Like every ancient bridge in the world, the Abbasi bridge in the northern city of Zakho has its own story to tell. Its old rocks have lost their colour over time but they still tell stories passed down by generations of locals.
One of the oldest revolves around a young man in the Abbasside era - the Abbaside dynasty ruled for almost two centuries from the year 750 - who fell in love with a girl living in the village on the opposite side of the river; he built the bridge so he could be with her.
Another story focuses on a Turkish architect who came to Zakho, which lies near the border of Iraq and Turkey, in the Middle Ages. A nearby Turkish governor had amputated one of his hands and as a kind of challenge to him, the architect decided to build a bridge.
Legend has it that the architect built the bridge by constructing both ends and then having it join in the middle. Using this method, the bridge was in danger of collapse many times. So the architect consulted a medium who told him that he should kill the first person to cross the river and bury the body in the centre of the bridge. Unhappily for her, the next day his son’s wife, a woman called Dalal, came across the river to bring him his breakfast. And apparently that is why to this day the locals know the crossing as the Dalal bridge.
But there’s one story the locals don’t know and that is the modern one about the bridge falling down – and sooner than they think.
The bridge’s stones have no original inscriptions and historians think it may have been built by the ancient Romans. But others believe it was built later and dates back to the Abbasside era, between the 8th and 13th centuries.
In the past the bridge was very important in that it was the only place one could cross Khabur river. Convoys of traders, carrying raisins and cotton, and military brigades all used this bridge.
With the construction of modern concrete and iron bridges in Zakho, the Abbasi bridge has become much less important. But locals still use the bridge to get from one Zakho neighbourhood to another and the bridge, with its five arches and large stones, still has an undeniable charm.
The Abbasi bridge is mostly a tourist attraction now and according to Zakho’s tourism department, between 100,000 and 150,000 bridge fanciers visit the site each year.
But these days, those visiting the bridge need to be cautious when crossing. Because of erosion and the damage done by time, the risk of falling 15.5 metres down to the water, off this 114 meter long bridge, is high - and getting higher.
“Unlike other bridges built nearby – such as the Bishok bridge on the Hizel river, which collapsed because one side stood on sand – the Abbasi bridge has been able to survive because it was built on solid rocks,” researcher Said Haji Sadiq, who has written two books on Zakho’s history, told NIQASH. “The stones used in the construction of the bridge vary in size – some are more than a meter in length and 80 centimetres wide.”
Lime was also used in the construction of the bridge and this has merged with the bridge’s structure over time.
Researcher Sadiq notes a picture of the Abbasi bridge from 1899. What’s different today is the nearby concrete wall constructed by state authorities and cement and stones that have been added.
“But the design of the bridge should not be altered,” Sadiq argues. “And any company that undertakes maintenance work must be made aware of the bridge’s historic significance.”
In fact, many of the old stones now have numbers on them – at one stage an errant Iranian company was contracted by the Iraqi Kurdish authorities to maintain the bridge.
“The government contracted an Iranian company to maintain the bridge but it didn’t finish the work on deadline,” Hassan Ahmad, head of the state of Dohuk’s department of antiquities, said. “We asked the government to terminate the contract and to find another company, that could maintain the bridge according to UNESCO’s scientific standards. We are also seeking to have this bridge listed as one of the world’s important archaeological sites.”
Several civil society organizations in Iraqi Kurdistan issued a statement last month demanding that the bridge be better maintained.
“We asked the government to protect this bridge and we asked them to contract specialized foreign companies to do the maintenance needed,” the head of a local group for the preservation of Kurdish history, Bayan Bafy, told NIQASH. “We also asked authorities to draft and pass a law to protect the heritage and antiquities of the region.”