NAJAF - Long praised as a cradle of civilization that boasts scores of historical sites, a decade of war and lack of investments have taken its toll at Iraq's heritage that was left to fears of eventual demise due to neglect and moldering.
"The area has historical importance, because it is rich in antiquities, including especially the remains of churches, abbeys and palaces," Shakir Abdulzahra Jabari, who led excavations there in 2007, 2009 and 2010, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Monday, May 28.
"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."
Lacking enough funds for excavation, the remains of the celebrated ancient city of Hira have been left for neglect and moldering for years.
The city, which extends around 17 kilometers (10 miles) south from Najaf, form part of the ancient Lakhmid capital of Hira.
The Lakhmids were a pre-Islamic Arab tribe that is 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.
Oxford University researchers explored the site in the 1930s, and Iraqi antiquities experts carried out their own excavations in 1938, 1956 and 1957.
It was during the latter set of explorations that the Palace of Al-Khawarnaq, built during the reign of fourth and fifth century King Numan I was discovered.
Yet, since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Baghdad's government ignored funding large-scale digs in a country with more than 12,000 documented archaeological sites.
Foreign exploration teams have also avoided Iraq entirely over security fears, even though levels of violence in the country are significantly lower than their peak in 2006 and 2007.
"The excavation works resumed in the area in 2007. When expansion work was being done to Najaf airport, the first three sites were discovered," said Jabari.
"We have worked to save it from the (airport) expansion process."
Paradise on Earth
Being at the center of a flourishing pre-Islamic Arab civilization, Hira was described by poets as a Paradise on earth.
One poet said that because of the city's pleasant climate and beauty, a day in Hira was "better than a year of treatment".
The ancient city 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 characterized by a not insignificant number of churches built for living in, and the practice of various scientific and cultural activities," Sultani added.
The Najaf provincial department of antiquities resumed its works in 2009, unearthing around 2,100 artifacts in different parts of the province, including coins, pieces of pottery and a number of buildings dating back to the Lakhmid dynasty.
Though excavation works were resumed, funds dry up soon to stop works again.
"But exploration work stopped a year ago because of time limits on the project, which ran out of money, and no maintenance work has been done on the sites since," Jabari said.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 has caused severe damage to the precious archaeological heritage, one of the richest in the world.
The national museum in Baghdad was the first repository of archaeological treasures to be subjected to looting within days of the US and UK invasion in April 2003.Military operations also had a highly destructive effect on two of the most important cities of ancient Iraq.