Some of the world’s oldest buildings are being destroyed by climate change, as rising salt concentrations in Iraq eat away at mudbricks and more frequent sandstorms erode ancient wonders.
Iraq is known as the cradle of civilization. It was here that agriculture was born, some of the oldest cities in the world were built, such as the Sumerian capital Ur, and one of the first writing systems was developed – cuneiform. The country has “tens of thousands of sites ranging from the Paleolithic to the Islamic era”, explained Augusta McMahon, professor of Mesopotamian archeology at the University of Cambridge.
Damage to sites such as legendary Babylon “will leave gaps in our knowledge of human evolution, the development of early cities, the management of empires and the dynamic shifts in the political landscape of the Islamic era”, it said. she added.
Mesopotamia, the land between the two rivers of modern Iraq, is rich in salt (my in Sumerian) that exists naturally in soil and groundwater. Cuneiform texts mention the profession of salt picker and describe the use of salt in everything from food preservation to health care and rituals. There is a Sumerian proverb that says the basic necessities of life are bread and salt: “When a poor man dies, do not raise him up. When he had bread, he had no salt. When he had salt, he had no bread.
Salt in the ground can help archaeologists in certain circumstances, but the same mineral can also be destructive and destroy heritage sites, according to geoarchaeologist Jaafar Jotheri, who described salt as “aggressive…it will destroy the site – destroy the bricks, destroy the cuneiform tablets, destroy everything”.
The destructive power of salt increases as concentrations rise amid water shortages caused by dams built upstream by Turkey and Iran, and years of mismanagement of water resources and agriculture in Iraq.
“The salinity of the Shatt al-Arab River started to increase from the 1990s,” said Ahmad NA Hamdan, a civil engineer who studies the water quality of Iraqi rivers. In his observations, the Shatt al-Arab – formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates – tests poor or very poor quality every year, especially in 2018, which he called a “crisis” year when the brackish water has sent at least 118,000 people to hospital. in southern Basra province during a drought.
The climate crisis is compounding the problem. Iraq is getting hotter and drier. The United Nations estimates that average annual temperatures will increase by 2°C by 2050 with more days of extreme temperatures above 50°C, while precipitation will drop by up to 17% during the rainy season and the number sand and dust storms will more than double. from 120 a year to 300. Meanwhile, rising sea water is pushing a wedge of salt all the way to Iraq and in less than 30 years parts of southern Iraq could be under water.
“Imagine the next 10 years, most of our sites will be under salt water,” said Jotheri, professor of archeology at Al-Qadisiyah University and co-director of the Iraqi-British Nahrein Network which studies Iraqi heritage. He started noticing salt damage at historic sites about a decade ago.
Babylon, the Unesco-recognized capital of the Babylonian Empire, where a salty sheen coats 2,600-year-old mud bricks, is one place that is sustaining significant damage. In the temple of Ishtar, the Sumerian goddess of love and war, the base of the walls is crumbling. In the depths of the thick wall, the salt accumulates until it crystallizes, cracking the bricks and causing them to shatter.
Other sites affected are Samarra, the Islamic-era capital with its spiraling minaret eroded by sandstorms, and Umm al-Aqarib with its white temple, palace and cemetery engulfed by the desert.
This year, Iraq has lost part of its cultural heritage. On the edge of the desert, 150 km south of Babylon, is a salt bed that was once Lake Sawa. The spring-fed water was home to at least 31 species of birds, including the gray heron and the near-threatened ferruginous duck. Now it is completely dry due to overuse of water by surrounding farms and climate change. Lack of enforcement of regulations on groundwater use means farmers can freely drill wells and plant fields of wheat that are a lush eruption of greenery in the dusty desert landscape.
“When I was a child, I remembered that Lake Sawa was a big lake, a big lake. It looked like the sea. But now it’s gone. Totally gone. We don’t have a lake anymore,” Jotheri said.
Desert plants grow where there once was water, and Sawa is destined to become another source of sandstorms.