Can Iraq’s archaeological renaissance help forge a stronger national identity?

Special Assyrian artefacts originally from Mosul are displayed at Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad. (AFP/File Photo)
Assyrian artefacts originally from Mosul are displayed at Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 02 May 2022

Can Iraq’s archaeological renaissance help forge a stronger national identity?

Could the discovery and preservation of ancient Mesopotamian sites and artifacts help reconcile a divided nation? (AFP)
  • Country is witnessing discovery and preservation of ancient Mesopotamian sites and artifacts
  • Growing number of young Iraqis taking an interest in preserving what remains of their heritage

MOSUL/BOGOTA: On Feb. 26, 2015, shocking footage emerged from northwestern Iraq of Daesh militants smashing pre-Islamic artifacts and burning ancient manuscripts at Mosul Cultural Museum.

The terrorist group, which had seized control of the multiethnic city the previous year, had set about looting everything of value and destroying anything that failed to conform to its warped ideology.

The priceless objects had told the singular narrative of Iraq as a land of remarkable civilizations, from the Sumerians and the Akkadians to the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Yet it took only moments for Daesh to erase the evidence of thousands of years of human history.

The same was true across large swaths of the country seized by the militants intent on symbolic destruction and easy loot.


An Iraqi army soldier walks across the ancient ruins of Nimrud following the recapture of the ancient town on the outskirts of Mosul from Daesh extremists. (AFP/File Photo)

An Iraqi army soldier walks across the ancient ruins of Nimrud following the recapture of the ancient town on the outskirts of Mosul from Daesh extremists. (AFP/File Photo)

“Daesh wanted to show and prove that it could not only destroy the present and future of Iraq but its past as well,” Amer Abdul-Razzaq, head of the Directorate of Antiquities and Heritage in Iraq’s southern Dhi Qar province, told Arab News.

“They wanted to destroy the mixed civilization of Iraq, which is diverse with different ethnicities, minorities and nations such as the Akkadians, Assyrians and Babylonians. They brutally destroyed places like Nimrud, Hatra, the tomb of the Prophet Yunus, and they destroyed many places that are holy and symbolic to Muslims.”

On July 21, 2017, almost two years after the pillaging, Mosul was finally liberated by the Iraqi army, ushering in a period of painstaking work to restore the city’s monuments, churches, mosques and archaeological treasures.

Since then, and the subsequent liberation of other areas that were under the group’s control, Iraq has experienced something of an archaeological renaissance, with foreign experts returning to the country and a growing number of young Iraqis taking an interest in preserving what remains of their heritage.

“Antiquities and heritage unite us and let us recognize we all belong to each other, and it is important for us to know we all go back to one root in some point in ancient history,” Falih Al-Shmari, who is studying for a doctorate at the University of Baghdad, told Arab News.

“For example, Assyrian mandates were found in the north, east, west and south of Iraq, which indicates we all were Assyrian at some point and we belong to others as one identity.

“Even in Islamic history, we were the same and there is the same description of Islamic architecture and ideas. We are an Islamic society and we were all educated in Islamic principles and education in the past.”




Numerous sculptures, pottery and cuneiform artifacts, which are estimated to date back to 3,000 BC, are unearthed by British Museum archaeologists in what was once the ancient city of Girsu, capital of the Kingdom of Lagash, now in Dhi Qar, Iraq. (AFP/File Photo)

Among the most recent discoveries is a mosque built from mud dating back to the Umayyad period, about 1,400 years ago, uncovered by British Museum specialists in tandem with local experts at Tell Kabiba in Dhi Qar.

Prior to this, in 2016, an archaeological team led by Sebastien Rey of the British Museum, discovered the Enino temple — also known as the Temple of the White Thunderbird — in the Assyrian city of Girsu, now known as Tello, in the north of Dhi Qar.

Other European-led missions working in Tello have uncovered the temple of King Gudea, the most famous Sumerian king of the Lagash dynasty, who ruled between 2144 B.C. and 2124 B.C.

In the past year, French archaeologists working in the city of Larsa at Tell Es-Senkereh discovered the palace of King Sin Ednam (1850-1844 B.C.), which dates back to the ancient Babylonian era.

