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.


* 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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Background of Rushdie attacker sheds light on Khomeini sympathizers in US

Background of Rushdie attacker sheds light on Khomeini sympathizers in US
Updated 12 sec ago

Background of Rushdie attacker sheds light on Khomeini sympathizers in US

Background of Rushdie attacker sheds light on Khomeini sympathizers in US
  • Lebanese-American Hadi Matar signals ties with Tehran-backed Hezbollah

CHICAGO / NEW YORK / WASHINGTON, DC: Hadi Matar, the 24-year-old New Jersey suspect charged with attempted murder over a vicious knife attack on author Salman Rushdie on Friday, is believed to have been motivated by pro-Iranian regime sympathies and the death fatwa placed on the novelist in 1989 by the late Ayatollah Khomeini.

Rushdie was speaking at a literary festival in upstate New York when Matar rushed onto the stage and stabbed the prize-winning author multiple times, including in the face, arm and abdomen, police allege.

The suspect had a pass to attend the literary conference hosted by the Chautauqua Institution in Chautauqua, New York, according to police.

Hospital officials said that Rushdie, 75, is likely to lose an eye as a result of the attack.

The celebrated author suffered nerve damage to one arm, a serious injury to his liver and is on a ventilator.

Although police officials investigating the attack have not speculated on Matar’s motives, or possible official or unofficial ties to extremist pro-Iranian groups, many experts linked the incident to Iran’s longstanding, extremist terrorist agenda.

Matar’s Facebook cover page, which was widely shared on social media, shows the suspect is a follower of the Tehran regime’s hard-line agenda.

The page includes images of Khomeini, the regime’s founder, and current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, leaving no doubt about Matar’s indoctrination and sympathies with the Iranian regime.

“The attack on Salman Rushdie by a reportedly pro-Khomenei individual would seem to qualify as an act of terrorism. The documented threats to Americans by Iran are certainly terrorism,” Norman Roule, an adviser to the United Against Nuclear Iran coalition, based in Washington, posted on Twitter.

“How would we have responded if these were AQ-related attacks? Why the difference?”

Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Washington-based Arab Center, a think tank focusing on US foreign policy in the Middle East, told Arab News that pockets of pro-Iranian activists exist in the US, but usually stay under the radar.

Jahshan said that he believed Matar might be a “lone wolf” motivated by the Iranian regime’s longstanding fatwa, and rhetoric against Rushdie and other Western officials, but is surprised the attack was carried out now.

“One would think, after so many years, this fatwa issued by Iran and supported by many in the region, including in Lebanon, has somewhat dissipated, diminished, if you will, in intensity and in emotional attachment to it,” Jahshan told Arab News.

The fatwa against Rushdie was tempered in 1998 after Khomeini’s death, with the Iranian leader’s successors saying they no longer supported calls for Rushdie’s killing. But the fatwa was never officially revoked.

Jahshan said that the fatwa still holds relevance for some who continue to support Iran.

“I'm certainly not surprised that there are people who still take these things seriously. Support (for) terror attacks against civilians for political reasons have diminished in many parts of the world, but they continue to exist at least on the individual level,” he said.

“So the fact that it’s an individual who doesn’t seem to be tied to any particular organization or set-up, whether in this country or outside, is not surprising. That’s the fad right now. That’s a common trend. But, again, one has to wait for the investigation to proceed and see what connections they might come up with after the investigation.”

Immediately after the attack, pro-Iranian and pro-Hezbollah social media feeds lit up with praise for the alleged assailant, but many were later removed.

The IranArabic Twitter account with more than 90,000 followers called Matar a “Lebanese hero who stabbed Satan Salman Rushdie, author of 'The Satanic Verses,' in which he insulted the Prophet of guidance and mercy, the Messenger of God, Muhammad.”

Some activists in Detroit, where Lebanese Shiites and support for Hezbollah are strong, said they are not surprised by the attack, adding that pro-Iranian activism there is often high profile, but also that they feared speaking out publicly because of fears for their safety.

“People are afraid to speak out here in Detroit against Iran or Hezbollah,” one Detroit activist said, asking not to be identified.

The FBI issued an alert in 2020 warning of possible terrorism from pro-Iranian sympathizers and agents in the US after the drone assassination of Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force and responsible for a series of violent terrorist attacks against anti-Iran regime dissidents.

