The war has long put Iraq’s ancient historic and religious sites off limits to all but the most daring of scholars, archeologists, tourists and ordinary Iraqis. Slowly, if unevenly, that may be changing. A conservation project at the ancient ruins of Babylon — funded by the United States and overseen by the World Monuments Fund — is merely the most ambitious of numerous projects to begin restoration of sites across the country that have increasingly become accessible with improved security in recent years.
A postcard from Saddam’s Iraq, before it became too dangerous.
In a place still recovering from years of conflict, the projects promise to open Iraq’s rich, deeply layered history to study and to tourism — not just for foreigners but also for Iraqis, whose engagement with the ancient past has been obliterated by the more recent past.
“We could not even come to visit before out of fear,” said Israa Fayadth, who joined her family the other day at the grounds of an ancient ziggurat called Aqar Quf, a ruin of the Kassite dynasty that replaced the first Babylonian empire of Hammurabi some 3,500 years ago.
Shiho Fukada for The New York TimesAqar Quf
Aqar Quf, only a short drive from Baghdad, is located near Abu Ghraib, a place made notorious by the American prison there and a simmering insurgency that abated only recently. (A guard house at the entrance is pocked with bullet holes.) It was once – and may again be – a regular stop on the tourist trail, the Iraqi equivalent of an American state park, only with remnants of one of the world’s early civilizations as a backdrop. For anyone whose interests include ancient history, as mine now do, being in Iraq is like a daily immersion in a history course on Mesopotamia (which, coincidentally, my daughter Maddie is now studying in the 7th grade back home).
Stephen Farrell/The New York Times
As you drive today along highways punctuated by checkpoints, barbed wire and blast walls, through the bleak, sun-baked deserts or the lush palm groves of the “land between two rivers,” ancient names emerge from the landscape like chapters in the course’s textbook: Ur, Babylon, Hatra,Nimrud,Nineveh. Chapters of the Bible itself are attributed to prophets believed to have been entombed here – including Ezekiel in Kifl, the site of which can be seen in this video filmed during a visit by The New York Times in October: Farther north are the prophets Ezra in Azair, Daniel in Kirkuk and Jonah in what is today Mosul, still one of Iraq’s most dangerous places. Most are revered in Islam, too. Their tombs are reasonably well maintained and lively places of worship, pilgrimage and tourism, even if still subject to disputes over their preservation and provenance. On the other hand, the tomb of Nahum, located in Qosh in northern Iraq, fell into disrepair after the last of Iraq’s Jews left in the 1950’s, and is in dire need of preservation.
Shiho Fukada for The New York TimesA site reputed by tradition to be the tomb of the Prophet Nahum, in Qosh, northern Iraq.
Shiho Fukada for The New York TimesHebrew inscriptions at the reputed burial site of Nahum in Qosh, northern Iraq.
Daniel’s blue-tiled, double-domed shrine sits atop an ancient citadel in Kirkuk, dating to the Sumerian period nearly five millennia ago, even before Daniel saw the writing on the wall.
Shiho Fukada for The New York TimesOne of the sites claimed by tradition to be the burial place of the Old Testament Prophet Daniel.
The citadel looms over Kirkuk, a city deeply divided by Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds and Christians, though fewer and fewer.
Believers seeking answers to their prayers – marriage, pregnancy, a cure for illness – tie strips of cloth to the iron grate that surround Daniel’s tomb or toss money or trinkets inside.
The busiest day, even now, is Saturday, a lingering echo of the Jews who used to visit on the Sabbath, the tomb’s Muslim caretaker, told me. Iraq’s central place in the history of all three faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – is palpable at more than one site around the country.
Saddam Hussein’s regime, which was never kind to antiquities, cleared Kirkuk’s citadel of most of its inhabitants in the 1980’s and destroyed their homes as part of a reclamation project.
Shiho Fukada for The New York Times A ruined Chaldean church, on Kirkuk’s Citadel
Local officials managed to save some of them, mostly from the Ottoman era, as well as a 19th century Chaldean Catholic church, though it too has crumbled to ruins. From the city below echoes the cacophonic hammering of a copper market.
