Iraq’s archaeological marvels that have survived millennia and the ravages of war now face a modern threat: being blown away and slowly buried by sandstorms linked to climate change.
Ancient Babylonian treasures, hard-won, are slowly disappearing again under windswept sands in a land stripped by high temperatures and prolonged drought.
Iraq, one of the countries hardest hit by climate change, was hit by dozens of large sandstorms last year that turned the sky orange, halted daily life and left its people gasping for air.
When the storms clear, layers of fine sand cover everything—including the Sumerian ruins of Umm al-Aqrab, “the mother of scorpions,” in the southern desert province of Dhi Qar.
Archaeologist Aqil Al-Mansrawi said that sandstorms are slowly starting to reverse years of work there to discover the facades of temples made of clay and many priceless artifacts.
Archaeologists in Iraq have long had to shovel sand, but now the volumes are increasing.
After a decade of worsening storms, he said, the sands at Umm al-Aqrab now “cover a large part of the site”, which dates back to around 2350 BC and spans more than five square kilometres.
In the past, the greatest threat was looting of antiquities in the ruins, where pottery shards and clay tablets bearing ancient cuneiform writing have been discovered.
Al-Mansrawy said that changing weather and its impact on the ground, especially creeping desertification, poses an additional threat to ancient sites throughout southern Iraq.
“In the next 10 years, it is estimated that sand could cover 80 to 90 percent of archaeological sites,” he said.
Weathering and disintegration
The mythical land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers hosted some of the world’s oldest civilizations, the remains of which are under threat in modern-day Iraq.
The oil-rich country is still recovering from decades of dictatorship, war, and rebellion, and still suffers from poor governance, corruption, and widespread poverty.
Compounding its problems, Iraq is also one of the five countries hardest hit by some of the effects of climate change, including drought, says the United Nations.
Upstream dams in Turkey and Iraq have reduced the flow of their large rivers, and more water is wasted due to Iraq’s outdated irrigation system and outdated agricultural practices.
Summer temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) often hit Iraq now as drought has parched agricultural regions, driving farmers and herders into crowded cities.
“Sandstorms became more frequent, winds became more dusty, and temperatures rose,” said Jaafar al-Jathiri, a professor of archeology at Iraq’s University of Qadisiyah.
“The soil has become more fragile and crumbly due to the lack of vegetation and roots,” he explained.
As more farmers flee the countryside, “their lands are left behind and neglected, their soils becoming ever more vulnerable to the winds.”
Wind picks up “more sediment fragments that reach archaeological sites,” Al-Jawtiri noted, adding that “sand and silt cause physical weathering and building disintegration.”
Mark Tawil, professor of Near Eastern archeology at University College London, said the problem was exacerbated by salinization.
He explained that during extreme heat, the water on the Earth’s surface evaporates so quickly that the crystals are not reabsorbed by the soil which is left as a crust.
“When it’s very dry, the water evaporates quickly and that leaves salt residue,” he said, adding, “You can see it on the bricks.”
Al-Jawtiri said that the salt in the ground carried by sandstorms causes “the chemical weathering of ancient buildings.”
The Iraqi authorities insist that they are addressing the complex and multi-layered problem.
“The government is working to contain the sand dunes,” said Shamil Ibrahim, director of antiquities in Dhi Qar Governorate.
He referred to a plan to plant a “green belt” of trees at a cost of about $3.8 million.
But Gutierre was skeptical, saying that to sustain plant life, “we need a lot of water.”
When it comes to climate change, he said, “We are the country that is the most confrontational and the least behaving. We are at the bottom of the list in terms of action against climate change.”
© 2023 AFP
the quote: Iraq’s Ancient Treasures Destroyed by Climate Change (2023, April 16) Retrieved April 16, 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-04-iraq-ancient-treasures-sand-blasted-climate.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without written permission. The content is provided for informational purposes only.