“It is part of our heritage and our identity,” says Nehru Nouredine, a young man from the northern Iraqi town of Kifri, around 200 kilometres southeast of the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. “But the government’s negligence and disinterest means we are losing our identity.”
The young man is referring to the local Qaysari, or market, which was built here in the 19th century. Like many other historic or heritage sites in Kifri and nearby Klar, it is falling apart. The vintage architecture needs consistent maintenance, which it doesn’t get, and recently heavy rainfalls have caused untold damage to ancient structures all over this area.
In Klar, thunderstorms have damaged the walls of Shirwanah castle, which also dates back to the 18th or 19th century. Apparently the walls are now cracking and are in danger of collapse.
“Just like any other historic buildings, Shirwanah castle needs maintenance,” says Shakur Mohammed Hir, the head of the antiquities department in the district of Karmayan, which is responsible for an estimated 500 archaeological and heritage sites in Klar, Kifri, Khanaqin and Chamchamal.
A lot of these sites are located in or around Kifri, which is one of the oldest cities in northern Iraq. And many of the historic buildings, including the Ottoman-era market and other historic private homes, are a part of the local identity now.
An even older castle in the Qora area, inside Khanaqin, apparently dates back to the seventh century. But it is eroding and the only thing that’s ever been done to preserve it is the erection of a fence around it.
Hir says that after visiting the historic sites in the area in 2012, the current Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, said he would allocate money to maintain them. However, thanks to the current financial crisis, all of these projects are on hold – that is, if they even got started.
Hir says that his department has also asked the local government to purchase historic buildings that come up for sale.
One of the other big problems with maintaining historic buildings in this area is the fact that many of them are still privately owned.
“What we should be doing is collecting data on heritage buildings so that we can rank them in terms of needs for maintenance and renovation and also the historic importance of each place,” says Mohammed Ali, an expert on historic architecture in Karmayan. “The Department of Antiquities should be recording all of this information so that destruction of historic buildings stops and so that there are no mistakes when maintenance is undertaken.”
Ranking the sites in order of historical importance is necessary, Ali says, because the authorities tend to spend more money and attention on some places due to geography, rather than history.
“The preservation and maintenance of monuments is directly linked to the political and security situation of the country,” says Rafidah Abdullah, a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Sulaymaniyah. “Stable conditions guarantee the safety of antiquities. Otherwise they will face danger and destruction.”
In the rest of Iraq there is actual special legislation applying to antiquities, Law No.55 of 2002 for the Antiquities and Heritage of Iraq. However Iraqi Kurdistan doesn’t have any such law.
The fact that Iraqi Kurdistan doesn’t have this law in no way justifies the fact that the region is not taking care of its heritage, argues Omer Haji Inayat, a member of the Change movement and the head of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament’s committee on antiquities.
“Having a law wouldn’t change much,” Inayat concludes. “We have laws about other topics and they are also ineffective.”