Six missions from Britain, France and Italy working in the Sumerian city of Girsu have uncovered a residential area dating back to the Early Dynastic period (2900–2350 B.C.), including the temple of the god of war Ningirsu.

Another major achievement is the restoration of what is perhaps the oldest bridge in the world, in the city of Girsu. The work on the 4,000-year-old structure is taking place under a five-year contract with a British team.

British and German excavation teams have also uncovered the site of the ancient city of Charax Spasinou, the largest city built by Alexander the Great, in southern Iraq near Basra at the modern-day site of Jebel Khayaber.




Among the most recent discoveries is a mosque built from mud dating back to the Umayyad period, about 1,400 years ago, uncovered by British Museum specialists in tandem with local experts. (AFP/File Photo)

Meanwhile, in the north of the country a French team in Mosul is continuing its maintenance of the mural of the Church of Mar Korkis, and working at sites in the city of Ashur, which include the royal cemetery, the Parthian palace, and Walter Andre’s palace.

At the Kirkuk Citadel, also in northern Iraq, the local archaeological authority is working with the Turkish government to properly maintain what some scholars believe is the tomb of the Prophet Daniel.

“We have found empires and states that are unbelievable and we, in this era, can barely imagine how powerful and advanced they were,” said Abdul-Razzaq.

“Iraq lies upon a massive archaeological trove of more than 20,000 sites. It is very hard to protect it all. That is why a lot of it has been stolen and destroyed. The items that have been stolen are in the thousands.

“In my opinion, I see it as a human tragedy because this archaeology is not only that of a specific nation or minority, but all of humanity.”

The looting and destruction did not begin in 2014 with the rise of Daesh, however. Abdul-Razzaq said Iraq’s heritage has been suffering as a result of conflict and official neglect for decades.

“In 2003, during the US invasion of Iraq, there was massive destruction at many archaeological sites and that was due to a lack of protection by the UN,” he said. “American forces protected oil fields, important ministries, defenses and security — not archaeology.”




An Iraqi guard shows broken jars in the ransacked and looted Iraq’s largest archeological museum in Baghdad in 2003. (AFP/File Photo)

The looting of Baghdad Museum was perhaps the most emblematic example of this neglect. For 36 hours, beginning on April 10, 2003, the museum was ransacked by thieves.

It was only later, when the extent of the damage became clear, that the US-led coalition began to prioritize the protection of Iraq’s antiquities.

“Six months after the US invasion, the Americans realized they had to act in order to protect archaeological sites from looting and destruction,” said Abdul-Razzaq.

“Through social activists, and after (Grand Ayatollah) Ali Al-Sistani issued a fatwa, they raised awareness among the people about protecting it. After that, the Iraqis were able to bring back many stolen archaeological items and people started protecting it.

“Nevertheless, we have lost, and are still missing, a massive number of items, even today. We are still searching for them.”

Aamir Al-Jumaili, a lecturer at the University of Mosul’s College of Archaeology for 20 years, said the destruction of Iraqi heritage has been going on even longer.

“We need to go back to 1991, not only 2003, to evaluate the destruction and loss we had,” he told Arab News. “During Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, Iraq lost many archaeological items through robbery, destruction and smuggling at museums in Iraq’s cities.”




A member of the Iraqi forces holds damaged artefacts inside the destroyed museum of Mosul in March, 2017 after they recaptured it from Daesh fighters. (AFP/File Photo)

Although authorities in the country have introduced legislation to protect antiquities, based on earlier laws first enacted in 1936 and strengthened in the 1970s, some experts believe the government should make the penalties for harming the nation’s heritage much more robust.

“In the past, the laws protecting archaeological sites and ancient history were stronger than we had in 2003 and 2014,” Ahmad Qasim Juma, an archaeology lecturer at the University of Mosul and a UNESCO consultant, told Arab News.

“Before 2003, if anyone did anything illegal to an ancient archaeological site, they would be killed by the government. After 2003, and until 2018, anyone would go to an archaeological site and start digging and researching without expert knowledge or a government permit. There are no strict punishments to stop them.”

The problem has been compounded by decades of government neglect and underfunding, dysfunctional administrations, and the continued presence of armed groups in the countryside, including militias backed by Iran.

