Iraq’s archaeological treasures face looming threat of climate change

Special The Al-Aqiser archeological site in Iraq, which includes what has been described as one of the oldest eastern Christian churches. (AFP)
The Al-Aqiser archeological site in Iraq, which includes what has been described as one of the oldest eastern Christian churches. (AFP)
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Updated 08 August 2022

Iraq’s archaeological treasures face looming threat of climate change

Iraq’s archaeological treasures face looming threat of climate change
  • Dust storms, rising temperatures and salinity are damaging artifacts and excavation sites, undermining conservation efforts
  • Extreme weather events are harming the country’s natural heritage, including the once verdant southern marshland

DUBAI: In January, the drought which has stalked Iraq for the past three years caused water levels at Mosul dam in the north of the country to drop to their lowest levels since it was built in 1986. But, as the water receded, something unexpected emerged from beneath the surface.

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

However, the settlement, located in present-day Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region, emerged for just two months before it sank into the waters once more. Archaeologists had to race against time to excavate as much of the site as possible while it stood exposed.

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




British Museum and Iraqi archaeologists carry out excavations in the ancient city of Girsu, the capital of the Kingdom of Lagash, in Dhi Qar, in Nov. 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.

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

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

The precise impact these extreme weather events are having on the world’s heritage sites is still being studied. What is known for certain is that in some countries of the Middle East and North Africa, a fearsome mixture of desertification, drought and climate change is damaging artifacts and excavation sites and undermining conservation efforts.

In Yemen, for instance, intense rainfall is damaging the mud-brick highrises of the 16th-century walled-city of Shibam, a UNESCO World Heritage site nicknamed “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 rainfall is damaging the foundations of the city’s numerous Indo-Islamic mosques.

In Egypt, high temperatures, heavy rains and flooding are damaging the ancient stonework on monuments in Cairo, Luxor, Alexandria, and elsewhere.

Granite that was once rose-colored has faded to a pale pink or even light grey over the last 15 years, Abdelhakim Elbadry, a restoration expert who works at Karnak temple, told Reuters. “In every archaeological site here in Luxor, you can witness the changes.”

In central Iraq, meanwhile, strong winds have eroded many hilltop sites that are still difficult to reach for security-conscious archaeologists.

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

The joint 2016 report, titled “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate,” examined the increasing 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 pieces of cracked earth from the marshes crossing the southern Iraqi town of Al-Azeir. The southern Iraqi wetlands 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 soil,” Jaafar Jotheri, a geoarchaeologist at the University of Al-Qadisiyah in Iraq, told Arab News.

“Most of the sites are outside the cities in the desert, such as Ur. Dust storms don’t just affect people and other forms of life, but also heritage buildings. Dust gathers 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 retract, creating cracks.

Then there is the problem of increasing salinity. “People living in or outside cities, including farmers, are increasingly relying on ground water because there is no more fresh water in the rivers,” Jotheri said.

FASTFACTS

* Climate change is now a top threat to world heritage, says UNESCO.

* Marshlands of southern Iraq among the most vulnerable, the UN warns.

“The groundwater is more salty. We are taking the groundwater and using it for everyday life as well as irrigation, so we are increasingly exposing all kinds of surfaces to salt and saltwater.

“The more we use the salty groundwater, the more salty exposed surfaces will be. People use drains but then the salt also accumulates in the drain canals and reach the foundations of heritage buildings, creating cracks in the bricks and the walls.

It was not until recently that Iraq had to contend with what many regard as telltale signs of man-made climate change. “The temperature was mild, sandstorms were less harsh and less frequent, and we had fresh water, so we didn’t have to use groundwater,” Jotheri said.

Suspected climate change has also taken a toll on Iraq’s natural features. Entire lakes have disappeared, such as Sawa, known as “the pearl of the south,” located in the Muthanna governorate, which lies close to the Euphrates River.

The country’s once verdant wetlands in the south, which had been drained by Saddam Hussein and later reflooded after his fall, are disappearing once again — this time owing to changing weather patterns.

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

In Nov. 2021, the World Bank warned that Iraq could suffer a 20 percent drop in water resources by 2050 due to climate change.

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

“Over the past two months I have personally witnessed over a dozen sandstorms in such a short period,” Lanah Haddad, regional director for Tarii, the Academic Research Institute in Iraq, told Arab News.

