NAJAF, Iraq (AFP) ― A stone’s throw from Iraq’s Shiite holy city of Najaf’s airport, the remains of the celebrated ancient Christian city of Hira lie neglected and mouldering, because funds for excavation have dried up.
Three sites, discovered five years ago, are unexplored and unkempt, and officials fear the uncompleted excavation could lead to their eventual demise.
The sites, which contain mud walls and jars that are exposed to the elements, lie fewer than 100 meters from an active runway, are not fenced off and have no security except their proximity to the restricted airport area.
They form part of the ancient Lakhmid capital of Hira, on the outskirts of Najaf, 150 kilometers south of Baghdad.
The Lakhmids were a pre-Islamic Arab tribe that are believed to have emigrated to what is now Iraq from Yemen in the second or third century. The founder of the dynasty was Amr, whose son, Imru al-Qais, converted to Christianity.
In 266, the Lakhmids turned the former military encampment of Hira into their capital.
Establishing their empire across what is now Iraq and northeastern Arabia, they held sway across the lands that lay between the Persians ― to whom they were vassals for several centuries ― and the Romans.
They were a major force among the pre-Islamic Arab peoples, with their culture and learning spread widely and where the early Arabic alphabet was standardised.
Arab poets described Hira as a paradise on earth, with one saying that, because of the city’s pleasant climate and beauty, a day in Hira was “better than a year of treatment.”
Hira, which extends around 17 kilometers south from Najaf, remained the Lakhmid capital until 663, when Muslim general Khalid bin al-Walid conquered it on the orders of Abu Baqr, the immediate successor of the Prophet Mohammed.
“The area has historical importance, because it is rich in antiquities, including especially the remains of churches, abbeys and palaces,” said Shakir Abdulzahra Jabari, who led excavations there in 2007, 2009 and 2010.
“But now, the antiquities have been neglected for a year, and they do not receive any attention, despite the fact that many Western countries are interested in Hira’s history as the main gateway of Christianity into Iraq.”
Hira was famous for its arable land, and for its palaces and monasteries, notably the Aoun al-Abadi Palace, which hosted visiting dignitaries, and the Al-Lij monastery.
The sites feature the historic treasures of the Lakhmid era, such as the bases of massive abbeys that include dozens of rooms, from studying halls to monastic cells and storage areas.
“Christians have lived for a long period of time in the Hira region, where they formed around one-third of the city’s population, with the Al-Abad tribe the most well-known of their community,” said Yahya Kadhim al-Sultani, a professor at Kufa University in Najaf’s twin city.
“Hira was characterised by a not insignificant number of churches built for living in, and the practise of various scientific and cultural activities,” Sultani added.
The ancient city has seen several excavations in decades past, Jabari said.