“There are many different forces and militias controlling the country,” said Al-Shmari. “Sinjar contains foreign forces and militias that control it all. If you want to research or investigate, they don’t allow you to do it. Sinjar is one of the areas that is very hard to get to for archaeologists.”

He believes that investment by the central government could help turn the tide and, in the process, begin to reshape Iraq’s global image.

“We are not happy with the level of government support for Iraq’s antiquities and heritage. It is really low. If it was up to me, I would make Mosul one of the biggest tourist cities,” said Al-Shmari.




Assyrian artefacts originally from Mosul are displayed at Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad. (AFP/File Photo)

“Foreign workers and tourists face challenges and difficulties in terms of security and administration. We need to provide facilities and help them when they are coming to Iraq.

“We have the capabilities to make discoveries at archaeological sites but it requires funds and support to do that. It is the government’s responsibility to fund and support local students and researchers.”

Indeed, as Iraq begins to emerge from decades of crisis, experts believe an opportunity has presented itself to develop other aspects of its economy besides oil to embrace educational partnerships and perhaps even international tourism.

“Antiquities and tourism are one the biggest economic aspects that Iraq should focus on, as it mainly depends on oil, which can fall at any time in the future,” said Abdul-Razzaq. “If we wisely focus on antiquities and tourism, it will play a significant role.

“For example, we in Dhi Qar used to have one or maybe two tourists per month. Now we have three to four tourists per day coming to Dhi Qar. Iraq’s tourism sector can play a bigger role than oil.”

Abdul-Razzaq hopes that in the process, Iraqis will not only begin to feel proud of their history and shared identity but also turn the page on the violence and sectarian strife of recent decades.

“We have to take advantage of our ancient archaeology and history,” he said. “We are known as the cradle of human civilization and humanity. Everything began in Iraq: The first laws, writing, medicines and agriculture.

“I always focus on archaeological development because it will create national identity. We are just like a tree — we have very strong roots.”


Tunisian government, unions agree to talks on IMF reform program

Tunisian government, unions agree to talks on IMF reform program
Updated 12 August 2022

Tunisian government, unions agree to talks on IMF reform program

Tunisian government, unions agree to talks on IMF reform program
  • Prime Minister Najla Bouden, UGTT labour union chief Noureddine Taboubi and UTICA commerce union chief Samir Majoul had agreed a "social contract" to tackle national challenges
  • The UGTT reposted the statement on its Facebook page

TUNIS: Tunisia’s government and both its main labor and commerce unions agreed on Friday to start talks on Monday over economic reforms required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue program.
State news agency TAP reported that Prime Minister Najla Bouden, UGTT labor union chief Noureddine Taboubi and UTICA commerce union chief Samir Majoul had agreed a “social contract” to tackle national challenges, citing a government statement.
The UGTT reposted the statement on its Facebook page.
The labor union, which represents a vast syndicate of workers, has been a staunch critic of IMF economic reforms proposed by the government, including subsidy cuts, a public sector wage freeze and the restructuring of state-owned companies.
It previously said, such reforms would increase the suffering of Tunisians and lead to an imminent social implosion.
Tunisia is seeking $4 billion in IMF support amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, though diplomat sources told Reuters any IMF program approved would be unlikely to reach that level.
The IMF wants the UGTT, a powerful union that has a million members and has previously paralyzed parts of the economy in protest, to formally agree to government reforms.
Efforts to secure the IMF bailout have been complicated by Tunisia’s political upheavals since President Kais Saied seized most powers a year ago, shutting down parliament and moving to rule by decree.
Last month, he pushed through a new constitution formalising many of the expanded powers he has assumed in a referendum. Official figures showed that 31 percent of Tunisians took part, but opposition groups have rejected the figure, calling it inflated.


