If one tours the area in Najaf province that was previously home to ancient tribes like the Ghassanids, a mixture of religions, including some of the earliest Christians, and the rulers of long gone kingdoms, one can still see the remnants of their palaces and homes, as well as earlier excavations by archaeologists from around the world. But today these relics are competing with other contemporary buildings and farmland that are gradually encroaching on history.
Tire tracks made by would-be looters searching for antiquities to pillage and then sell, criss-cross the sand. One of the largest sites has become a watermelon farm and a field for poultry, complains Hadi al-Makhzoumi, who heads the local committee for the protection of antiquities and heritage in Najaf.
It is due to the attitude that many people have, that their personal interests are above the interests of their homeland.
Al-Makhzoumi’s group has recorded a number of problems in this historical area and on February 1 this year they protested against what they described as the violations against the ancient city of Hira and the Manathirah antiquities, which date back to the fourth century.
They called upon international organisations like UNESCO to step in and protect them and upon the local authorities to stop allowing investment and business in these areas.
“The antiquities in the Hira and Manathirah areas are considered Christian sites and they are being neglected into non-existence,” Makki Sultani, a writer and researcher specializing in Najaf’s history, told NIQASH. “And there are no plans to protect them. They are gradually being turned into farms and residential areas.”
Some of the treasures found in the area, such as gold pieces and ancient coins, have ended up in the hands of the authorities while other items have simply disappeared, Sultani notes.
Locals here have stolen stones from the ancient tombs and used them to build their own homes, he says. Tombs that have been informally excavated have been left open to fill with water or garbage.
Another problem is the general attitude towards some of the sites. This includes a large Christian graveyard, one of the oldest in the world, between Najaf city and the Manathirah area. It also includes the ancient Emara palace. Built in the year 17AD, it is seen here as a symbol of the Umayyad dynasty, something that many of the population here still despise, because of what it stands for – the Umayyad dynasty refused Islam at first. So the site is neglected.
“A lot of the excavations around these graves are done for the sake of magic, used by those locals who say they are witches to deceive others,” says Ali Hassan, a local historian. “These sites are going to cease to exist if this negligence continues.”
The local authorities seem unable to remedy these problems. Some of this may be due to mismanagement. For example in May 2017, Aseel al-Talaqani, the head of the provincial council’s Tourism and Antiquities Committee, admitted that the runway at Najaf airport is actually home to three sites of archaeological significance, dating back to the Manathirah era.
Mohammed al-Mayahi, head of Najaf’s department for antiquities, says that the deterioration in the ancient sites has nothing to do with the government. “It is due to the local people who are continually encroaching on the archaeological sites,” he told NIQASH. “It’s due to legal and tribal conflicts and that’s just worsened by a lack of awareness and by the attitude that many people have, that their personal interests are above the interests of their homeland.”
Al-Mayahi says that there are actually blueprints for the development of the ancient sites, with an intention to turn them into tourist attractions and cultural centres. This would happen as soon as his department gets funding for the job. “But for the time being there are no funds allocated because of the financial crisis in Iraq,” he explains.
This is why, for now, al-Mayahi believes the best thing to do is to continue to monitor any violations and try to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“They are made to pay fines and for the time being, this is the best way to solve this problem,” al-Mayahi suggests.