Now the local governor and officials from the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage plan to restore the place.
Work has begun on a few homes, as well as an ancient bazaar, though sufficient funds are lacking. Kirkuk may be a potential flashpoint in Iraq’s unfinished transition from dictatorship and war, but it is possible to at least envision a better future. Outside the citadel’s mosque, once an ancient Christian church, two soldiers improbably whipped cotton candy from a crude machine and offered it to visitors.
“People from all the world,” the local antiquities director, Ayad Tariq Hussein, said, “they have to see this place.”
In the relative security of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region farther north, a more advanced, more ambitious project is under way.
Stephen Farrell/The New York Times The Citadel overlooking the Kurdish capital, Erbil
This is at Erbil’s citadel, with the support of the United Nations cultural organization UNESCO and restoration experts from Italy, France, the Czech Republic and other countries.
“This heritage is new to us,” said Pewist Lajlani, an engineer working to shore up the first 4 of 10 Ottoman-era houses, perched on the citadel’s precipice, “so we do it step by step.”
All of Iraq’s ancient sites have suffered from time and weather, from dictatorial abuse, neglect and war. The existential threats facing them persist today. Looting remains a scourge, pillaging ancient sites before archeologists even have a chance to find and record the treasures buried within them.
Shiho Fukada for The New York Times The Ctesiphon Arch in Salman Pak, south of Baghdad
The palace at Ctesiphon in Salman Pak, southwest of Baghdad, includes the world’s largest, single-span mud-brick arch in the world.
It is part of a Parthian palace erected in the 6th century, and it could very well collapse. Its grounds are now fenced off, unvisited.
Like Aqar Quf, Ctesiphon attracted tourists in a more peaceful time. A squad of soldiers has taken up residence in a part reconstructed in the 1970’s. Its modern museum (with a diorama of the battle of Qadissiya in 637, when the followers of a nascent Islamic faith defeated the Persians) was looted following the American invasion and remains shuttered.
Shiho Fukada for The New York TimesThe Ctesiphon Arch in Salman Pak, south of Baghdad
Not long ago, Americans from the Embassy and the provincial reconstruction team in Baghdad to consider the feasibility of a project to preserve and restore the site. “The ongoing maintenance is primitive,” the director of antiquities for the area, Abdul Hadi Hassan, said. “We need drastic measures.”
Such projects have long been a focus of the American efforts to win hearts and minds and rebuild Iraq. The American military has spent $220,000 to spruce up the grounds at Aqar Quf, including a museum that might one day again house ancient Kassite relics, evacuated to the National Museum during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
The provincial reconstruction team in Babel province did the same for the museum in Babylon.
Joao Silva for The New York Times. Visitors to Babylon take pictures of the museum, which was built in the 1950s and is being renovated. Look in vain to see Kuwait mentioned on the map.
Iraq’s problems are abundant and persistent, unlikely to be resolved by simply renovating its ancient sites. But local and federal officials are beginning to see their revival as part of the process of making the country whole again, economically and psychologically.
St. Matthew’s Monastery, Nineveh
Shiho Fukada for The New York TimesThe stunning sight of St. Matthew’s Monastery, built into the hillsides towering over the Nineveh plain.
Shiho Fukada for The New York TimesIraqi Christians driven from their homes are taking shelter at St. Matthew’s Monastery.
Consider St. Matthew’s Monastery, which lies just off the road east from Mosul to Erbil, in northern Iraq. It is one of the oldest Christian sites in the world, erected in the 4th Century A.D. on the side of a rugged mountain. After the American invasion in 2003 and the relative opening of the Kurdish region, it underwent a thorough, modern reconstruction.
When my colleagues and I visited recently, the monks’ rooms were filled with Christian families who had fled a wave of violence in Baghdad and Mosul, one sad indicator of Iraq’s ongoing troubles.
As we left, though, descending a stairway with a spectacular view of the Nineveh plains below, we encountered a happier indicator: Four Italian tourists had just arrived to have a look around.
Stephen Farrell/The New York Times The view over the Nineveh plain from St. Matthew’s Monastery.