Tunisia says 82 migrants intercepted or rescued

Tunisia says 82 migrants intercepted or rescued
Updated 12 August 2022

Tunisia says 82 migrants intercepted or rescued

Tunisia says 82 migrants intercepted or rescued
  • Tunisia is in the throes of political and economic crises, and Libya has been gripped by lawlessness since 2011 that has seen militias turn to people trafficking

TUNIS: Tunisian authorities intercepted five new migration attempts and rescued or intercepted 82 people, the Interior Ministry said on Friday.
National Guard units “from the north, center, south and coast” of Tunisia foiled the attempts “as part of the fight against irregular migration,” a statement said.
Tunisia is a key departure point for migrants hoping to reach Europe — usually Italy — and sea crossing attempts tend to increase during spring and summer.
Friday’s statement said 76 people were rescued in four operations at sea, and another six were intercepted on land in the Gabes and Sfax areas.
It did not provide details the nationalities of the migrants or report on the condition of the boats they used.
The statement said that both Tunisian and foreign currency were seized, although the amounts were not specified.
Media in the North African country reported a shipwreck on Tuesday off the Kerkennah islands in which eight Tunisians — three women, four children and a man — died. Another 20 people were saved.

BACKGROUND

Tunisia is a key departure point for migrants hoping to reach Europe — usually Italy — and sea crossing attempts tend to increase during spring and summer.

And on Sunday, the National Guard said that 170 people from sub-Saharan Africa were among 255 migrants intercepted during 17 attempted crossings.
Tunisia and Libya are the main points of departure for migrants trying to reach Europe from Africa.
Tunisia is in the throes of political and economic crises, and Libya has been gripped by lawlessness since 2011 that has seen militias turn to people trafficking.
Italian authorities say 34,000 people arrived in the country by sea up to July 22 this year, compared with 25,500 over the same period in 2021 and 10,900 in 2020.
Meanwhile, a search and rescue operation was conducted for a third day for migrants reported missing after their boat capsized south of the Greek island of Rhodes.
The coast guard said on Friday that a Greek frigate and three merchant ships were searching the area roughly 40 nautical miles (74 km) south of Rhodes and 33 nautical miles southeast of Karpathos,
A total of 29 survivors, all men, were picked up by a merchant ship and a Greek air force helicopter in the early hours of Wednesday after the boat sank.
Survivors had initially indicated that between 60 and 80 people had been on board, but that figure was later revised, and the coast guard said Friday that a total of 50-60 people were now believed to have been on board.
Two of the 29, who the coast guard said were Turkish nationals, were rescued by helicopter and flown to Karpathos, while the other 27, all nationals of Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, were picked up by the merchant ship and transported to Kos.
The Turkish coast guard had also said on Wednesday that they had rescued five people. No further survivors or bodies have been located since the initial rescues.
It was not immediately clear why the boat sank, but weather conditions in the area were rough at the time, with strong winds and choppy seas, Greek authorities said.
The most common sea route for asylum-seekers from the Middle East, Asia and Africa has been from Turkey to the nearby Greek islands in the Aegean Sea.
But with Greek authorities increasing patrols in the area and facing persistent reports of summarily deporting new arrivals to Turkey without allowing them to apply for asylum, many are now attempting the much longer, and more dangerous, route directly to Italy. Greek authorities deny they carry out illegal summary deportations of asylum-seekers.


Drought tightens its grip on Morocco

Drought tightens its grip on Morocco
Updated 12 August 2022

Drought tightens its grip on Morocco

Drought tightens its grip on Morocco
  • The situation is critical, given the village’s position in the agricultural province of Settat, near the Oum Errabia River and the Al Massira Dam, Morocco’s second largest

