ALIPH, a Geneva-based cultural heritage fund, and the Iraqi Ministry of Culture have joined forces to rescue the Arch of Ctesiphon, the world’s largest brick vault constructed until modern times.
Roughly 35 kilometres south-east of Baghdad, in Iraq, along the shores of the river Tigris, an ancient city called Ctesiphon once served as the royal capital of the Iranian empire until the Muslim conquest of Persia in 651 AD.
All that remains of the metropolis today is an imposing brick vault, known as Tāq Kasrā, or the arch of Ctesiphon - and it is now on the brink of collapse.
The Geneva-based International alliance for the protection of heritage in conflict areas (ALIPH), together with the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, are stepping in to rescue the arch after ALIPH’s board approved a $700,000 grant to implement emergency measures.
The University of Pennsylvania and Consultancy for Conservation and Development has been tasked with carrying out the work and stabilising the monument until a full-scale conservation can begin.
“The exceptional heritage of Iraq, so scarred by conflicts and terrorism, is a priority for ALIPH”, said Valéry Freland, executive director of ALIPH, a Swiss Foundation dedicated to protecting cultural heritage sites in conflict areas.
“This project to stabilise one of the most remarkable monuments in the Middle East is ambitious, because we need to set up an extremely complex stabilisation system as quickly as possible. ALIPH will work hand in hand with the Iraqi Ministry of Culture and the University of Pennsylvania to save this monument.”
How to save a monument. Standing at an imposing 37 meters high and 26 meters wide, Tāq Kasrā is the largest brick vault and free-standing arch to be built until modern times. Erected in the 6th century CE, it formed part of a palace complex belonging to the Sasanian dynasty - the Iranian dynasty that once ruled a vast empire.
Since 2012, the vault has been rapidly deteriorating and has suffered a series of partial collapses - the latest occurring in December 2020. “It is never easy to predict the next collapse, but if nothing is done now, then a total collapse will undoubtedly happen,” a spokesperson for ALIPH told Geneva Solutions.
The first step will be to design and install a specialised scaffolding to take the load off the parabolic arch. At the same time, the University of Pennsylvania’s conservation team will install sensors to monitor the cracks and train the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage staff to manage the equipment and analyse the data.
Once the scaffolding is in place, the teams will use the high-resolution scans and photographs, as well as geophysical data such as information from the soil, to develop a full conservation plan, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
The arch escaped damage during the Iraq conflict, however, there was no maintenance during that period, and recent events like the twin suicide attack in central Baghdad on 21 January, also pose security concerns, ALIPH said. While Covid-19 also makes traveling to the country more challenging for the conservation teams involved, the foundation said will work with local experts as much as possible.
“It is a race against the clock, and we need to do it fast, but we cannot compromise the quality of this work. As the rainy season continues, that race becomes even more urgent, as the precipitation puts the arch increasingly at risk.”
“Our aim is to protect this heritage of global importance with the help of friends of Iraq. We are grateful for the quick response from ALIPH,” said Dr Laith Hussein, director of SBAH.