Postcard from Iraq: open-air artifacts museum in Thi Qar hopes to revive tourism

As many as 25,000 discovered sites in the country have been badly affected by decades of war

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Nothing warms Amir Abdul-Razaq Al Zubaidi’s heart more than seeing tourists visit the archaeological sites in his hometown in southern Iraq.

The 46-year-old archaeologist has spared no effort to make Thi Qar province a tourist destination, despite the many obstacles he has faced over the years.

“Thi Qar is an open-air museum,” Mr Al Zubaidi, the general director of the provincial antiquities department, told The National. “It is deeply rooted in history with 1,200 archaeological sites.”

The province, about 400 kilometres south of the capital Baghdad, is home to many renowned ancient cities and settlements that developed in southern Mesopotamia between the 4th and 3rd millennium BCE.

Most notable among them is the city of Ur, which the Bible mentions as the birthplace of Prophet Abraham and where wealthy empires flourished.

To the southwest of Ur there is Eridu, one of the earliest cities and the home of Enki, the god of deep water and wisdom.

There is also the city-state Larsa of ancient Sumer and the centre of the cult of the sun god Utu, as well as the cities of Lagash, Girsu and Umma.

But like the nearly 25,000 discovered archaeological sites across Iraq, they have all been badly affected by decades of war, lack of security and mismanagement.

For decades, many of these sites eroded after they were left neglected. Closed to the public, they were poorly guarded and were an easy target for looters.

Mr Al Zubaidi fell in love with antiquities as a teenager. He would watch documentaries on Egypt’s pyramids and the civilizations of Maya in Mexico and Inca in Peru.

In the 1990s, he travelled to Baghdad to study archaeology and earned a bachelor's degree in 2001. He participated in more than 12 excavations in different Sumerian and Babylonian sites.

What makes him stand out among his peers is his approach to raising awareness about the importance of antiquities.

He relentlessly publishes videos on his Facebook page about antiquities in a simple and effective way, inviting the public, mainly children, to the museum, the archaeological sites and to participate in cultural activities.

“I always talk about antiquities everywhere - in schools, cafes, and even alleys,” he said. “I’ve brought this world from its academic place in universities and researches to the street.”

For him, the museum is a “factory that manufactures a generation belongs to this country. Unfortunately, today we have generations opened their eyes only on wars, sanctions, occupation and terrorist groups.”

His efforts paid off.

More artifacts are reaching the city's museum instead of the black market and volunteers are offering financial aid for renovation.

A workshop has been established inside the museum to make replicas and work is under way to open a library next to it. He has also printed a 67-page tourist guide for all the sites in the province.

To boost the flow of tourists, he has to negotiate with security authorities.

He recently succeeded in persuading them to annul a decision that required outside visitors to have a sponsor from the locals due to the presence of a maximum-security prison housing mainly terrorism-related prisoners in the area.

The prison, known as Al Hoot, is where some of Iraq's most dangerous criminals are detained, including ISIS militants and Saddam Hussein-era officials. Due to numerous jailbreaking by the militants before, authorities put restrictions on visitors coming from outside the province.

A recent visit to Mr Al Zubaidi's office, found him making phone calls to the military commander to allow a group of youth to set up an astronomy camp in Eridu.

“We have to restore the people's trust in their identity and in this great country, Mesopotamia,” he said. “We have to tell them what kind of a country Iraq is and its place and role in the world.”

In 2016, Unesco named the wetland marsh areas in the province and three archaeological sites, including Ur and Eridu, as world heritage sites, encouraging tourists to trickle in.

But it's the papal's visit to Ur earlier this year that Mr Al Zubaidi hopes will be the catalyst.

During his historic visit to Iraq in March, Pope Francis prayed and hosted an inter-religious service in Ur, presenting himself as a “pilgrim”.

“The Pope's visit to Ur paved the way for what’s known as the Christian pilgrimage for this city and that’s what we need to work on and develop,” Mr Al Zubaidi said.

Following that, the Iraqi government announced plans to build a two-square-kilometre tourist city called the Abrahamic City, near Ur. It will include an interfaith dialogue centre, a mosque and a church.

Last year, the UNDP announced the EU-funded project Sumerians to support the socio-economic growth through eco-tourism and cultural heritage preservation in Thi Qar, and to promote it as a tourist destination.

EU support

The EU is set to spend $2 million over two years. The project will be implemented by UNDP in partnership with provincial authorities and local and foreign non-governmental organisations.

Wooden walkways have been constructed to take the visitors to the important sites in Ur: the stepped temple known as Ziggurate, Prophet Abraham’s house, the Royal Cemetery and Dublal-makh temple, considered the oldest court in history.

The work also included fencing some sites, installing a new light system and billboards in Arabic and English.

With the decrease in temperatures, the tourism season has started in Thi Qar.

Hundreds of local and foreign tourists are trickling in mainly to the marshes and Ur. Ten foreign excavation missions have been licensed to work in different sites.

“We are in dire need to develop the tourism industry, Mr Al Zubaidi said. "We have to stop depending on oil revenue.”

Updated: March 31, 2022, 6:49 AM