10 Ancient Wonders That Still Exist in Iraq

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On Feb. 28, 1991, Operation Desert Storm was declared over and the United States emerged as the clear leader of a new world order. As this week’s Historiat column explains, Desert Storm deserves to be hailed for its multinational success and its example in regards to global cooperation. But something didn’t go right because in 2003, America went back to Iraq, with far fewer allies in tow, and has stayed there ever since.

Iraq is home to many ancient empires and as (or if) it develops economically, more of the treasures of these ancient civilizations will surface. Iraqi archaeology techniques will become more sophisticated. The splendors of ancient Mesopotamia will eventually be revealed to the world. As of today, only the ruins of the Babylonians and Romans can be positively identified and worked on by archaeologists.

Centuries of static Ottoman governance have so far condemned the architectural feats of the Arabs, Persians, Assyrians, and other peoples who built their societies in Mesopotamia to the dustbin of history. The post-World War I British-ruled Iraq blessed looting. The Ba’athists who viciously lorded over Iraq continued the Ottoman practice of allowing Iraq’s ancient splendors to collect dust. The Americans unleashed a smorgasbord of looting and destruction. And everybody knows how awful ISIS has been in regards to humanity’s ancient artifacts.

Despite all this, Iraq’s ancient treasures are slowly but surely being discovered and worked over by archaeologists from around the world. Here are 10 ancient treasures still in Iraq:

10. Al ‘Ashiq Palace. Built during the Abbasid caliphate in (from 877-882), the Qasr al-’Ashiq is a shining example of Arab architecture during its first Golden Age. Here is a picture, but do note the graffitti.

9. Ziggurat of Ur. Believe it or not, the Ziggurat of Ur is still standing, though not much is left. Mesopotamia’s urban centers apparently loved building ziggurats, but few survive to this day. Saddam Hussein’s administration tried to restore the Ziggurat of Ur, but it was only partially successful and I doubt the subtleties of neo-Sumerian architecture were taken into account. Nevertheless, at least one major ziggurat still stands, and it’s in Iraq.

8. The city of Hatra. The ruins of this ancient Roman city made headlines a few years back after ISIS went about destroying as much of the city as it could. The damage done to Hatra by ISIS was minor, according to official government reports, but you can never be too certain. Wikipedia has a beautiful gallery of Hatra’s splendor. Hatra has so many treasures in it, some of them are good enough to make the list on their own.

7. Arch of Ctesiphon (Taq Kasra). Built by a Persian dynasty somewhere between the 3rd and 6th centuries, the Taq Kasra is a huge arch that once welcomed travelers and locals alike to the ancient city of Ctesiphon. It still stands today, and if Iraq ever becomes safe enough to build up a tourist industry, this ancient Persian beauty is sure to be on everybody’s to-do list.

6. Qalatga Darband. This is one of the newest discoveries in Iraq. It was a city that built during Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Near East, though archaeologists and historians are still arguing over whether his armies built it or just improved upon a city that was already there. Qalatga Darband is located in Kurdistan, where political and economic stability is a bit more dependable than elsewhere in Iraq.

5. Ishtar Gate. The location of the ancient city of Babylon has been known since at least the days of British rule (post-World War I), and it has had its fair share of looting. The Ishtar Gate was built by Babylon’s famous monarch, Nebuchadnezzar II, and was excavated in the early 20th century by British and German archaeologists. The gate was rebuilt using its original bricks for a German museum, but a fake gate exists in Iraq commemorating the country’s ancient heritage. Museum artifacts are a big political topic in some circles, and the Ishtar Gate is often used by both sides as a case study.

4. Al-Ukhaidir Fortress. Another Abbasid architectural treasure, the Al-Ukhaidir Fortress is located in present-day Karbala, which has been the site of much carnage and bloodshed (Karbala is considered holy by Shi’ites, on par with Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem). The fortress is currently being considered for a spot on the much-coveted UNESCO World Heritage list.

3. Qal'at Jarmo. Located in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, Jarmo is a neolithic village that has been worked and re-worked by archaeologists for about 80 years now. Its existence has been essential in explaining how humanity’s agricultural revolution first took off.

2. The gates of Nineveh. Nineveh was one of Mesopotamia’s cultural and economic hearths, and the ancient ruins that still survive there are a testament to its greatness. Its ruins are located across the river from the modern city of Mosul (another bloodbath) and the city recently made headlines thanks to an ISIS campaign aimed at destroying its ruins. The gates of Nineveh are famous among locals, archaeology enthusiasts, and, apparently Islamists trying to burn down civilization one ancient gate at a time.

1. Great Mosque of Samarra. The mosque with the spiral minaret. Here is a picture, so you’ll understand why words fail me. Its top was blown off back in 2005, but the mosque itself has been razed and re-raised several times throughout its long and glorious existence. When it was completed in 851, the Grand Mosque of Samarra (a commercial city) was the largest in the world.

Further thoughts

While the British, Americans, and Ottomans did not do enough to preserve and protect Iraq’s treasure trove of humanity (indeed, all three occupations did much to make matters worse), the worst perpetrator was easily Saddam Hussein. The dams that he built in the name of “modernization” wiped out the ruins of whole cities and flooded several important neolithic archaeological sites.

Have a great weekend.


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