UNITED NATIONS (IPS) -- Home to some of the most significant standing monuments of ancient Assyria, the Khinnis site in northern Iraq is a historical and cultural hallmark in desperate need of protection, warn Mesopotamian archaeologists and Assyriologists.
A recent expedition to northern Iraq to assess the social, economic and cultural rights of the Assyrian people and other minority groups in Iraq, led by the Washington-based Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project (ISDP), found that the ancient Khinnis site has been thrown open to unfettered tourism and its accompanying ravages.
"When we arrived at the site, there were people and picnickers climbing all over the area, as if it was a jungle gym," ISDP Project Director Michael Youash told IPS. "For us, this is not just a world heritage site -- it tells us who we are, reminds us of where we are from, and what our place in history has been."
Located northeast of ancient Nineveh on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in modern-day Mosul, the almost 2,700-year-old Khinnis site, also known as the Bavian site, highlights the geographical start of a impressive engineering feat of ancient Assyrian culture. It remains important to the Assyrian Christian people of Iraq, historically traceable to the Mesopotamian cradle of civilisation.
Khinnis was part of a large-scale construction work initiated by King Sennacherib, who founded Nineveh as the new capital of the Assyrian Empire in 705 BC. It comprised an aqueduct system by which water could be brought down to the fields and the city of Nineveh.
A gigantic rock relief of King Sennacherib overlooks the Gomel River and the cliff faces are carved with numerous ancient symbols and cuneiform inscriptions that depict the life and events that went on in relation to the water supply.
During the recent trip by ISDP -- a special project launched by the Chicago-based Assyrians Academic Society, with members worldwide -- the delegation not only observed the damage caused by tourism, including visitors having chipped off pieces from the rock carvings, but also noted bullet holes, indicating that the reliefs have been used for target practice.
ISDP further reported that the site faces the threat of dynamiting. According to Firas Jatou, a member of the delegation, Kurdish authorities have ordered a small construction company to use dynamite to carve out caves in the sun-spotted rocks to create shade for the picnickers.
Jatou said the work has been sanctioned by Jarjis Hasan Khinnis, a member of the central committee of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by the president of the Autonomous Kurdish Government in Iraq, Massoud Barzani.
"One of the workers told us that he was simply doing his job -- that he was contracted to blow out the side of the cliff to create shade," Youash said. "For the workers, it is just a public works project rather than an act of cultural genocide."
"This is just another example of us being treated as second-class citizens. Destroying the site would be a nail in the coffin of the ethnic cleansing of Assyrians in northern Iraq -- our ancestral home," he added.
Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, the Assyrian Christian population of Iraq, mostly living in the north, has increasingly become the target of ethnic and religious attacks. According to various sources, they were estimated at around one million before the recent exodus of Assyrians seeking refuge outside the country.
"The Khinnis is a beautiful area and we want all people to be able to come and enjoy the site, but it is worthy of utmost respect," said Yoush. "It is unthinkable in terms of world heritage that it would not be protected and preserved."
McGuire Gibson, an authority on Mesopotamian archaeology at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, also stressed the importance of the site. "The reliefs are of great historical and cultural value, in terms of how the Assyrians saw themselves in relation to God and to nature, and they also tell about the relationship of mankind and water," he told IPS.
Before the war, Iraq was one of the best places in the world in terms of preservation and protection of antiquities, Gibson said. And until now, the north has been relatively safe from looters, although a great deal of damage was done to sites in the south, particularly since the U.S. invasion, he said.
"Hundreds of archaeological sites have virtually been destroyed by illegal digging, and if these reliefs at the Khinnis, which have lasted for thousands of years, are finally going to be damaged in the name of tourism, or for whatever reason this is being done, it would be a great tragedy," Gibson said.
The protection of all archaeological sites in Iraq is under the control of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), so they should have been consulted before anything was done at the Khinnis. It is now primary their task to handle the issue and hopefully get on top of the situation, he added.
Last week, Muzahim Mahmud and his team from the SBAH's office in Mosul went to Khinnis to check up on the situation. The delegation reported that while there has been some dynamiting at the site, the sculptures themselves have not been harmed, and the construction work has been confined to the building of a road nearby rather than creating shade for the picnickers, the chairman of SBAH and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Donny George, told IPS.
However, "according to my knowledge, and what I have seen in pictures, there must have been some new shooting, because there has been new chipping on the sculpture," George added, agreeing that Kurdish authorities must take protective measures.
According to the new Iraqi constitution and the Law of Antiquities and Heritage of 2002, the archaeological sites and antiquities of Iraq are the wealth of the country, and they should be handled by the central government in collaboration with the provinces.
"It is our duty to protect the cultural heritage of the people of Iraq, which is also the cultural heritage of mankind, and to preserve it for the coming generations," said George. "But the cooperation with Kurdish authorities controlling the northern region is not functioning, they are not responding to our concerns, which is why we want to rearrange the connection between us -- the central government and the north."
The best way to protect the Khinnis site and the sculptures from further harm is to post guards there, he said. And to ensure this, "We will need to have a bigger delegation going up to the north, to stop any unnecessary acts against antiquities at the Khinnis and at other sites in the region."
But because of the delicate security situation, it is hard to plan things in Baghdad right now -- as it is to protect any sites either in the north or in the south, from looting, attacking, or any other harm, continued George.
"The special patrolling police force that belongs to the SBAH has also had difficulties doing its duties because it lacks cars and communication systems," he said. "It is very important that the international community support Iraq, at least by providing cars and helping us improve the petroleum and the communication systems throughout the country."
By Lisa Söderlindh