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Monday, May 27, 2024

Preserving the Legacy of Ancient times

by Leigh Thomas

© Shutterstock
© Al Habtoor Group
© Al Habtoor Group
© Al Habtoor Group

The Middle East appears to be under-represented in a new website, which aims to preserve significant heritage sites around the world. This is not however due to a lack of cultural heritage in the region; In fact, quite the opposite is true; but rather because it has little history of archaeology and precedence up until now has often been given to development work. But this is fast-changing…

It’s easy to presume that cultural heritage sites, once they’ve been discovered, take little looking after. But like all manmade structures they need to be maintained, and the longer they’re neglected, the worse they become. On top of the ravagings of time, factors like modern development, looting and unregulated tourism pose a grave a threat. But it is those sites in developing countries, which have limited financial resources that are particularly at risk.

In fact, so many precious archaeological sites, around the world are currently in danger that an online network has been set up by the Global Heritage Fund (GHF) to highlight the fact. The Global Heritage Network (GHN) website not only identifies endangered sites, but acts as a monitoring system, using Google Earth and social networking sites, combined with scientific mapping, satellite imagery and imagery analysis software.

“The GHN serves as an early warning system for our irreplaceable global heritage sites on the brink of being lost, by engaging a broad community of conservators, archaeologists, local communities, government officials, donors and volunteers to save our global heritage for future generations,” says Jeff Morgan, Executive Director of GHF, adding that in the Middle East the most impressive cultural locations are to be found in Yemen, Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.

While world famous Middle Eastern sites, such as those in Damascus, Syria and Nineveh, Iraq, have been included, few in the Gulf region have been named. In fact the GHN lists only 50 as being in urgent need of rescue in the whole of the Middle East; and another 15 that are said to be at risk of reaching the highest level of danger. So why is this?

Dr Mark Beech, the Cultural Landscapes Manager at the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH), believes that it is because of the fact that UNESCO has had a “European and North American bias” in the past 15 years, which he says they are trying to address.

However, Archeologist Dr Hans-Peter Uerpmann at Eberhard-Karls University in Tuebingen, Germany disagrees. He explains that only a small number of sites have been excavated in the Middle East, despite the fact that the region is thought to be rich in cultural heritage. However this is fastchanging and those digs that have taken place he says; have received the full support of the authorities.

Dr Rob Carter from Oxford Brookes University in the UK confirms this, pointing out that great care is usually taken to protect cultural sites once they’ve been discovered here. However, unfortunately, due to the vast amount of development work that has taken place in modern times, “many are destroyed by bulldozers before they’re been recorded by archaeologists”. He adds: “The protocol for ensuring that archaeological surveys and rescue excavations take place prior to development, is also not generally in place, or enforced yet”. And while considerable efforts are made being made by certain branches of the government and individuals to protect the archaeological heritage here, he says “they are often in conflict with others, who are motivated by development and housing requirements”.

Nevertheless, across the Gulf, authorities have stepped up their efforts to preserve the cultural heritage of the region. In July 2011 for example, a UNESCO panel will make a decision on whether the town of Al Ain in Abu Dhabi will be declared a World Heritage Site It’s hardly surprising given that Al Ain is steeped in history. It has 17 component parts, which include a very important Bronze Age landscape.

Governments in the Middle East are also prioritising the preservation of national treasures. In April this year the Jordanian Department of Antiquities announced the launch of the Middle Eastern Geodatabase for Antiquities, Jordan. Known as ‘Mega J’, the Arabic-English, web-based geographic information system (GIS) aims to standardise and centralise information on archaeological sites throughout the country into a single system. Earlier in the year scholars around the world assembled in Amman, Jordan to attend Heritage 2011 - a conference co-organised by Saudi Arabia’s Al-Turath Foundation in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Architecture in the Arab Region, and the Queen Rania Institute of Tourism and Heritage at Hashemite University, Jordan. These experts in architecture, planning, archaeology, and related fields discussed issues related to heritage movement in the Arab region and abroad.

To salvage Iraq’s heritage, which has suffered from the ravages of war, the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, the US Department of State and the US Embassy in Baghdad launched the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project in 2008. A grant of nearly $13 million (Dhs47.75 million) was awarded to preserve heritage sites especially the ancient city of Babylon.

Saudi Arabia received a World Heritage Site listing when in 2008 the Nabatean tomb complex in Madain Salih was listed; and Bahrain has the ancient harbour Khalat Al Bahrain. Meanwhile Kuwait is working on nominating sites such Failaka Island and Qatar the Zubara site.

Middle East sites listed in the Global heritage Website:

Ashur (Qal’at Sherqat), Iraq: Ashur was once of the capital of ancient Assyria. The remains of the city are situated on the western bank of the river Tigris.


Bam and its cultural landscape, Iran: Some people believe that Bam city was founded during the Parthian Empire. Economically and commercially, Bam occupied a very important place in the region and was famed for its textiles.


The Samarra archaeological city, Iraq: Samarra stands on the east bank of the Tigris, north of Baghdad. The present archaeological site is now covered by mud bricks, is vast, however experts say the site of Samarra was only occupied by a small number of people in ancient times.

The ancient city of Damascus, Syria: Damascus is the capital and largest city of Syria. In addition to being widely known as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Damascus is a major cultural and religious centre of the Levant.

The historic town of Zabid, Yemen: Zabid is named after Wadi Zabid and is one of the oldest towns in Yemen. It was the capital of Yemen from the 13th to the 15th century and held a significant status in the Arab world due to its famed University of Zabid.

Quseir Amra, Jordan: A well-known desert castle, it’s located in eastern Jordan. It was built early in the 8th century. The Ancient City of Nineveh, Iraq: Nineveh lay on the eastern bank of the Tigris in ancient Assyria, across the river from the modernday major city of Mosul. 

Khirbet al Qurna, Jordan: An ancient archaeological site affected by modern looting. 

Feinan, Jordan: Copper was mined at Feinan about 45km north of Petra, from Neolithic through Byzantine times.

Dharih, Jordan: The history of Dharih begins at dawn of the Christian era during the last century of Nabataean independence.

Quweilbeh, Jordan: An ancient late Roman site, which has been badly affected by looting.

Fukhar, Jordan: Excavations at this site have yielded a diverse collection of Bronze Age and Iron Age pottery. 

Askariya Shrine/Mosque, Iraq: It’s one of the most important Sh‘ah mosques in the world, built in 944.

Umma (Tell Jokha), Iraq: It was an ancient city in Sumer. 

Khirbat al-Mafjar (Hisham’s Palace), Palestinian Territories, Occupied: It is the archaeological remains of an Umayyad winter palace, north of Jericho, in the West Bank.

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