Ancient monuments in the Middle East are the most endangered on Earth

Due to hotter summers, stones at some of Egypt’s most famous sites are cracking and changing color

At one time it was the largest city in the world, believed to be home to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, as well as the legendary Tower of Babel.

But today the ancient city of Babylon in what is now southern Iraq is collapsing. The city originally founded around 4,300 years ago is a mix of modern and ancient. Today, reconstructed plaster facades, built to replicate historic originals, are falling from the walls and some buildings, once popular with tourists, have become too dangerous to enter.

“Years of groundwater seepage and then very, very dry summers cause buildings to collapse,” said Eleanor Robson, professor of ancient Middle Eastern history at University College London (UCL), who has been visiting Iraqi heritage sites several times a year for the past decade. “I spent a day last May walking with Ammar al-Taee and his team [from the World Monuments Fund in Iraq] and it was so painful,” she continued. “They just watch the place crumble before their eyes.”

The ancient Iraqi city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2019, is not the only site in the region feeling the growing effects of climate change.

Sandstorms, fires, floods

In Egypt, the stones of historic structures change color and crack due to high temperatures and humidity. More frequent forest fires, dust and sand storms, air pollution, increased soil salinity and rising sea levels threaten other historic sites.

In Jordan, there are fears that parts of Petra – a city around 2,300 years old, with intricate buildings built into the side of cliffs – are at risk from the potential for increased landslides.

In eastern Yemen, heavy rains are damaging the famous mud-brick constructions of Wadi Hadramawt and flash floods, more common in the country now, are also washing away mud-brick buildings.

And in Libya, the ancient oasis city of Ghadames is in danger because its main water source has dried up. The local vegetation died and the inhabitants left. Heritage sites located on the coasts of the region are threatened due to sea level rise and flooding.

This month, a paper published by a team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany and the Institute in Cyprus seemed to predict that the worst was yet to come. The paper concluded that the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean region “was warming almost twice as fast as the global average, and faster than other inhabited regions of the world”.

This means that the castles, forts, pyramids and other ancient sites in this part of the world are more threatened than ever by environmental changes.

Most at risk

As the International Council on Monuments and Sites has stated, “Climate change has become one of the most significant and fastest growing threats to people and their cultural heritage around the world”.

“And there is no doubt that the cultural heritage of the Middle East is more threatened than in places like Europe,” said Nikolas Bakirtzis, associate professor specializing in archeology and cultural heritage at the Cyprus Institute.

First, heritage sites in the Middle East are more at risk than others because the region is warming, faster, he said. Second, they are more at risk because many countries in the region have other concerns that may take precedence over conservation, including economic or political crises, and even war.

“Everyone is aware that it is a challenge, but not everyone can afford to make it a priority,” he explained. Climate change obviously also affects European heritage sites, but Europe is much better placed to manage it, he noted.

Countries like Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf States have made progress in better managing their heritage sites in the face of climate change. But other countries in the region have not been able to follow suit.

Often there are government organizations set up to manage heritage sites, UCL’s Robson added. For example, Iraq has its State Council for Antiquities and Heritage. “But they are desperately under-resourced, under-equipped and under-trained because of sanctions and the aftermath of the past 20 years in Iraq,” she said. “In the meantime, the physical needs of sites are becoming more acute, making them much more expensive to maintain.”

“Awareness of this problem – the need to protect heritage sites from climate change – is still in its infancy,” said Ibrahem Badr, a professor at the Faculty of Archeology at the Egyptian University of Misr science and technology, just near the center of Cairo. “Some studies have been done but it hasn’t involved taking a lot of action on the ground. Unfortunately, most countries in the Middle East are not ready to deal with this problem and it has a negative impact on the archaeological sites”.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, experts have argued that climate change is having an increasingly negative impact on communities around heritage sites.

“It’s not just an ancient temple or an archaeological site sitting there by itself,” Bakirtzis said. “It’s also about the communities that maintain its use and experience and the meaning of these sites.”

Climate change will cause people to migrate when their living conditions become untenable, he explained, and in addition to having no one to care for the places, their cultural significance will also gradually fade.

He pointed to some of the earliest Christian sites in Iraq. In many of them, the local Christian communities had left because of the war, attacks by the extremist group known as the Islamic State and the changing environment. “Now there’s no one to visit or even care a bit about the site, so they turn into ruins,” noted the Cyprus-based academic.

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