Iraq: the cradle of the written word

Ur may have been the world's first city and the location the first libraries.

When the British archaeologist Leonard Wooley looked out on this forbidding stretch of desert near the Euphrates River in 1921, he judged the landscape to be a "waste of unprofitable sand." But that was before he began a series of digs that within 13 years uncovered 1,850 tombs, dozens of them royal chambers containing a wealth of artifacts that reached back five millenniums - many a thousand years older than materials from King Tutankhaman's grave in Egypt.

Acting on a hunch as to the Sumerian city's location beneath a cluster of mounds in the southern region of Mesopotamia near the city of Nasiriyah - and inspired by the story of the prophet Abraham who is said to have been born in a place called Ur of the Chaldees - Mr. Wooley's efforts revealed structures that had remained in darkness since about 500 BC, when the once-fertile flood plain had been abandoned.

The most prominent feature here today is a terraced pyramid made of mud bricks known as a ziggurat. Built in tribute to the moon god Nanna around 2100 BC, it is the best preserved ziggurat in the Near East, and was the first landmark I noticed while flying into Tallil Air Base.

My journey to this legendary place was occasioned by a visit I had made a day earlier to Camp Anaconda in Balad, a huge supply depot and air base north of Baghdad that is critical to the military effort in Iraq. I have written extensively on various aspects of book culture and had been invited to speak at the dedication of a new library stocked with books gathered and donated by a group of US Army veterans who had performed a similar service in Germany at the end of World War II.

One reason I agreed to speak was that I would be allowed to visit Ur, said by some scholars to be the world's first city and where writing as we know it began to develop. Humanity's first literary text, "The Epic of Gilgamesh," may have been composed here, too. The earliest extant text of the work was found at Ur, and the world's first libraries may have been located here as well. Here was an opportunity to touch the past in ways that I had thought impossible in today's volatile world.

For all its history, Ur is just one of 10,000 archaeological sites that the United Nations estimates are located throughout Iraq that are at grave risk from the ravages of warfare and looting. Because Ur lies within the perimeter of a heavily defended military base, it is remarkably free of the chaos and carnage that have gripped the rest of Iraq. But getting there is still not easy; I was the only civilian on-site the day of my visit, and the only sightseer not carrying a weapon - subtle reminders that we were in a combat zone.

Some of the finer points of the 120-acre complex - most notably the long ramp to Queen Puabi's tomb, where soldiers and attendants had been buried alive with their mistress about 2500 BC, and the 24-room house wistfully called the home of Abraham - were pointed out to me by Dhief Muhsen, a third-generation caretaker who has become something of a celebrity among visiting journalists.

Just how magnificent the artifacts Wooley found were was made apparent in "Treasures From the Royal Tombs of Ur," an exhibition mounted in 1998 by the University of Pennsylvania, which toured to 11 museums in the US. Among the objects on display were gold, silver, and carved calcite vessels; as well as weapons, tools, jewelry, statuary, musical instruments, children's games, and cuneiform tablets.

Though none of these items remain at Ur today, only 20 percent of the area has been fully excavated, prompting Mr. Muhsen to remark that many thousands of other materials, including important texts from antiquity, remain to be discovered. Indeed, just 11 days after my visit, a group of Italian archaeologists reported finding some inscribed tablets, possibly from an old library, on the grounds nearby.

Such a discovery did not occur for me, though Muhsen did point out and allow me to touch a few bricks that bear the markings of ancient characters - which was thrill enough. Admiring these writings in their original locations, I was reminded of a comment by the 19th-century Scottish historian John Hill Burton that a great library cannot be constructed - it is the growth of ages. One can only hope that what has survived for thousands of years in this Cradle of Civilization will inspire generations of admirers yet unborn.

Nicholas A. Basbanes is the author of five books about books, most recently "Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World." He is planning a return trip to Iraq later this year to visit other archaeological sites.

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