OULED ESSI MASSEOUD, Morocco: Mohamed gave up farming because of successive droughts that have hit his previously fertile but isolated village in Morocco and because he just couldn’t bear it any longer.
“To see villagers rush to public fountains in the morning or to a neighbor to get water makes you want to cry,” the man in his 60s said.
“The water shortage is making us suffer,” he told AFP in Ouled Essi Masseoud village, around 140 km from the country’s economic capital Casablanca.
But it is not just his village that is suffering — all of the North African country has been hit.
No longer having access to potable running water, the villagers of Ouled Essi Masseoud rely solely on sporadic supplies in public fountains and from private wells.
“The fountains work just one or two days a week, the wells are starting to dry up and the river next to it is drying up more and more,” said Mohammed Sbai as he went to fetch water from neighbors.
The situation is critical, given the village’s position in the agricultural province of Settat, near the Oum Errabia River and the Al Massira Dam, Morocco’s second largest.
Its reservoir supplies drinking water to several cities, including the 3 million people who live in Casablanca. But latest official figures show it is now filling at a rate of just 5 percent.
Al Massira Reservoir has been reduced to little more than a pond bordered by kilometers of cracked earth.
Nationally, dams are filling at a rate of only 27 percent, precipitated by the country’s worst drought in at least four decades.
At 600 cubic meters of water annually per capita, Morocco is already well below the water scarcity threshold of 1,700 cubic meters per capita per year, according to the World Health Organization.
In the 1960s, water availability was four times higher — at 2,600 cubic meters.
A July World Bank report on the Moroccan economy said the decrease in the availability of renewable water resources put the country in a situation of “structural water stress.”
The authorities have now introduced water rationing.
The Interior Ministry ordered local authorities to restrict supplies when necessary, and prohibits using drinking water to irrigate green spaces and golf courses.
Illegal withdrawals from wells, springs or waterways have also been prohibited.
In the longer term, the government plans to build 20 seawater desalination plants by 2030, which should cover a large part of the country’s needs.
“We are in crisis management rather than in anticipated risk management,” said water resources expert Mohammed Jalil.
He added that it was “difficult to monitor effectively the measures taken by the authorities.”
Agronomist Mohamed Srairi said Morocco’s Achilles’ heel was its agricultural policy “which favors water-consuming fruit trees and industrial agriculture.”
He said such agriculture relies on drip irrigation which, although it can save water, paradoxically results in increased consumption as previously arid areas become cultivable.
The World Bank report noted that cultivated areas under drip irrigation in Morocco have more than tripled.
It said that “modern irrigation technologies may have altered cropping decisions in ways that increased rather than decreased the total quantity of water consumed by the agricultural sector.”
More than 80 percent of Morocco’s water supply is allocated to agriculture, a key economic sector that accounts for 14 percent of gross domestic product.
Mohammed, in his 90s, stood on an area of parched earth not far from the Al Massira Dam.
“We don’t plow the land anymore because there is no water,” he said, but added that he had to “accept adversity anyway because we have no choice.”
Younger generations in the village appear more gloomy.
Soufiane, a 14-year-old shepherd boy, said: “We are living in a precarious state with this drought.
“I think it will get even worse in the future.”


Beirut bank gunman still behind bars as family takes to the street in protest

Beirut bank gunman still behind bars as family takes to the street in protest
Updated 12 August 2022

Beirut bank gunman still behind bars as family takes to the street in protest

Beirut bank gunman still behind bars as family takes to the street in protest
  • Bassam Al-Sheikh Hussein was arrested on Thursday after holding employees hostage
  • After surrendering himself he was told he would not be jailed

BEIRUT: The Lebanese man who held eight bank employees hostage at gunpoint while demanding the release of his frozen savings remained behind bars on Friday pending further inquiries.

Bassam Al-Sheikh Hussein was arrested after voluntarily leaving the Federal Bank branch in Beirut on Thursday evening following a seven-hour standoff.

On Friday, members of his family blocked Al-Ouzai Road in Beirut in protest at his continued detention saying it was in breach of an agreement made the night before.

An armed man Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein, 42, speaks with one of his hostages inside a bank, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022. (AP)

Al-Sheikh Hussein, 42, surrendered after being told his family would be given $35,000 of his money and being promised he would be questioned and then set free. Inside the bank he had been armed with a pump-action shotgun and gasoline, which at on point he said he would use to set himself alight.

Many people in the crowd that had gathered outside the bank during the siege applauded as he was led away. Lebanon’s central bank imposed a freeze on all bank deposits in 2019.

Despite the promise that he would be allowed to walk free, after leaving the bank Al-Sheikh Hussein was arrested and detained on the orders of the Lebanese judiciary.

Lawyer Haytham Ezzo told Arab News that Al-Sheikh Hussein was detained by the Information Branch of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces and denied access to a lawyer despite it being his legal right to have one present.

“Even if no one sues him, there’s the public right,” he said. “Either the investigating judge asks for his release after he’s referred to him by the Information Branch, or asks for his arrest.”

Ezzo said it was possible that Al-Sheikh Hussein had been arrested for endangering state security or threatening to kill or kidnap.

