06/28/2022, 18.01
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Dam threatens the ancient Assyrian city of Ashur

Built on the banks of the Tigris 5,000 years ago, the city survived the Babylonian invasion and the rise of the Islamic State. The latter destroyed 70 per cent of its famed Tabira Gate. Archaeologists and experts warn of the dangers related to the construction of a nearby dam. Up to 250,000 people could be displaced.

Baghdad (AsiaNews) – After surviving the devastating madness of the Islamic State (IS) group, the ancient city of Ashur (Aššur) could disappear under the waters of a new dam under construction.

The city was built more than 5,000 years ago on the banks of the Tigris River in what is now modern Iraq. Back in April, the archaeological site reopened to visitors with local residents celebrating with songs and dances and wearing traditional regalia.

The city was a major centre of the Assyrian empire, and covered Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and parts of Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.

Shortly before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Ashur was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But its history has been shaped by two major events: the Babylonian invasion of 600 AD, and the rise of the Islamic State group in 2015 in northern Iraq.

At the centre of the ancient city stands the Tabira Gate, a monument with three arches that serves as the city’s historic symbol.

“The Tabira Gate is the unique gateway between the main sanctuary of the gods in the ina libbi (the heart of the city) and the gardens of Ishtar (the bit akītu), the goddess of war and fertility,” says Tobin Hartnell, director of the Center for Archaeology and Cultural Heritage at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani (AUIS).

In May 2015 the Islamic State released a video showing some of its members trying to reduce the gate to rubble. They succeeded in damaging about 70 per cent of the structure. Since then, much of it has been affected by water erosion and the weather.

Last year Hartnell secured an emergency grant of US$ 72,000 from the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas to prevent the gate’s imminent collapse.

Restoration work took place in coordination with the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and the Ministry of Culture, ensuring that its outer arch, which sustained the most damage during the IS attack, was stabilised.

Although the structure remains fragile and, without further attention, could still fall, the emergency works directed by Hartnell allowed the gate and a part of the city to reopen to visitors on 1 April, Assyrian New Year.

Still, its future still hangs in the balance because about 40 km away lies the planned site of the Makhoul Dam, first proposed by Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime in 2002.

During the war years, the project was shelved. Now, with climate change striking Iraq particularly hard and drought threatening the country’s two great waterways, the Tigris and the Euphrates, plans are underway to restart it.

In April 2021, construction work resumed, with excavators laying the foundations for the main reservoir. But the imposing project is now threatening to flood Ashur and its surrounding area, while displacing up to 250,000 people.

Khalil Aljbory, a researcher in archaeology at Tikrit University, has long studied the sociological effects of the dam on the local region.

"The impact of the dam's construction has not been sufficiently studied, and to date there have been no social or environmental impact surveys carried out,” he said. The project, he adds, “may cause a second wave of displacement in the region”.

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