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

Mark Altaweel, a reader in Near East Archaeology at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, is convinced that climate change poses a dire threat to world heritage.

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




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

For instance, Iraqi sites such as Taq Kisra, the remains of a Sasanian-era Persian monument, have weathered badly, and the structure has partially collapsed as a result.

“Mosques and old houses have collapsed in villages and different sites when you have sudden and violent rain events,” said Altaweel.

“The sandstorms disrupt our work, mostly 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 that authorities can do is to tackle the immediate man-made causes, including overuse of groundwater and poorly managed surface water.

“There needs to be a re-greening effort, but it has to be done carefully to ensure plants survive, and plants can prevent sand from becoming airborne,” 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 wants to save these sites, countries will also need to share financial resources.”

Additionally, architects and archaeologists have discovered that adhering to traditional craftsmanship and knowledge is the best way to repair, restore and maintain the heritage of such sites. However, precious 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 seen as essential for the restoration of Egypt’s multitude of ancient sites.




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

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

There are also prescient lessons for present-day societies as extreme climate events batter modern infrastructure, stretch resources and destroy livelihoods, creating the conditions for displacement and even conflict.

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

“Societies always face challenges in providing water for agriculture and to their growing communities in urban spaces. We need to learn these lessons from the past to avoid conflict over water in the near future.”

Jotheri worries that the palpable effects of climate change, if not addressed urgently, could lead to further violence, particularly in societies such as Iraq.

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

“We have a fragile state when what we need is a stable one to face the threat of climate change. If water, for example, is cut or reduced in the Tigris or Euphrates over the next few years, people will begin to fight over water.”

 

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PKK blamed for deadly police guesthouse attack in Turkey

PKK blamed for deadly police guesthouse attack in Turkey
Updated 28 September 2022

PKK blamed for deadly police guesthouse attack in Turkey

PKK blamed for deadly police guesthouse attack in Turkey
  • One of the assailants has been identified as Dilsah Ercan, codenamed Zozan Tolan, who joined the PKK in 2013 in Mersin
  • A judicial investigation has been launched and 22 people are being held for questioning in connection with the incident

ANKARA: Turkey has blamed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for a deadly attack on a police guesthouse in the country’s southern coastal Mersin province.
One policeman was killed and another injured in the attack reportedly carried out by two women who opened fire with long-barreled weapons and detonated bombs late on Monday.
Another bomb, found in a bag near the guesthouse, was defused.
One of the assailants has been identified as Dilsah Ercan, codenamed Zozan Tolan, who joined the PKK in 2013 in Mersin, the Turkish Interior Ministry said.
A judicial investigation has been launched and 22 people are being held for questioning in connection with the incident.
The PKK, listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US, and the EU, launched a bloody terror campaign against the Turkish state in 1984, which has since claimed 40,000 lives.
The UK Foreign Office has advised British citizens in Turkey not to go to areas within 10 kilometers of the Syrian border.
Monday’s attack coincided with domestic debates taking place in Turkey in the run-up to next year’s election marathon.
Erol Bural, a retired colonel and head of the Ankara-based Research Center for Combating Terrorism and Radicalization (TERAM), told Arab News that the Mersin attack was a message to Ankara from the PKK that it was still active in Turkish towns.
He said: “Terrorism is an instrument to exert political violence. The PKK wanted to show that it is still alive in Turkey to launch terror attacks against specific targets.”
Bural noted that the PKK had not carried out an urban attack on such a scale for some time due to the effectiveness of Turkey’s increased anti-terror, and intelligence-gathering measures.
“This attack was carried out by the urban team of the PKK by people who were familiar with the district and who seem to have been specifically trained for such urban operations. They knew very well that the police guesthouse could not have been protected as strongly as a police station. Therefore, they picked that target,” he added.
Bural pointed out that the PKK may also have used the attack as a signal to discourage Turkey from conducting any potential operations in Syria.
“Another underlying reason for this attack might also be revenge following Turkey’s cross-border operations in northern Iraq against the PKK hideouts,” he said.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar announced on Monday that around 400 PKK members in northern Iraq had been “neutralized” — surrendered, killed, or captured — since the start of a cross-border operation in April.
On Sept. 23, the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) captured a PKK member against whom a red notice had been issued, and on Wednesday it apprehended another group member, Sabah Ogur. The same day, Akar said the guesthouse attack had been plotted in Syria and added that, “necessary action will be taken against the perpetrators when the time is ripe.”
Meanwhile, in Turkey’s anti-Daesh operation, 16 Daesh suspects were caught in Istanbul and eight in Mersin.
Think tank TERAM closely follows counter-terror operations in Turkey, and Bural said: “Each month, about 1,000 terrorists from different groups are caught in Turkey, and some of them are detained. Therefore, Turkey’s counter-terror operations will continue following this attack with the same vigor.”