The attack on Rushdie comes after the US Justice Department revealed a plot to assassinate former US National Security Adviser John Bolton.

Shahram Poursafi, identified by US officials as a member of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, is currently wanted by the FBI on charges related to the murder-for-hire plot.

Matar was born in the US, but may not have escaped the extremist indoctrination that many young people, and even children, are forced to go through in pro-Iranian Hezbollah strongholds. Exporting the extremist ideology of the Iranian "revolution" is a key goal of its proxies in the Middle East.

But they seem to have also established a presence in the American heartland as well.

Analysts discovered this summer that a pro-Iran mosque in Houston was forcing young children to take part in chants called “Salam Farmande,” or “Hello Commander” in Farsi. The ceremony, which has been posted on social media, closely mirrors Iranian and Hezbollah indoctrination intended to instill total loyalty to Khamenei.

In a recent report published by the Middle East Forum, a think tank that monitors extremism, Adrian Calamel, an analyst specializing in the Middle East and terrorism, said that the song is part of the recruitment drive for the Iranian regime.

“It’s enlisting the children to be the next generation of martyrs,” he said. “The song itself says, ‘we are ready to die for the commander.’”

Calamel warns that Shiite mosques similar to the one in Houston are centers of Iranian influence in the US.

“Al-Qaeda can’t set up these centers, Daesh can’t set up these centers, but Iran can,” he said.

It is unclear how Matar was radicalized, but clearly there is a broader trend of political and religious indoctrination that is being pushed by sympathizers of Iran’s brand of religious extremism that justify and encourage attacks like the one against Rushdie.

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in major Cabinet reshuffle

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in major Cabinet reshuffle
Updated 13 August 2022

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in major Cabinet reshuffle

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in major Cabinet reshuffle
  • The Cabinet shake-up was approved by parliament in an emergency session and affected 13 portfolios, including health, education, culture, local development and irrigation ministries
  • President El-Sisi said the shake-up came in consultation with Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly

CAIRO : An emergency session of parliament on Saturday approved several cabinet changes in Egypt’s first major reshuffle since 2019, with 13 ministers moved, the National Media Authority reported.
A statement said the House of Representatives had approved “all the nominations set forth in a letter from President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi regarding a ministerial reshuffle.”
El-Sisi’s official Facebook page said the president had urged parliament to discuss the changes in the more than 30-strong cabinet, which were agreed following consultations with Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli.
The president said in a Facebook post that the changes aimed at “developing the governmental performance in some important files ... which contribute to protecting the state’s interests and capabilities.”
There has been only one reshuffle since Madbouli took office in 2018, in December 2019.
Following parliamentary approval, the new ministers are now expected to be sworn in.
The reshuffle does not include the key defense, interior, finance or foreign ministries.
But it does appoint new ministers of health, tourism and antiquities, commerce and industry, irrigation, civil aviation, immigration, education, higher education, military production, manpower, public business sector, culture and local development.
Banker Ahmed Issa took over the Tourism and Antiquities Ministry, replacing Khaled Al-Anani who led Egypt’s efforts in recent years to revive the tourism industry, a pillar of the economy. Such efforts included displaying ancient discoveries, opening new museums to attract international tourists.
Hani Sweilam, professor of water resources management at Germany’s RWTH Aachen University, was named as Irrigation Minister. He replaced Mohammed Abdel-Aty who oversaw years of technical negations with Ethiopia over its controversial dam on the Nile River’s main tributary.
The decision to replace outgoing irrigation minister Aty comes just a day after Addis Ababa announced it had finished its third filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
The Ethiopian water project damming the Nile is proceeding without agreement from downstream countries Egypt and Sudan.
The new irrigation minister is Hani Sewilam, a professor of sustainable development and water resources management at the American University in Cairo.
He assumes the post amid increasing fears over water security and an impending water crisis.
Other notable swaps include tourism and antiquities. Khaled Anani is credited with several high-profile attempts to revive Egypt’s vital tourism industry, and he is succeeded by Ahmed Issa Abu Hussein.
The health portfolio has been filled by Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, the acting minister since October.
Abdel Ghaffar’s former post of higher education minister will be filled by his deputy, Ayman Ashour.
Another notable appointment is Egyptian Air Force chief Mohamed Abbas Helmy, who takes on the civil aviation portfolio.
The government has held talks in recent months with the International Monetary Fund for a new loan to support its reform program and to help address challenges caused by the war in Europe. The government has received pledges from wealthy Arab Gulf nations for billions of dollars in investments, some of which are for private industry.
(With AFP and AP)

