Arab states are wrecking old treasures
One dam can flood hundreds of ancient sites.
The fighters of Islamic State turned sledgehammers and drills on ancient temples after conquering north-western Iraq and north-eastern Syria in 2014. They raided the tombs of Assyrian kings in Nineveh, blew up Roman colonnades in Palmyra and sold priceless relics to smugglers. But their vandalism was on a modest scale compared with some of the megaprojects that are habitually undertaken by many Middle Eastern governments. A few months ago, a short distance downriver from the archway toppled by the jihadists in Ashur, the religious capital of the Assyrian empire, Iraq’s government began to build the Makhoul dam. Once complete, it is likely to flood Ashur—and another 200 historical sites.
Similar archaeological tragedies have occurred across the region, mainly thanks to the appetite of governments for gigantism in the name of modernisation. Some want to stamp a new identity on an old land. Corruption often plays a part: the bigger the project, the bigger the contractors’ bribes. Human tragedies often ensue. The re-landscaping displaces people as well as erasing their heritage, sometimes as a kind of social engineering...