Israeli forces kill 4 Palestinians in Jenin raid

Israeli forces kill 4 Palestinians in Jenin raid
Updated 28 September 2022

Israeli forces kill 4 Palestinians in Jenin raid

Israeli forces kill 4 Palestinians in Jenin raid
  • Israeli forces said they shot dead two Palestinians suspected of involvement in recent gun attacks
  • Two more were killed and 44 injured as residents protested against the incursion

RAMALLAH: Four Palestinians were killed and dozens injured, some seriously, during an Israeli military raid early on Wednesday in the Jenin refugee camp in in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli forces said they shot dead two Palestinians suspected of involvement in recent gun attacks. Two more were killed and 44 injured as residents protested against the incursion.

Video footage showed plumes of smoke billowing from a house in the camp, apparently after an explosion. In the streets, men sheltered behind cars as heavy gunfire could be heard.

President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party said one of the men killed in the clashes was Ahmed Alawneh, a 24-year-old intelligence officer.

The party added that the incursion was a “dangerous escalation.” It called for demonstrations to honor the “heroic martyrs” and “unify the battlefields against the Israeli occupation that is trying to single out and isolate Jenin.”

Thousands later participated in the funeral of the four dead amid chants calling for revenge.

Maj. Gen. Akram Rajoub, Jenin’s governor, told Arab News that the Israeli army used excessive force and intended to kill.

He said the two wanted men died in the yard of a house that had been surrounded by Israeli soldiers, despite possessing no weapons and showing no resistance.

Mohammad Shtayyeh, the Palestinian prime minister, called for the men’s killers to be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. Mosques announced mourning and a general strike in Jenin and Nablus.

Ninety Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli army in the West Bank since the beginning of this year.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine said the killings showed that “this occupation, which practices terrorism in all its forms against our Palestinian people,” understands only force.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for the Palestinian presidency, said the “dangerous Israeli escalation” would not give legitimacy, security or stability to Israel.

He added that Israel is an international pariah and that the US, its principle ally, has lost credibility with its continued calls for calm while Palestinian lives, land and holy sites are being destroyed.

“The occupation still insists on crossing all red lines, whether in Jerusalem, Jenin, Nablus or the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories,” he said.

Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman, said the “terrorism of the occupation” would not break Jenin’s determination, and “the fall of the martyrs becomes fuel for the resistance.”

He added that the battle against Israel will continue until it is expelled from all Palestinian land.

Israel accused Hamas of stoking tensions in the West Bank, claiming that an explosive device was detonated when its soldiers tried to arrest the wanted men in Jenin and that both died in an exchange of fire.

Hamas was also accused by Israel of stoking Palestinian resistance at the Al-Aqsa compound in East Jerusalem, which has been stormed by Jewish settlers for three consecutive days.


Yemeni parties under pressure for 6-month truce extension

Yemeni parties under pressure for 6-month truce extension
Updated 14 min 35 sec ago

Yemeni parties under pressure for 6-month truce extension

Yemeni parties under pressure for 6-month truce extension
  • Envoy is expected to meet Houthi leaders to persuade them to extend the truce and accept his latest proposal for opening roads in Taiz
  • Grundberg: We are at a crossroads where the risk of a return to war is real

AL-MUKALLA: Hans Grundberg, the UN envoy for Yemen, arrived in Houthi-held Sanaa on Wednesday for talks as he pushes the Yemeni militia and the internationally recognized government to extend the UN-brokered truce for six months and implement truce elements.

Grundberg is expected to meet Houthi leaders to persuade them to extend the truce and accept his latest proposal for opening roads in Taiz, among other things.

