Iraqi Kurd nature reserve looks to shed violent legacy

Updated 22 September 2013
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Iraqi Kurd nature reserve looks to shed violent legacy

Near Iraq’s northernmost point, close to Turkey and Iran, a national park of snow-capped peaks and forested valleys is drawing tourists and researchers keen to explore a hardly touched land.
But this region of outstanding natural beauty has also been scarred by war, and local officials are grappling with the problem of minefields left over from years of conflict.
The 1,100-square-kilometer reserve, known as the Halgurd Sakran National Park, encompasses Iraq’s highest peaks along the border with Iran.
It has been listed as a national park by the northern autonomous Kurdish region for a year, but has inherited a legacy of violence in the region.
There are still minefields left from the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war, and until recently Turkey and Iran shelled the nearby area, targeting Kurdish separatists from those countries who maintain rear bases in north Iraq.
The shelling may have stopped, but the minefields that remain have been cordoned off as non-governmental organizations work to de-mine the entire reserve.
Visitors making the trip to Halgurd Sakran pass a series of waterfalls, mountain ranges and a historical town, and on arrival at the park are greeted by lakes, springs and greenery.
Officials say the park was established as part of efforts to boost tourism, and that it has attracted the interest of researchers while also raising awareness toward local environmental protection.
“The goal in establishing this nature reserve is to protect the environment, and revert the civilization and culture of the area to the way ancient peoples lived,” said Abdulwahid Kuwani, head of a council supervising Halgurd Sakran.
He is also the mayor of Choman, the largest town in the area.
“In addition to that, this is a scientific project, so that universities in Iraq and Kurdistan can carry out research and study the environmental and zoological varieties found here.
“We also want to make this national park a tourism region for Kurdistan, Iraq and the Middle East to come and see wild animals.”
Kurdish officials have sought to help locals who live within the national park’s boundaries with breeding sheep and promoting cottage industries such as the sale of local handicrafts or dried pomegranates, figs and nuts to tourists.
They have barred hunting within the reserve, which contains species of wild deer, bears and tigers, and they have also banned the felling of trees.
“It is astonishing,” Gunther Loiskandl, an Austrian wildlife expert, said of Halgurd Sakran.
“The region is rich in animal and plant varieties — it has all that is required of a nature reserve,” he told AFP.
“We must work for future generations: it is going to take time to restore the environment and animal life.”
The three-province region of Kurdistan in north Iraq is widely seen as more successful than the rest of the country to the south, and often trumpets its reputation for better security, faster economic growth and increased stability.
In addition to vast oil reserves, which are the subject of a dispute with the federal government, the Kurdish region has its own parliament and enforces its own visa regime under which it is markedly easier to obtain a tourist visa.
Although there are no figures available for the number of visitors to the park itself, tourism numbers to the region are rising.
About 2.27 million domestic and foreign tourists made the trip last year, and already in the first six months of 2013, the region has welcomed 1.2 million visitors.

But those responsible for administering the national park are well aware that they not lacking in challenges, in addition to the danger from mines sewn long ago.
In August, officials found a dead tiger, but could not determine how the great cat died.
Shortly afterwards, another tiger was accidentally killed by villagers who put out poisoned meat in an attempt to kill wolves that had attacked their cattle.
On both occasions, park officials issued strong warnings to residents.
The park remains crucial to Iraqi Kurdistan’s tourism strategy, which includes as one of its goals highlighting the beauty of the autonomous region’s natural vistas.
Nadir Rosti, a spokesman for the region’s tourism directorate, said there are now plans to expand Halgurd Sakran farther north, as well as creating new national parks and dedicating greater funding to existing nature reserves.


Riyadh's Al-Masmak fort stands guard over Saudi Arabia’s past

Al-Masmak fort. (AN photo)
Updated 25 April 2018
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Riyadh's Al-Masmak fort stands guard over Saudi Arabia’s past

  • The Al-Masmak fort is connected with the recapture of Riyadh in Jan.15, 1902, by the late king
  • The SCTH chief Prince Sultan bin Salman developed the exhibits in Al-Masmak Museum that was started in December 2011 to represent the story of its storming

RIYADH: The Al-Masmak fort in the heart of Riyadh holds a prominent place in Saudi Arabia’s history and — 150 years after being built — is telling the story of the Kingdom’s birth via a 3D virtual tour.

The fort is home to a museum that has become an important historical destination and focal point for state guests as well as foreign visitors and local residents.

“As it is a favorite tourist destination, not only the Saudis and expatriates living here appreciate the majesty of this vast architectural wonder, but it draws interest of visitors from outside the Kingdom as well, and most of the foreign guests who arrive on visit here toured the museum,” Majed Alshadeed, a spokesman for the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), told Arab News.

“Masmak” in Arabic means the high, fortified, thick and huge — important qualities for a fort that witnessed King Abdul Aziz’s major initiatives in consolidating the Kingdom.

The Al-Masmak fort is connected with the recapture of Riyadh in Jan.15, 1902, by the late king.

However, the story of building Al-Masmak fortress dates back to the reign of Imam Abdullah bin Faisal bin Turki bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Saud, who began work on the fort in 1865. 

The use of the fortress changed after King Abdul Aziz recovered Al-Masmak fort in 1902. After its use as a warehouse for ammunition and weapons for two years, it was turned into a prison before being converted into a heritage landmark in the heart of Riyadh.

The the-then Riyadh Gov. Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz (now King) ordered its upkeep, maintenance and restoration in 1980.

As governor, he led the development of Riyadh from a mid-sized town into a major metropolis in the region and served as an important liaison to attract tourism, capital projects and foreign investment to the Kingdom.

After the proper work the fort was restored to serve as a museum and was inaugurated in 1995 as the Al-Masmak Historical Museum, which tells the story of the Kingdom’s unification and establishment by King Abdul Aziz.

The SCTH, led by Prince Sultan bin Salman, developed the exhibits in Al-Masmak Museum that was started in December 2011 to represent the story of the storming of Masmak and recovery of Riyadh by King Abdul Aziz.

Adding more value to the museum, the SCTH launched a smartphone app for “Virtual Tour via 3D images” of Qasr Al-Masmak or Al-Masmak Palace Museum in March 2016, conjuring up Saudi history digitally to show visitors how the late King Abdul Aziz founded the modern Kingdom. 

Now fans of Saudi tourism, heritage and history can make an online visit to Al-Masmak Museum through a virtual tour, navigating different halls and internal areas through 360-degree camera and 3D images.

The virtual tour allows visitors to view exhibits that highlight the cultural dimension of the Kingdom and its deep-rooted heritage, besides touring the different halls and viewing paintings and photos.

The museum contains photographs, maps, models, display cabinets, old weapons, traditional and heritage objects, exhibition and audiovisual halls.

Each month, the museum receives about 5,000 school students and visitors, with numbers increasing during school breaks.

Since its opening in 1995, more than a million people have visited the museum, according to officials.

Speaking to Arab News, Mohammed Zeyad, a student, said the museum was a special place for those who love history and heritage, and wanted to learn more about the country.

The museum recently hosted a workshop to promote patriotism by highlighting the historic and cultural values of the Kingdom.