The history of Ur

Iraqi soldiers from Talil Air Base fled the recent US advance through the nearby ruins of Ur, one of civilization's earliest cities. Their dusty uniforms lie abandoned on the floor of a house believed to have belonged to Abraham, the Biblical patriarch.

Iraq is one of the few Muslim countries to take pride in pre-Muhammad history. But years of economic decline and now postwar uncertainty threaten the 6,000-year-old city and other archeological jewels in the region once known as "The Fertile Crescent."

After being shut out in recent years by Saddam Hussein's regime, Western archaeologists are eager for access to Ur - one of the most important archeological sites in the world. Basic site protection and preservation is their first concern.

Ur's current caretakers are a poorly paid yet dedicated family of four. Chief guide Dhief Muhsen lives on site with his father and two brothers. The government paid the family approximately $500 a year, and they were dependent on Oil for Food rations.

"Our family is in hardship," said Mr. Muhsen. Until recently, the Muhsens supplemented their income with tips from tourists. Visitors from Germany and France came at a rate of one group per day during the mild seasons, and once a month during the summer.

Many of these tourists came to pray. Abraham is considered a patriarch of the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the Bible, God tells Abram to leave Ur with his family and head to Israel, the promised land. Abram is renamed Abraham, "father of many."

The site's importance goes beyond Abraham. Its ziggurat, a terraced-pyramid temple of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians, rises some 50 feet above the surrounding desert plain. Built over 4,000 years ago, the temple has slanting walls and steps.

The tourists to Ur and the government subsidies are gone now. US troops have been feeding the Muhsens and protecting this national monument from terrorists or looters.

So far, looters haven't reached this remote area in southern Iraq. But Western archaeologists remain concerned about the site's status.

The Iraqi government once ran a fairly professional archaeological operation, says archeologist Francis Deblauwe. But any provisional government will have its hands full, he says. "They're going to have so many problems with enforcement," he says. "The black market will grow."

During a visit to the site, it is obvious preservation does not seem to be a high priority. Muhsen uses his fingers to brush sand off cuneiform inscriptions. People are allowed to walk up the crumbling steps of the ziggurat. There are few established paths, and visitors crush potsherds underfoot as they climb the dirt mounds.

Muhsen, a high school graduate, gleans his knowledge of the site from books and from the tourists. "They teach me some; I teach them some," he said. Knowledge has also been passed down from Muhsen's grandfather, who worked an early excavation team led by archaeologist Leonard Woolley in 1922.

Woolley's team uncovered many artistic treasures in the royal cemetery. They now reside in the British Museum. Repatriation of these artifacts could become a contentious issue between any new Iraqi government and England, as it has for other Middle Eastern nations like Egypt.

Any new government will need to decide how best to preserve sites like Ur. Iraq has conducted two archeological projects on the site - one in the 1960s and the other just three years ago. When Pope John Paul II showed interest in visiting the site, Iraq reconstructed some of the ruins of what is believed to be Abraham's house.

Muhsen shows me original and reconstructed brickwork. The newer bricks are sealed with mortar instead of bitumen, a hard black tar that has withstood the ages well.

Ships imported the material to make bitumen. In Sumerian times, the Euphrates River flowed by Ur and created lush farmland. The river has taken a different course, leaving the city covered in dust.

Brickwork incorporates arches and curved walls. Floor stones contain holes used as pivots for doors. Pots that were used to bury children stand unbroken in the cemetery.

Despite Ur's fame, approximately 80 percent of the ruins remain under dust, Muhsen says. But what has been discovered is remarkable.

"The tombs revealed ... that when Ur's kings and queens died, they took their entire household staff with them to netherworld," says Richard Zettler, a curator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. "All of them were necessary [staff] for their palaces in the afterlife."

Muhsen shows me a water hole in the house believed to be Abraham's. In the clay used to cement the brickwork, there are seepage holes made by human fingers. The work is original construction, according to Muhsen, meaning those fingerprints might be 4,000 years old.

Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the invasion of Iraq. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait (http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/).

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