UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Iraq
By: Arab America Contributing Writer / Mariam Alyakoob
Ancient Mesporamia, which makes up modern day Iraq, is often referred to as the “Cradle of Civilization”, being home to powerful civilizations such as the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Bablyonians. These civilizations ruled the region dating all the way back to 10,000 BCE and there are still signs of their existence in modern day Iraq. Many ancient artifacts, ancient architectural buildings and even whole cities represent some of these civilizations, and are even listed within UNESCO’s World Heritage List, which represents “places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity”. There are currently six properties within Iraq that are listed on the World Heritage List, let’s explore!
Ashur (Qal’at Sherqat)
During 14th century BCE to 9th century BCE, the ancient city of Ashur was the first capital city for the ancient Assyrian empire. Ashur was also a religious city where crowning and burials for kings occurred. The city is even named after one of the most important Assyrian gods, Ashur, who the Assyrians believed ruled Assyria and protected them against their enemies. Besides the city’s religious significance, it was also an important trade destination, given its convenient location of being centered on a caravan trade route running through Mesopotamia.
In 1903, Ashur was uncovered and excavated by German architect Walter Andrae, and his team. The excavated site exposed archaeological deposits of the ancient civilizations that inhabited the city. The uncovered site revealed that the city was divided into two parts, the old city, dating back to the 3rd millennium BCE, and the new city, dating back to the mid-2nd millennium BCE.
The city highlights the architecture of the previous civilizations and contains significant structures such as the ziggurat, the temple of the god Ashur, the double temple of Anu and Adad, the temple of Ishtar, and more. The city of Ashur was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 2003.
In 2019, after 30 years of lobbying, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee voted to list the ancient city of Babylon as a World Heritage Site. Babylon was founded over 4,000 years ago around 2300 BCE by the Akkadians. Eventually the city came under the military rule of the Amorite king Hammurabi, and after conquering nearby cities, he created the empire known as Babylonia. Through his ruling, King Hammurabi made Balyon into a powerful and wealthy city, and Hammurabi even created the world’s earliest known set of laws known as the Code of Hammurabi for the city.
Eventually King Hammurabi died, and Babylon was conquered and ruled by a succession of rulers. Eventually the city of Babylon became a part of the Neo-Babylonian empire, even being ruled by King Nebuchadnezzar II. The Babylonians of the Neo-Babylonian Empire were said to have created many significant architectural structures, including the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which are one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Eventually Babylon fell and was conquered by Cyrus the Great of the Persian Empire. Between 1899 and 1917, Babylon was excavated by a German archaeology team, who uncovered the remains of the city. Further remnants were uncovered in the past century that can be seen when visiting Babylon. Such remnants include the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, the Ninmah temple, the lions of Babylon statues, and more.
The Erbil Citadel is located within the autonomous region of Kurdistan and also serves as the capital of the region. The Erbil Citadel is oval shaped and is around 100 feet high. The Citadel is surrounded by and towers over a lower town. In 2014, the Citadel was inscribed as a World Heritage Site. The Citadel was initially on the tentative World Heritage Site List in 2010, but after $13 million was allocated to the preservation of the site by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the advancements made to the Citadel landed it a spot on the finalized World Heritage Site list.
Like the other World Heritage Sites, the Citadel is incredibly significant to the history of the region. The Citadel, built around 6,000 years ago, was important during the Neo-Assyrian Period, especially under the reign of King Ashurbanipal. The Citadel is also believed to be one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited sites, having survived battles between Alexander the Great and the Persian King Darius, the Mongol invasion, and siege by Nader Shah.
The Citadel also survived the financial crisis the Kurdistan Regional Government faced due to the ISIS 2014 invasion in which nearby cities fell under ISIS military occupation. But there have been many efforts to rehabilitate the Citadel and in 2019, Kurdistan’s Prime Minister Masrour Barzani even pledged a yearly donation of $500,000 for conservation efforts towards the Citadel.
The City of Hatra was the capital of the ancient and small Kingdom of Hatra, believed to be a semi autonomous state located between the Roman Empire and the Parthian Empire. The City of Hatra is believed to have been founded during the Seleucid period, under the Greek Macedonian dynasty between 312 – 64 BCE. The Kingdom of Hatra emerged in the 2nd Century BCE, and was one of the first Arab states that was established outside of Arabia, becoming ruled by a dynasty of Arab princes and kings.
The city was once a flourishing trading center that connected the Romans and the Parthian Empires of ancient Iran. The city was also a religious center, containing many temples honoring many gods such as the Sumero Akkadian god Nergal, Greek god Hermes, and Mesoptamian sun god Shamash, as well as many others.
Eventually, around AD 240-241, Hatra was sieged by the Sasanian king Shapur I and was ravaged and abandoned. Hatra was later rediscovered in the early 1900s and was excavated by a German archaeological team. Further excavations of the city took place in the 1950s by Iraqi archaeologists. Recently, in 2022, Iraq has restored many of Hatra’s monumental sculptures that were damaged by ISIS.
Samarra Archaeological City
Samarra was once the second Islamic capital of the Abassid Caliphate, one of the strongest empires in history that extended from Tunisia to Central Asia. This ancient city dates back to 836-892 AD and unlike Baghdad, which was also a capital for the Abassid Caliphate, Samarra still retains its original architectural plan, being the only Islamic capital to do so.
The city was later abandoned around 861 AD after the assassination of its Caliph Al-Mutawakkil, who played a key role in developing the city and the structures that lay within it. Under the new Caliph Al-Mu’tadid, the Abassid Caliphate became more focused in Baghdad, allowing the building and architectural structures in Samarra to remain intact. To this day there are numerous architectural buildings that remain, including the 9th-century Great Mosque and its spiral minaret.
The Ahwar of Southern Iraq: Refuge of Biodiversity and the Relict Landscape of the Mesopotamian Cities
Unlike the other World Heritage Sites in Iraq, the Ahwar of Southern Iraq are not purely cultural sites but are also a biodiverse landscape. Within the Ahwar, also known as the Mesopotamian Marshes, remain signs of the ancient Mespotamian cities of Uruk, Ur and Eridu. Examples of these remnants include centuries old cuneiform texts, which is known as one of the world’s oldest forms of writing. The modern day inhabitants of the Ahwar, known as the Marsh Arabs, or “Madan” in Arabic, are said to be descendants of the Ur, Sumer and Babylon civilizations, and have been inhabitants of the marshes for over 5,000 years.
The Ahwar are located on the flood plains of the Euphrates and Tigirs Rivers, and run through the Southern Iraqi cities of Basra, Nasriyah and Amarah. The marshes are made up of three distinct marshes, including the Hammar, Central, and Hawizeh marshes. UNESCO, having added the marshes to its World Heritage List in 2016, has described it as “unique, as one of the world’s largest inland delta systems, in an extremely hot and arid environment”.
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