Lack of attention and funds from Iraqi antiquities authorities threaten archeological Christian center of Ḥīrā

NAJAF/HIRA, Iraq – The ancient Christian city of Ḥīrā in Iraq lies about 17 kilometers from the city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. Ḥīrā is the archeological site of the 3rd-7th century AD Arab Lakhmid Kingdom of Ḥīrā. The name Hira is derived from Syriac ܚܐܪܬܐ / ḥirtā and means camp or encampment. According to Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage it was sometimes referred to as Ḥirtā d-Nuʿmān, named after the Nuʿmān royal dynasty, to distinguish it from other such settlements.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Ḥīrā was most prominent in pre-Islamic Arab history. The city was originally a military encampment before becoming the capital of the Lakhmids. The Lakhmid frontier state was an Arab vassal of the Persian Sassanid Empire and in constant conflict with its western and Byzantine Arab counterpart, the Ghassanids. Ḥīrā had become a center of diplomatic, political, and military activities involving Persia, the Byzantine Empire, and the Arabian Peninsula. It protected the Sassanians from attacks of Arabian nomads and served as an important station on the caravan route between Persia and the Arabian Peninsula.

Christianity in Ḥīrā

With the spread of Christendom, Syriac language and Christianity spread east from the Levant and western Mesopotamia. The archeological remains of churches, monasteries, pottery and other artifacts show that Syriac was in use in Ḥīrā and in broader contemporary Iraq and further south.

The city had an Eastern Syriac bishopric of the Church of the East in the 4th-11th century under the Patriarchate in Seleucia-Ctesiphon. The Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage mentions that by the 5th century, the population under Lakhmid rule had a large Christian component, called the ʿIbād, which is understood to mean ‘servants’ or ‘devotees’ of the Lord.

The first known bishop of Ḥirta is Hoshaʿ, who attended the synod of the Church of the East in 410. The Church of the East Catholicoi frequently resided in Ḥirta, especially at times of persecution in areas under direct Sasanian rule, and at least five of them found their resting places in Ḥirta (Dadishoʿ I [421–56], Babowai [457–84], Aba  I [540–52], Ḥazqiel [567–81], and Ishoʿyahb I [582–95]; perhaps also Aqaq [485–95/6] and, later, Abraham II [837–50]). There was a school at Ḥirta founded by Qiyore of Edessa, a disciple of Aba I, and housed in a monastery later called Dayr al-Askūl. Among the later bishops of Ḥirta was the lexicographer Ḥenanishoʿ b. Seroshway (9th cent.). The famous translator Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq al-ʿIbādī (d. 873) was a native of Ḥirta. The last known bishop of Ḥirta is Yūḥannā b. Nāzūk, who became cath. in 1012. Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage 

The only Lakhmid king to become openly Christian and persist in his faith was Nuʿmān III (583 – ca. 602), the last of the dynasty, who was deposed and killed by the Sasanian king Khusrau II (590–628). Ḥīrā was taken by the Muslim army in 633. The nearby garrison town of Kufa was founded in 639 and developed into one of the centers of early Islamic Iraq.

Ḥīrā continued to exist until the 10th century at least. After its final abandonment the archeological sites went into decay.

Archeological sites under threat

The monasteries and churches of Ḥīrā were first explored and excavated in the 1930s. Today a considerable part of the area of ancient Ḥīrā has been built over and the rapid growth of the city of Najaf and its international airport threaten the many archeological sites. In the last couple of years, excavations have slowed down or halted because of the violent situation in Iraq, the Corona-pandemic, lack of attention, lack of funds, and neglect by the Iraqi authority for antiquities. Many the monasteries, churches, and artifacts have still to reveal their historical secrets.

According to Najaf’s Director of Tourism and Antiquities Ahmed Mayali, the situation is really threatening. After his department successfully cooperated in excavations and research with the German Tourism and Antiquities Authority for 4 consecutive seasons between 2014 to 2018, excavation work and preservation have been halted due to the popular protests in the country and the Corona pandemic. He has indicated that the direct priorities of his department are now to protect the ancient city from abuses.

Mayali expressed his disappointment in clear threat to the archaeological sites from high urbanization of the city of Najaf, a city of 1 million residents, the lack of funds allocated to support tourism in the Najaf Governate, and wrong policies that have made archaeological tourism one of the last concerns of the Iraqi government.

Stucco plaque with incised and coloured decoration. Image: https://maxvanberchem.org/