15 migrants found dead on border with Sudan, say Libya officials

15 migrants found dead on border with Sudan, say Libya officials
Updated 13 August 2022

15 migrants found dead on border with Sudan, say Libya officials

15 migrants found dead on border with Sudan, say Libya officials
  • The agency said nine other migrants survived while two remain missing in the desert

CAIRO: Libyan authorities said Saturday they found at least 15 migrants dead in the desert on the borders with Sudan, the latest tragedy involving migrants seeking a better life in Europe via perilous journeys through the conflict-wrecked nation.
The Department for Combating Irregular Migration in the southeastern city of Kufra said the migrants were on their way from Sudan to Libya when their vehicle broke down due to lack of fuel.
The agency said nine other migrants survived while two remain missing in the desert. There were women and children among the migrants, but the agency did not elaborate on how many. It also did not reveal causes of the migrants’ death, but said they did not have enough food and water.
It said the migrants were all Sudanese — from a country in turmoil for years. The migrants likely attempted to reach western Libya in efforts to board trafficking boats to Europe.
The agency posted images on Facebook showing bodies purportedly of the dead migrants who were later burned in the desert.
The tragedy was the latest in Libya’s sprawling desert. In June, authorities in Kufra said they found the bodies of 20 migrants who they said died of thirst in the desert after their vehicle broke down close to the border with Chad.
Libya has in recent years emerged as the dominant transit point for migrants fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. The oil-rich country plunged into chaos following a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed longtime autocrat Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Human traffickers in recent years have benefited from the chaos in Libya, smuggling in migrants across the country’s lengthy borders with six nations. The migrants are then packed into ill-equipped rubber boats and set off on risky sea voyages.

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in Cabinet reshuffle

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in Cabinet reshuffle
Updated 13 August 2022

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in Cabinet reshuffle

Egypt appoints 13 new ministers in Cabinet reshuffle
  • Secretary-General of the House of Representatives Ahmed Manaa invited Parliament’s 596 MPs to attend the meeting without disclosing further information

CAIRO: President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt announced a Cabinet reshuffle Saturday to improve his administration's performance as it faces towering economic challenges stemming largely from Russia’s war in Ukraine.
The Cabinet shake-up, which was approved by parliament in an emergency session, affected 13 portfolios, including health, education, culture, local development and irrigation ministries.
Also included in the reshuffle was the tourism portfolio, a key job at a time when Egypt is struggling to revive the lucrative sector decimated by years of turmoil, the pandemic and most recently the war in Europe.
The changes, however, didn’t affect key ministries including foreign, finance, defense and the interior, which is responsible for the police force.
El-Sisi said the shake-up came in consultation with Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly. He said in a Facebook post that the changes aimed at “developing the governmental performance in some important files ... which contribute to protecting the state’s interests and capabilities.”
The new ministers are expected to be sworn in before el-Sissi later Saturday or early Sunday.
Egypt’s economy has been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine, which rattled global markets and hiked oil and food prices across the world.

Vehicle accident in southern Egypt kills 9, injures 18

Vehicle accident in southern Egypt kills 9, injures 18
Updated 13 August 2022

Vehicle accident in southern Egypt kills 9, injures 18

Vehicle accident in southern Egypt kills 9, injures 18

CAIRO: A vehicle accident involving an overturned microbus in southern Egypt killed at least nine people and injured eight, authorities said Saturday.
The crash took place Friday when the passenger vehicle overturned following a tire blowout on a highway in Minya province 273 kilometers (170 miles) south of the capital Cairo, provincial authorities said in a statement.
The microbus, a sort of mass transit minivan, was transporting people from Sohag province to Cairo, the statement said.
Ambulances rushed to the site and moved the injured to hospitals in Minya, the statement added.
Deadly traffic accidents claim thousands of lives every year in Egypt, which has a poor transportation safety record. The crashes and collisions are mostly caused by speeding, bad roads or poor enforcement of traffic laws.
Earlier this month, a microbus collided with a truck in Sohag, killing at least 17 people and injuring four others. In July, a passenger bus slammed into a parked trailer truck in Minya, leaving 23 dead and a least 30 wounded.