Drought Reveals Iraqi Archaeological Treasures

Ancient buildings have emerged from the river bed as the Euphrates dries up. i i

hide captionAncient buildings have emerged from the river bed in Iraq's western Anbar province as the Euphrates River dries up. For the first time, archaeologists are able to access sites that had been flooded by Saddam Hussein in the mid-1980s.

Ali Abbas for NPR
Ancient buildings have emerged from the river bed as the Euphrates dries up.

Ancient buildings have emerged from the river bed in Iraq's western Anbar province as the Euphrates River dries up. For the first time, archaeologists are able to access sites that had been flooded by Saddam Hussein in the mid-1980s.

Ali Abbas for NPR
Cliffs that were once submerged now reveal pre-Christian tombs built into the rock face. i i

hide captionCliffs that were once submerged now reveal pre-Christian tombs built into the rock face.

Ali Omar for NPR
Cliffs that were once submerged now reveal pre-Christian tombs built into the rock face.

Cliffs that were once submerged now reveal pre-Christian tombs built into the rock face.

Ali Omar for NPR
Dr. Yousif Jasir Muhammed picks up a shard of pottery at a newly discovered Roman-era site i i

hide captionIraqi archaeologist Yousif Jasir Muhammed picks up a shard of pottery at a newly discovered Roman-era site on the banks of the Euphrates.

Ali Abbas for NPR
Dr. Yousif Jasir Muhammed picks up a shard of pottery at a newly discovered Roman-era site

Iraqi archaeologist Yousif Jasir Muhammed picks up a shard of pottery at a newly discovered Roman-era site on the banks of the Euphrates.

Ali Abbas for NPR

Iraq is suffering one of the worst droughts in decades. While this is bad news for farmers, it is good news for archaeologists in the country.

The receding waters of the Euphrates River have revealed ancient archaeological sites, some of which were unknown until now.

For Ratib Ali al-Kubaisi, the director of Anbar province's Antiquities Department, the drought has opened up a whole new land of opportunity.

He explains that civilization began in Anbar, next to the Euphrates River.

"Everyone ... thought that Anbar was only desert with no historical importance. But we discovered that this area is one of the most important archaeological areas in all of Iraq. This part of Iraq was the first to be settled," he says.

Flooding Covers Sites

In the mid-1980s, Saddam Hussein's government dammed the Euphrates in the area, flooding a 120-mile-long stretch of land near Iraq's border with Syria.

What once was an enormous reservoir that stretched as far as the eye could see has shrunk an astonishing 90 percent since summer, officials say.

Ratib says that at least 75 archeological sites had been partially excavated before the area was flooded. They ran the gamut of civilizations — from 3,000 B.C. to the Sumerian and Roman periods. Ancient Jewish settlements were also submerged in the area. But because of the receding waters, Ratib has been able to access some sites for the first time — including, for instance, a cliff with a series of pre-Christian tombs carved into its face. Though they have been heavily damaged by the water, Ratib says they still have value.

"I wish we could excavate these sites again. If we had the money and the resources, we could complete the work we began all those years ago," he says.

Exciting New Finds

But it's not only previously discovered archaeological sites that the drought has made accessible.

Ratib and a colleague are suddenly excited by something they've seen on this particular day. They kneel next to what looks like an old stone wall, shards of pottery everywhere. Ratib says he believes it is a Roman-era irrigation ditch.

"I've never seen this site before," he says. "When we excavated this area decades ago, this was all buried underneath the soil, but the receding waters uncovered it."

Area Vulnerable To Looters

It's an unexpected discovery, but on the heels of their elation comes concern.

Ratib says he is worried the area will be looted. In all of Anbar, just 10 guards protect vulnerable archaeological sites.

"The area is rich with things. You can find jewelry, coins and documents — all these things are temptations for professional thieves," he says.

Or others who are just struggling to survive.

While the drought has been good for archaeologists, it has been terrible for the fishermen who rely on the Euphrates for their livelihood.

"The river level is very low, it's the lowest it has ever been that we can remember," says fisherman Sa'ad Naji. "It's frightening. The fishermen have no work anymore."

The river here is only about 3-to-4-feet deep. Sa'ad says strange structures now jut out of the water. He points to what looks like a stone arch that stands crumbling, lapped by muddy waves. He says those aren't the only things archeologists have discovered.

"About a year ago when the waters started to recede, these artifacts began to show up. We began looking around the area, and we found clay jars and old bones, coins and even some gold jewelry," he says.

For now, he says, the looting is confined to mostly local people who don't know the value of what they've taken.

Money Another Challenge

Back on shore, Ratib says excitedly he will ask Baghdad's central government for money to begin new excavations and to protect the sites.

"I will demand that we rescan the whole area. And if they have the budget, we will start work on it immediately," he says.

But he acknowledges there will probably not be enough money. If we can't excavate, he says ruefully, we can at least announce our new discoveries.

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