Iraqi Pre-Islamic Landmark threatening to Collapse

By Adnan Abu Zeed for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

Taq Kasra, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) south of Baghdad, is different from many other sites and monuments that date to the pre-Islamic era in Iraq. Unlike them, Taq Kasra has a place in Islam’s culture and heritage because of events there during the advent of the religion in the early seventh century.

This great palace of Taq Kasra was built in the ancient city of Ctesiphon (al-Madaein) during the Persian Sasanian Empire (A.D. 224-651). According to religious tradition, on the night of the Prophet Muhammad's birth, the Taq Kasra shook and its walls cracked, leading Muslims to consider the event a divine prophecy of the emergence of Islam and therefore a sacred place.

The site became even more sacred for Muslims in 656, when Salman the Persian, one of Muhammad's companions and the first Persian to rule al-Madaein, was buried a kilometer (0.6 miles) from the site. Today, his final resting place is a large mosque topped by a dome and two minarets. If properly exploited, Taq Kasra could become a popular religious tourist destination.

“I come to this place to see the great crack caused by the birth of the Prophet Muhammad and to admire this divine miracle,” Umm Zahra, an Iraqi woman, told Al-Monitor. “Then I visit the tomb of Salman the Persian.”

“While large numbers of visitors choose this destination for religious reasons, the number of tourists who want to enjoy and explore this historical landmark has dropped,” said Amer Oueid, the assistant secretary at the Mosque of Salman the Persian, without providing any numbers.

“The most recent attempts to reconstruct the palace were in 2013, by the Czech company Everis, which specializes in the preservation and restoration of monuments. The company installed its working platforms, but work was suspended in June 2014 when the war with the Islamic State [IS] erupted.”

The fight against IS led to visible, heightened security precautions near this historic edifice. A police station was positioned there to deploy officers and military vehicles to search visitors and monitor the area.

“The region is inhabited by a mix of Shiites and Sunnis,” Muhammad Ali, a security guard, told Al-Monitor. “Therefore, it has witnessed numerous violent clashes. We have orders to guard the place to avoid terrorist acts.”

He added, “There are some extremists, particularly members of the Sunni IS, who perhaps seek to destroy the place, because this monument is linked to the Persians in Iran, who are mostly Shiite.”

At the security checkpoint about a half mile from the site, a visitor feels safe. As visitors get closer to Taq Kasra, the palace turns into a gigantic edifice. The great brick palace is around 164 feet long and 85 feet wide. Piles of rubble are scattered about, especially in the back.

“These are the remnants of reconstruction work,” Firas Adam, an activist who photographs and documents archaeological monuments, told Al-Monitor. “They should be removed. The reconstruction process on Taq Kasra started in the 1980s but was halted after the Iraq-Iran War flared up.”

The monument is in need of maintenance. Its walls are cracked. “This is caused by erosion and by the explosions that have shook the region since 2003,” Adam said.

Adam, taking photos of the site, mentioned a significant increase in moisture in the walls, the lack of cleaning and the absence of signs, tourist guides and authorities.

Taq Kasra has seen better days in the not-so-distant past. A number of researchers, including Iraqi historian Yaacoub Sarkis, archaeologist Gertrude Bell and others, remarked on the facade of Taq Kasra being intact in the 1880s. Today, the left wing threatens collapse.

Despite the obvious need to preserve the place, reconstruction work has never been completed. Regardless, Osama Mahmoud, the director of the Department of Archaeological Affairs at the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, informed media outlets in December 2015 that his ministry is preparing to nominate the site for the UNESCO World Heritage list and would be launching a reconstruction effort, rehabilitating the archaeological museum of al-Madaein, creating gardens and constructing tourism facilities.

“One of the reasons for the delay in turning this location into a tourist destination is the presence of military areas for security purposes in addition to disputes over the ownership of the surrounding lands,” Mahmoud said.

Ahmed Hassan, a visitor, told Al-Monitor, “I'm ashamed of the poor infrastructure in the place and all the debris and trash. This is not worthy of this historic edifice.” Hopes are hanging on the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, and the local authority in al-Madaein to save the landmark and prevent its collapse.

Taq Kasra, like other historical landmarks in Iraq, has not been invested in as a tourist destination. If that were the case, it could have been a source of hard currency for the country, which would have secured the necessary funds for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of these historic areas and in the process provided job opportunities for unemployed Iraqis, including graduates of tourism institutes and faculties.

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