Iraq, facing a threat to its water supply as a result of the ongoing climate crisis, is considering creating a new dam that could flood the ancient city of Ashur. The city just reopened to the public in April.
The Makhoul dam is located roughly 25 miles from the ancient city, which would not only flood it, along with more than 200 other heritage sites, but would also displace up to 250,000 people currently living in the area.
“The impact of the dam’s construction has not been sufficiently studied, and to date there have been no social or environmental impact surveys carried out,” Khalil Aljbory, an academic researcher at Tikrit University, said in a statement released by the Iraq NGO Liwan. “As someone who has been displaced myself by previous conflicts, I fear that the construction of the dam may cause a second wave of displacement in the region.”
From ca. 2025–1233 B.C.E., Ashur (also spelled Assur) was the first capital of the Assyrian empire, which extended from Mesopotamia to Anatolia (or present-day Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria). Construction on the city began more than 5,000 years ago along the banks of the Tigris River to honor the empire’s all-powerful god, Ashur.
The city’s temple, a ziggurat that rose more than 85 feet above the Tigris, still stands. Originally, it would have been twice as tall, decorated in iron, lead, and crystals. The Tabira Gate, a monument comprised of three arches, also remains at the city center. The gateway, which is Ashur’s historic symbol, was the main sanctuary of the gods, representing the heart of the city, as well as war and fertility.
Ashur was destroyed by Babylonian forces in 612 B.C.E. and, again, in 2015 by the extremist group ISIS, who succeeded in damaging roughly 70 percent of the Tabira Gate—primarily to the structure’s outer arch. Since then, the gate’s original structure has been further impacted by water erosion.
In winter 2020, an emergency grant from the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas prevented the gate’s collapse. The restoration, carried out in coordination with the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and the Ministry of Culture, helped stabilize the gate; however, without further intervention, the structure could still collapse.
Even though Ashur recently reopened following the restoration and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2003, its future remains uncertain. Construction on the Makhoul Dam, initially proposed by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime in 2002, resumed in April 2021. While the project was put on hold during the U.S. invasion of Iraq, persistent droughts spurred by climate change have devastated Iraq.
Earlier this month, the drought revealed Kemune, an ancient site that had sunken into the Tigris.
Heritage professionals are currently negotiating with the Iraqi government to preserve the monuments as well as the homes of those who live nearby.
Additionally, the Center for Archaeology and Cultural Heritage at The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) is working on a new digital monitoring system to assess the stability levels of vulnerable structures. AUIS will also begin a joint survey, with Iraq’s Ministry of Environment and the United Nations Development Program, this month to document cultural heritage areas affected by the Makhoul Dam.