Heat and Dust

How climate change threatens one of the world’s oldest cities

01 June 2019
Climate change is threatening Iraq’s fragile stability, and it could finish off what remains of the Sumerian culture and marshes.
Arianna Pagani
Climate change is threatening Iraq’s fragile stability, and it could finish off what remains of the Sumerian culture and marshes.
Arianna Pagani

The temperature was nearly forty degrees Celsius when I left the Iraqi capital of Baghdad at dawn on 20 June 2018. I was riding in a bus with a group of local environmental activists, who pointed out the monuments of their beloved, but war-torn, city.

As soon as Baghdad was left behind, large stretches of palm trees appeared over the horizon, and the landscape changed. The grey, concrete T-shaped walls, designed to protect from explosions, gradually gave way to small shrubs and high, green-leafed reeds. In the distance, small huts began to appear, made with ancient building methods, using mud, straw and reeds.

We drove through the city of Nasiriyah, famous for its dates, and for being the scene of a bloody battle, in 2003, that ousted the former dictator Saddam Hussein. We passed the great ziggurat of Mesopotamia. We finally reached our destination—Ur, one of the oldest cities in the world.

We were welcomed in Ur by Ali Khadim Ghanin, the director of the archaeological site, who personally meets the few tourists who visit. He pointed at the decrepit arch of the Edublalmah temple. “It’s the oldest unrestored arch we have from the antiquity of man,” he said.

Having survived centuries of war, Iraq’s historic sites risk being destroyed by the depredations of climate change. Ghanin called for an urgent conservation project to protect the site from environmental damage. “If we don’t act quickly, the ancient city of Ur could disappear due to wind erosion and increasingly harsh environmental conditions,” he told us.

Sara Manisera is an independent journalist working in the Middle East, in particular Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Tunisia. Her works focus on women, civil society, environment and conflicts, and has been published by several international media outlets. For her reports during the siege and liberation of Mosul and Raqqa, in 2018, she won the Mediterranean Journalist Award and the Golden Dove for Peace Award.

Keywords: climate change Iraq archaeology drought environmental damage
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