Every year millions of visitors come to the southern Iraqi city of Karbala, home to some of the most important sites for Shia Islam in the world. But apart from visiting the places of religious importance and staying in the city centre, there are not many other very visible attractions for tourists here.
But in fact, there are many historical sites in and around Karbala that could change this. Locals say they could be a new source of income for the city as well as a general improvement to local culture. However in general, and like so many other antiquities and ancient archeological sites in Iraq, they are being neglected.
The ruined building known as the Khan al-Atishi or Khan al-Atshan is an example of this. Located around 10 kilometres north east of Karbala city, in the district of Husayniyah, the ruins sit amid orchids and palm trees in a relatively quiet spot.
It is one of Iraq's old khans, or inns - these were built during the Ottoman era here and used as hostels for travellers. This is why the khan, with it's 2,000 square meter yard surrounded by ancient brick walls, has narrow vertical slits in the meter-thick outer wall. These were windows but they were also part of the khan's defences – highway robbery of caravans travelling the route was common.
And Khan al-Atishi, built around 1774, is in a sad state. After 2003, the khan was briefly used as a police station and then it was also used to store dates belonging to the owners of nearby orchards. Until recently the Iraqi Ministry of Commerce owned the land on which the khan stands, which is why it was used as a storage facility.
Today a large part of the outer walls have collapsed, garbage has been dumped in the yard and some of the only inhabitants are stray animals.
It is clear that the khan needs care. One of the main problems with this, is that nobody knows who the khan belongs to, and therefore whose responsibility its upkeep is. The Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has already declared that, thanks to Iraq's financial and security crisis, it doesn’t have enough money to do anything about the khan.
“It's very important to renovate the Khan al-Atishi,” says local council member, Jassim al-Maliki. “It should be thought of as a part of the country's heritage and it could well become a tourist destination here.”
The local council and Karbala-based activists have had some luck with making plans for the khan. The council has managed to convince the Ministry of Commerce to trade the land the khan is on for some other terrain and the council now owns the site, with a view to turning it into a revenue-generating attraction.
However, as locals note, nothing has happened and the change of ownership occurred months ago. “There is nothing to show that the local government is making any effort at all to rehabilitate the khan,” says Jafar al-Kariti, a resident in his 60s whose house is nearby. “There are still a lot of stray animals there and some people are still throwing their rubbish in there.”
“Compared to the extremely serious challenges faced by Iraq and by the government, caring for historic sites like this is a minor issue,” al-Kariti concedes; he adds that he doubts anything will save the khan in the near future.
That's a mistake says local historian, Rashid al-Ansari. “If areas like the khan were put on the list of Karbala monuments in a thoughtful manner, they would be of great interest to anyone interested in archeology or history,” al-Ansari told NIQASH. “Especially because they are actually in nice locations, green and attractive. The real problem,” al-Ansari concludes, “is that the concerned authorities lack a clear vision and this is leading to the slow destruction of all Iraq's antiquities.”