The envoy’s visit comes as the Yemeni government and the Houthis received a new draft of the envoy’s proposal, which includes, in addition to the six-month truce, opening secondary roads in the besieged city of Taiz and adding new destinations for commercial flights from Sanaa airport to include Doha, Muscat and Mumbai.

The proposal would ask the Houthis to use revenue from fuel ships passing through Hodeidah port to pay government employees in their territories based on the 2014 payroll, with the Yemeni government covering any payment shortfall.

A Yemeni government source told Arab News that the government received a copy of the draft and expressed reservations about opening only small roads in Taiz rather than at least one main road leading into and out of the city and requested that the Houthis fully pay the government employees in areas under their control.

“Minor roads in Taiz, such as Osefrah, Al-Sateen, Al-Zulai and Al-Rahedah, will be opened during the first phase. Opening the main Softeel road is important for the government,” said the Yemeni official who preferred anonymity, adding that the government is seeking assurances that the Houthis will adhere to the truce’s terms.

The UN-brokered truce, which went into effect on April 2 and has been extended twice, will expire on Oct. 2.

Despite significantly reducing hostilities throughout the country and allowing commercial flights from Sanaa to Amman and Cairo, as well as allowing fuel ships to enter Hodeidah ports, the truce did not even result in a partial lifting of the Houthi siege of Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city, or the cessation of discriminatory attacks on residential areas in the city.

The UN envoy, after concluding a trip to Riyadh and Muscat, warned on Tuesday that the truce was at serious risk of collapsing and that new fighting could erupt, urging Yemeni parties to achieve peace.

“We are at a crossroads where the risk of a return to war is real, and I am urging the parties to choose an alternative that prioritizes the needs of the Yemeni people,” Grundberg said.

The Houthis rejected the new proposal on Tuesday and other calls for extending the truce and insisted the Yemeni government pay public servants in their areas and end what they called the “blockade” on Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port.

“Any discussion of peace in Yemen lacks credibility and seriousness until these critical humanitarian issues are addressed, which are a demand of all Yemenis,” Mohammed Abdul Sallam, a Houthi chief negotiator, tweeted.


US condemns Iranian attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan region

US condemns Iranian attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan region
Updated 28 September 2022

US condemns Iranian attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan region

US condemns Iranian attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan region
  • Iran's Revolutionary Guards said they fired missiles and drones at militant targets in the Kurdish region

WASHINGTON: The United States on Wednesday condemned Iran’s use of ballistic missiles and drone attacks against the Iraqi Kurdistan region and called it “an unjustified violation of Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said on Wednesday they fired missiles and drones at militant targets in the Kurdish region of neighboring northern Iraq, where an official said nine people were killed.
“Moreover, we further condemn comments from the government of Iran threatening additional attacks against Iraq,” the US State Department said in a statement on Wednesday.


Tunisia praises Italian envoy for pandemic help 

Tunisia praises Italian envoy for pandemic help 
Updated 28 September 2022

Tunisia praises Italian envoy for pandemic help 

Tunisia praises Italian envoy for pandemic help 
  • Najla Bouden thanked Lorenzo Fanara for his country’s help during the COVID-19 crisis
  • Fanara said Italy is willing “to give more support to Tunisia in its negotiations with the International Monetary Fund”

ROME: Tunisia’s prime minister has praised the Italian ambassador for strengthening relations and helping her country through the pandemic as the envoy prepared to end his stay in Tunis.

Najla Bouden thanked Lorenzo Fanara for his country’s help during the COVID-19 crisis, when Italy sent several ships filled with medical supplies, ventilators and vaccines.

Bouden’s office said she also welcomed Fanara’s efforts to “strengthen relations in several areas of common interest” during his four years in the job.

Bouden highlighted the “solidity of the historical relations” between Tunisia and Italy, which she said “constitute a link between the two shores of the Mediterranean and between the African and European continents.”

Fanara said Italy is willing “to give more support to Tunisia in its negotiations with the International Monetary Fund,” as it seeks a loan of between $2 billion and $4 billion.

Migration and Italian investments in the energy and technology sectors were also discussed at the meeting in Tunis. Bouden also discussed upcoming elections, including legislative polls on Dec. 17.

Fanara has been appointed Italy’s ambassador to the UAE, and will take office in the next few days.