that climate change poses a serious threat to world heritage.

“This includes more frequent sandstorms, weathering of sites, sometimes violent and drastic rains, and other events that can damage or lead to degraded sites,” he told Arab News.

A farmer checks drought-compacted soil near Mosul, Iraq. (AFP)

For example, Iraqi sites such as Taq Kisra, the remains of a Persian monument from the Sasanian era, have been significantly weathered and the structure has partially collapsed as a result.

“Mosques and old houses collapsed in villages and different sites during sudden and heavy rains,” Altaweel said.

“Sandstorms disrupt our work, mainly affecting visibility and our equipment, but they can affect archaeological sites. For archaeologists, the main challenges are working in a place like Iraq with frequent sandstorms that also disrupt flights and work.

To prevent further damage, Altaweel says the main thing authorities can do is address the immediate human causes, including overexploitation of groundwater and mismanagement of surface water.

“There needs to be a re-greening effort, but it needs to be done carefully to ensure the plants survive and the plants can keep the sand from getting into the air,” Altaweel said.

The international community also has a responsibility to protect heritage sites. Adam Markham, deputy director of the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told TIME magazine in 2019 “that if the world is to save these sites, countries will also have to share the financial resources.”

Additionally, architects and archaeologists have found that respecting traditional craftsmanship and knowledge is the best way to repair, restore and maintain the heritage of these sites. However, very few individuals have such skills today.

In Cairo, at the Jameel School of Traditional Arts, the only school in Egypt dedicated to the study of traditional Islamic craftsmanship, students passionate about preserving centuries-old techniques are considered essential to restoring the multitude of ancient sites in ‘Egypt.

In Iraq, as in many other Arab countries, historic sites and monuments are potentially threatened by climate change. (AFP)

They are locked in a race against time as the alleged effects of climate change accelerate the destruction.

There are also prophetic lessons for societies today, as extreme weather events batter modern infrastructure, deplete resources and destroy livelihoods, creating the conditions for displacement and even conflict.

“If we look at the locations of ancient sites located in deserted areas, it clearly shows that climate change was an important factor for forced migrations, resulting in the abandonment of a settlement,” Haddad said.

“Societies still face challenges in providing water for agriculture and their growing communities in urban spaces. We must learn these lessons from the past to avoid water-related conflicts in the near future.

Jotheri fears that the palpable effects of climate change, if not urgently addressed, could lead to further violence, especially in societies like Iraq.

“This will lead to tribal conflict, between the tribes of southern Iraq themselves and between other provinces in the country,” he said.

“We have a fragile government, and we need a strong government to deal with the threat of climate change. If water, for example, is cut off or reduced in the Tigris or Euphrates in the next few years, people will start fighting for water.

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