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Representing one of the world’s earliest built settlements, the archaeological site of Bestansur is a unique attestation of a vitally important period in the cultural heritage of Iraq, the Middle East and the World. Bestansur is located in the Zagros foothills on the edge of the Shahrizor Plain, 30 km southeast of Sulaimaniyah city in Sulaimaniyah province, Kurdistan Regional Government, Iraq.
The site consists of a mound of intact archaeological layers covering 2.5 hectares, close to a large natural spring by the modern village of Bestansur (‘Red Garden’). Excavations at Bestansur since spring 2012 by a joint Iraqi-UK team have established the presence of rectilinear buildings constructed of mud-bricks and pisé (pressed clay and earth), which have been radiocarbon dated to 7700 to 7100 BC, the Early Neolithic period. These are the earliest rectilinear structures ever found in Iraqi Kurdistan and they represent the first stages of village life in the region.
Associated with the buildings are thousands of artefacts of stone, clay and bone, as well as human burials under the plaster floors of one of the buildings. There are traces of red-painted plaster on the walls of the buildings.
Bestansur is the only archaeological site in Iraqi Kurdistan to provide evidence for the period 8000-7100 BC and is therefore of global cultural, historical and archaeological significance. The importance of the site transcends regional and national boundaries due to its uniqueness in representing the earliest stages of village farming life, a major milestone in human history.
During the Neolithic period human communities across the Middle East changed their lifestyles from mobile hunters and foragers to settled farmers and animal herders, a dramatic process of change often called the Neolithic Revolution. At this time people domesticated many of the animals and plants in their surrounding environments, including goat, sheep and pig, as well as cereal and pulse crops. They also developed extensive networks of exchange in order to share access to cherished materials such as obsidian, carnelian and sea-shells, used for making tools and for adornment.
Archaeologists agree that the Neolithic Revolution is one of the most significant episodes of change in the history of humanity, and that the Zagros mountain region of eastern Iraq is a key zone for the earliest stages of that transition. On the basis of farming and animal herding, human communities were able to accumulate food surpluses and thus to support new social hierarchies. In time, the agricultural foundation of societies in the Middle East enabled the development of towns, cities, empires and entire civilisations, including our own globally connected civilisation today. The site of Bestansur sits at the start of that long trajectory of world history and provides unique insights into the ways in which human communities began to have significant impacts on their natural and cultural environments in one of the world’s most important heartlands of these global changes.
Criterion (iii): Bestansur bears unique testimony to a cultural tradition and civilisation from the distant past of humanity. No other archaeological site in Iraqi Kurdistan provides such early evidence for this critically important episode in the human story in the transition from mobile hunting-gathering to sedentary/village farming life.
Criterion (iv): Bestansur represents an outstanding example of an elaborate architectural ensemble from a highly significant stage of human history. The buildings excavated so far are the earliest rectilinear architecture from the region, and therefore stand as unique exemplars of early built environment at the start of an architectural tradition of building in mud-brick and pisé which survives in the region until today. They include examples of neighbourhoods of multi-roomed buildings, some with multiple layers of wall plaster, traces of wall paintings, and up to 28 human burials below floors.
The authenticity of Bestansur is beyond doubt. Five seasons of meticulous scientific excavation and multi-disciplinary analysis of all the finds from the site confirm that Bestansur is an intact Early Neolithic settlement with multiple buildings forming neighbourhoods of early farmers and animal herders who at the same time continued to hunt and gather the wild species of animals and plants in their environment, near and far. A series of radiocarbon dates has established that Neolithic human settlement at Bestansur lasts at least from 7700 BC to 7100 BC.
The integrity of Bestansur relates to the area contained within the proposed boundaries of the archaeological site. The proposed site area of 2.5 hectares includes all elements necessary, according to intensive survey of the site, in order to express the site’s Outstanding Universal Value, as well as to present all the features and attributes which characterise the site’s unique significance.
In accordance with Iraqi Antiquities and Heritage Law No 55 of 2002, article 15, all registered archaeological sites are protected from potentially adverse developments such as building construction and invasive agriculture. Ploughing of the fields around the mound of Bestansur has taken place for many decades but multiple excavation trenches have established that beneath the plough-soil intact Neolithic levels survive in good condition. A fence was constructed around the site of Bestansur in the 1970s but is now in serious need of repair. A generous grant by Mrs Hero Talabani of Sulaimaniyah has enabled the construction of a durable new fence enclosing the 2.5 hectares of the archaeological site, with the explicit consent of the main land-owner, within whose fields much of Bestansur is located.
The site is protected by a full-time site guard, resident in the adjacent modern village of Bestansur, who is employed by the Sulaimaniyah Antiquities Directorate. The site guard communicates regularly with the Director of Sulaimaniyah Antiquities Directorate, Mr Kamal Rasheed Raheem, to ensure ongoing protection of Bestansur from potentially adverse activity. UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List status would help with the protection of the site and the surrounding environment, which includes the second largest spring on the fertile Shahrizor Plain, and views that include this lush spring and riverine environment and the Zagros mountain range to the east.
Bestansur has unique significance in that there are no comparable sites on the World Heritage List nor on the Tentative List. In particular, Iraq’s current portfolios of World Heritage Sites (x 4) and Tentative List sites (x 11) comprise exclusively historic period sites such as Babylon, Nineveh and Samarra. There is no representation of the globally significant prehistoric phases of Iraq’s past.
Amongst Iraq’s neighbours, Iran has only two Bronze Age and no Early Neolithic sites in its World Heritage List (x 17) and Tentative List (x 51). The closest comparison to Bestansur is the Tentative List site of Tepe Sialk, but this site is more than 1000 years later than Bestansur and therefore does not represent the initial phase of the transition to village life. In central Turkey, the World Heritage List site of Çatalhöyük is a special example of a large Neolithic settlement which represents the second major phase of the Neolithic period, following the initial phase of settlement and domestication of plants and animals. Neither Tepe Sialk in Iran nor Çatalhöyük in Turkey are thus comparable to Bestansur in terms of representing the earliest stages of the Neolithic transition. In the Taurus mountain region of southeast Turkey, the Tentative List site of Göbeklitepe is a special example of an Early Neolithic cultic centre, but the site was abandoned by 8000 BC. If added to the Tentative List, Bestansur would be the sole representative from any Middle East country for the critical period 8000-7100 BC.
For comparable sites not on the UNESCO lists, there are also extremely few candidates. Within Iraqi Kurdistan, the major Neolithic site of Jarmo, located 65 km northwest of Bestansur, was excavated in the mid-twentieth century by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Jarmo dates to the second major phase of the Neolithic period, from 7100 BC and later, and therefore does not represent the initial transition to settled life that Bestansur so richly illustrates. In the high Zagros mountains of western Iran, 150-200 km to the southeast of Bestansur, there are archaeological sites comparable in date and significance to Bestansur, including the Early Neolithic sites of Sheikh-e Abad, Asiab, Abdul Hosein, Ganj Dareh, East Chia Sabz and Chogha Golan, where human communities took the first steps in animal and plant domestication as well as in architectural experimentation. None of these sites has been proposed for the World Heritage Tentative List.
The inclusion of Bestansur on the Tentative List and, in due course, on the World Heritage List, would represent a major step in recognising the deep-time significance of Iraq’s past in the earliest stages of one of the great transformations in human history, the transition from mobile hunting and foraging to settled farming and animal-herding.