IRAQ A dam threatens to submerge ancient Assur, an Assyrian stronghold

Built on the banks of the Tigris 5,000 years ago, the city withstood the Babylonian invasion and the rise of the Islamic State. The militiamen destroyed 70% of the Tabira Gate. Archaeologists and experts warn about the dangers posed by the construction of a reservoir that could create up to 250,000 new displaced people.

Baghdad () – It was saved from the devastating madness of the Islamic State (IS, ex-ISIS), but now the ancient city of Assur, built more than 5 thousand years ago, could disappear. Located on the banks of the Tigris River, in the territory of present-day Iraq, Assur could be under water if the construction of a dam proceeds. Only two months ago the archaeological site and the area were reopened, a fact that was crowned with dances and songs in traditional costumes, to celebrate what was the base and the strength of the Assyrian empire that extended through Mesopotamia and Anatolia (encompassing the territories that today they make up Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria).

Shortly before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Assur was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Throughout its history, the city has seen two critical moments: the invasion of Babylonian forces around 600 BC, and then, in 2015, the rise of the Islamic State in northern Iraq. In the center is the Puerta de Tabira, a monument formed by three arches that serves as a symbol and historical element. According to Tobin Hartnell, director of the Center for Archeology and Cultural Heritage at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS), “it is the only gateway between the main sanctuary of the gods in the heart of the city [Ina libbi] and the gardens of Ishtar (bit akītu), goddess of war and fertility”.

In May 2015, the Islamic State released a video showing some of its members trying to destroy the gate, reducing it to rubble. They damaged almost 70% of the structure; much of it was left at the mercy of water and weather. Last year, Hartnell obtained funds -70,000 euros- from the international alliance that deals with heritage in conflict zones, and its imminent collapse was avoided. Restoration work has been carried out in coordination with the Iraqi State Council for Antiquity and the Ministry of Culture. This managed to stabilize the exterior that had suffered the most damage during the ISIS attack. However, the structure is still fragile and, if nothing is done again, it could collapse.

Thanks to emergency works, directed by Hartnell, the gate and part of the city have been receiving visitors again since April 1, the day on which the Assyrian New Year is celebrated. However, its future still hangs in the balance, since just over 30 km away is the area where the Makhoul dam will be built, a project that Saddam Hussein’s Baath regime had presented in 2002. During the years of the war, the project was relegated to the background. In recent times it has regained prominence in part due to climate change, which is drying up the reserves of the two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Work to build the dam resumed in April last year. Bulldozers are working at full speed to lay the foundations of the main reservoir of a massive project that threatens to flood Assur and its surroundings, and could cause up to 250,000 new displacements. Khalil Aljbory is an archaeologist at the University of Tikrit and has been analyzing the effects of the dam in the region for some time. He stresses that “the environmental impact of the construction of the dam has not been sufficiently studied and the social and environmental consequences have not been investigated so far.” The work, he concludes, runs the risk of provoking “a second wave of displaced people in the region.”

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Written by Editor TLN

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