Iraq struggling to save old treasures amid rush for new ones

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iraq heritage vs oil
An aerial view of the ancient city of Babylon near Hilla, 100 km south of Baghdad, showing the reconstructed Palace of Nebuchadnezzar, and nearby helipad and trailers for military accommodation. A lake and the Ninmah Temple can also be seen just north of the palace. Photo - Bailey

The ancient city of Babylon was once home to the fabled Hanging Gardens, but now an extended oil pipeline popping out from dirt has dug up a conundrum: what is more valuable? Iraqi heritage or oil wealth?

While many people would insist that the country’s heritage is more valuable than their own lives, in reality it is oil that reigns supreme.

It is the site of ancient Mesopotamia which holds many keys to the history of civilisation as it is considered to be the birthplace of writing, agriculture and written law. A place that has been a source of pride for Iraqis, but the riches come from somewhere else…

Mariam Omran Musa, who manages the Babylon site for the State Board of Heritage and Antiquities, tried all her best to get the Babylon pipeline redirected, but failed. She is now suing the oil ministry which dismisses her charges and insists that it worked at a painstakingly slow pace so as to protect any undiscovered treasures, and kept to the area between the outer and inner fences of the site.

The ministry has also promised to shift the pipeline’s route away from Babylon once it finds a new route. Oil experts, however, find the vows hard to believe…

Musa insists that ancient sites are here to stay.

“Oil and antiquities are both national wealth, but I have an opinion: when the oil is gone, we will still have antiquities,” Musa told Reuters as she stood near the buried pipeline, the tracks of construction vehicles still visible.

“This is a violation against antiquities because even a heavy vehicle driving here is considered a breach, let alone extending a pipeline.”

Heritage experts, alarmed by the change of priority of the government, are now diverting their attention to other locations in a bid to classify and protect an estimated 20,000 sites before they are damaged by government agencies trying to rebuild an economy ravaged by years of war and sanctions.

Around 12,000 archaeological sites have been discovered so far with 700 of them located in Baghdad. Heritage officials say they undergo damaging incursions on a regular basis.

Nuri Kadhim, head of the Baghdad Antiquities department, believes the government has got other priorities.

“The state’s projects will not stop. On the contrary they are increasing,” he told Reuters. “I expect many violations to take place unless there is an instruction from the government to demand agreements (with the heritage board) before starting these projects.”

From Ancient Superpower to Energy Superpower

The oil ministry insists that the pipeline projects are vital to the country’s economy and would help it emerge as a global oil superpower, alongside Saudi Arabia and Russia.

Many experts believe that Iraq will emerge as be the biggest source of oil in the world over the next few years.

The ministry of oil insists that the aim of the Babylon pipeline, which comes into service in June, was to supplement two pipelines in Baghdad that are in shambolic conditions.

The said pipeline carries around 45,000 barrels of fuel per day from Basra in the south to the capital for domestic consumption.

Iraqis are divided on the issue. Hamza al-Jawahiri, Baghdad-based oil analyst , says rebuilding the country’s shattered infrastructure is just too important to be held up by archaeologists in a country covered in ancient sites.

“I believe these (campaigns) can hinder development,” Jawahiri said. “Besides, all of Iraq contains antiquities. Does that mean we should stop rebuilding?”

While archaeologists have passion for antiquities and ancient treasure, they try not to get overwhelmed by the sheer number and ubiquitousness of sites.

Qais Hussein Rasheed, head of the State Board of Heritage and Antiquities, said the board depends on 17,000 guards and 750 antiquarians as well as an “army” of legal staff to fend off oil and other investment projects.

“We have antiquities in every village, every town. That puts us on the constant defensive when facing the ignorance we sometimes find among people and with investment projects,” Rasheed told Reuters.

“The ancient sites in Iraq suffer from different kinds of violations because of weak protection, lack of support (from the government) and the retreat of this sector in the state’s priorities,” he said.

The oil ministry blames the heritage board for non-cooperation.

“Definitely we are keen to preserve antiquities but when an oil crisis erupts who would be held responsible? The board of heritage and antiquities? These are projects of national interest,” said oil ministry spokesman Asim Jihad.

Kadhim of Baghdad Antiquities reluctantly admits the very richness of the country’s heritage may be part of the problem.

“Sometimes a person has so many shirts and trousers he does not take care of them,” he said. “When he has only one shirt he will wash it and iron it very carefully.”

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