As for the money paid to the family, that could not be reclaimed by the bank as “it doesn’t constitute a criminal tool. It is the arrested depositor’s right and property,” he added.

Hassan Mughnieh, the head of Lebanon’s Depositors Association, who was in charge of the negotiations between Al-Sheikh Hussein and the bank, told Arab News that “neither the employees who were held hostage nor the Federal Bank sued him.”

But the gunman would remain behind bars until next week at the earliest, he said.

“Things will become clear on Tuesday, as it’s the weekend and judges do not work on Monday in the Justice Palaces.”

He added: “As depositors, we will organize a protest in front of Beirut’s Justice Palace on Tuesday and in front of the Directorate General of the Internal Security Forces. We don’t have a problem with Al-Sheikh Hassan’s arrest, but justice says the bank owner should also be arrested.”

Mughnieh said he had received many calls from other disgruntled bank depositors saying they wanted to act as Al-Sheikh Hassan had done.

Lebanese bank customers have had their deposits frozen since the start of the country’s economic crisis and slump of its currency.

Castro Abdallah, head of the National Federation of Trade and Employees Unions, said on Friday that “the affected people should stand together in order to recover the stolen public and depositors’ money.”

He called on unions to protest next Thursday in the commercial street of Hamra in Beirut.

Lebanon’s caretaker deputy Prime Minister Saade Chami warned that Lebanon was standing at a crossroads.

“We need to acknowledge the reality and the crises we are facing and confront them. This means that we should take the needed measures and carry out the critical and necessary reforms that put the country on the right path.”

He added that the financial and monetary policies adopted in recent years in a bid to buy time had failed and that time was now running out.

“No one will rescue us if we don’t try to rescue ourselves,” he said. “Receiving help from the little friends we have left in the world will not achieve the desired outcome.”


Hundreds linked to Daesh transferred from Syria to Iraq

Hundreds linked to Daesh transferred from Syria to Iraq
Updated 12 August 2022

Hundreds linked to Daesh transferred from Syria to Iraq

Hundreds linked to Daesh transferred from Syria to Iraq
  • It is the fourth operation of its kind this year from the camp, which lies less than 10 kilometers from the Iraqi border
  • The men, women and children belonged to 150 families and left the camp on Thursday

BEIRUT: Syria’s autonomous Kurdish region transferred to the Iraqi government more than 600 relatives of Daesh group members who were detained at the notorious Al-Hol camp, a monitor said Friday.
It is the fourth operation of its kind this year from the camp, which lies less than 10 kilometers from the Iraqi border.
In the latest transfer, around “620 people, relatives of Daesh members, left Al-Hol,” coordinated between the camp administration and the Iraqi government, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.
The men, women and children belonged to 150 families and left the camp on Thursday, an official in the Kurdish administration told AFP.
Thousands of foreign extremists joined Daesh as fighters, often bringing their wives and children to live in the “caliphate” declared by the group across swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Kurdish-led forces backed by a US-led coalition dislodged the militants from their last scrap of territory in Syria in 2019.
Kurdish authorities have repeatedly called on countries to repatriate their citizens from crowded displaced camps, of which Al-Hol is Syria’s largest.
More than 100 people, including many women, were murdered in Al-Hol over an 18-month period, the UN said in June, calling for camp residents to be returned home.
But nations have mostly received them only sporadically, fearing security threats and a domestic political backlash.
The first repatriation of Iraqi families from Al-Hol, involving around 300 people, took place in May last year.
Iraq should repatriate 500 families in total from Al-Hol this year, the official Iraqi New Agency announced on Wednesday.
In addition to the returned family members, the Iraqi government also received this week about 50 Iraqi Daesh fighters and leaders who were detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces, according to the Observatory.
The SDF spearheaded the fight against Daesh in Syria with the support of the US-led coalition.
In early June, Iraq repatriated another 50 Iraqi Daesh fighters who were detained by Kurdish forces. They were among 3,500 Iraqis held in Syrian Kurdish prisons, a senior military official said at the time.
In April, a senior Iraqi security official said the Al-Hol camp is a security threat and should be dismantled.
It houses around 55,000 people, the UN reported in June.