IRAQ -- DROUGHT REVEALS ARCHAEOLOGICAL TREASURES
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.
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 archaeological sites had been partially excavated before the area was flooded. They ran the gamut of civilizations - from 3,000 B.C. -- the Sumerian -- to the 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.
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. 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. For now, he says, the looting is confined to mostly local people who don't know the value of what they've taken.
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.