Sunday, October 14, 2007


The Ziggurat of Ur.

Built on the edges of the al-Hijarah Desert in the early 2100's B.C.E., it once served as both a temple and a royal crypt for the Sumerian city of Urim. For half a millennia, it towered over the banks of the Euphrates River, the highest point in a crowded, walled city. Despite being only four kilometers in width, it housed an estimated 250,000 people.

If the historical accounts are accurate, then perhaps as a child, the Semitic prophet Abraham would have been to stare west from the rooftop patio of his merchant father's well-appointed mansion, and see it atop the hill. Perhaps he might have stood, watching worshippers and royal priests as they climbed the stairs, preparing to offer their devotions to the Sumerian moon-goddes, Nanna. Perhaps he would have closed his eyes; listening to the songs of prayer and supplication. But who can say. The rivers of Eden have shifted away now by miles. All that remain of the region's once-lush deltas now are the fine dust--once lowland silt--of Iraqi sand, and the impressions left by woven reed, used to strengthen the tar between Sumerian bricks.

The city, long abandoned, lies half-excavated from the layers of dust which have since entombed it. What was simply an unassuming ridge before British archaeologists now reveals the Pompeiian memory of a long-dead city. But where fire murdered Pompeii, It was wind and sand left Urim to slowly wither.

There is a bus that leaves LSA Adder several times weekly, chartered by the local Chaplain's office. It transports groups of Coalition soldiers and contractors out to the site where the bones of Ur now rest. It is an uneventful drive; a winding road that twists and turns for several minutes over the desert hardpan, before depositing its passengers at the foot of the Ziggurat. There was a commotion, several years ago, when over the American news it was revealed that the Ziggurat had opened to tourists. The area had been off-limits to visitors since the 1980s, when Saddam Hussein established Tallil Air Base during his ongoing war with Iran. Given the view afforded from the crumbled top of the site, I can see why. The structure rises over a hundred feet out of the surrounding plains, so it would make a perfect position from which to scout the installation.

Still, when I depart the bus, I immediately notice the amount of tourism-related infrastructure--rather, the complete lack of it--and feel heartened. I may be walking on this soil as an admitted occupier, but I take some comfort in the fact that--at least for now--we haven't completely soiled this land with our consumerist feces. There are about fifty of us; American soldiers, all. We stand around in an awkward circle; talking, joking; nervously eyeing the horizons. Our area is peaceful enough so that we can move about, for the moment, unencumbered. Still, old habits die hard. After several minutes, we are greeted by a small, thin Iraqi man--a Chaldean Christian. Looks to be about fifty, wears a white dress shirt and gray slacks. He sports a Hard Rock Cafe baseball cap, and displays a trimmed, salt-and-pepper beard. He greets us in clear, albeit severely broken English. When he speaks, his bird-lipped mouth displays a jagged array of greyish, decaying teeth. He spends several minutes briefing us about the tour, making small talk. After this, he gestures toward the gestures toward the Ziggurat behind him. He launches into a well-rehearsed lecture about the history of Urim (Or Ur-Namu, as some call it, or Ur of the Chaldees); telling us about the age and origins of the city. He tells us, using a homemade Powerpoint bound in looseleaf, a host of various facts about the city--rulers, economy, relevance in the Abrahamic religions, decay, rediscovery.

I can't help grinning. Despite his mangling of the English language, he speaks clearly and manages to remain at once both entertaining and serious. He jokes with us as he points out various landmarks, and after a brief debate asks us which we desire to see first--the Ziggurat, or the tombs and city itself. We choose the City--best for last is the reasoning. We soon learn that our tour-guide's grandfather worked with the first British excavation crews during the early 20th century. When the British left, the property was left to his family, then later taken by Hussein. When Hussein disappeared and his government fell, the grandson--himself now an old man, was waiting.

The rest of the tour is a blur. We wander first into the City, moving over ridges that expose rooms, houses jutting out of ancient gullies. It looks surreal. We are taken over the foundations of the Royal palace, a two-foot high layer of brick all that remains of the once-sprawling structure. After this, the Crypts, deep chambers of brick, built underground and smelling strong of guano. The blur of facts and anecdotes given by our guide whirls around my head--if only people could see this as I do. Who am I kidding, though, I think to myself. I know as well as anyone that most of the Americans I know couldn't care less about this. They'd look at the one lonely souvenir stand, the emptiness of the surrounding terrain, and deride it as a "tourist trap." These days, if it doesn't have at least one roller-coaster and a Burger King, it's not worth seeing. Shit, even the military bases here in Iraq have Burger King.

This first portion of the tour lasts for perhaps an hour. We go at last to the rebuilt foundations of the House of Abraham, and here is where I see the things that amaze me most. Here are winding, cobbled streets, and mud-brick buildings of most unusual design. Here are courtyards and terraces along the streets which, if I close my eyes, I can imagine as being dotted with potted date-palm and olive trees, lit by torchlight in the evening hours. We're told that the House was refurbished for a visit by Pope John Paul in 1999, but then was canceled after Hussein changed his mind and banned the Pope from entry into the country. Ironic, considering the primarily Christian (if not Catholic) make-up of this region of Iraq, the only like it almost anywhere.

We spend half an hour wandering the rooms of the House of Abraham. Doors, stairways, and secret passages abound. I close my eyes as I enter each room--here a kitchen, here servants'-quarters, here a hash-parlor, there a bedroom or atrium. It is strange, to have History look in you in the face this way. I felt this way in Germany, too, me the American, with my fleeting sense of the past, two centuries seeming ancient until considering forty-two. I wonder if anyone else thinks these things as I do. I wonder about when THIS--this house, this city and all its life--was the present, the sun rising on a new morning in Ur, with its chores for the servants and the rush and shout of the merchants going to market. I think of bidoun wanderers, the name meaning "without" in modern Arabic, and think of them as the only thing which ties this place to its long-dead history.

I wonder with Sergeant Mueller and SPC Elder, taking pictures and pointing as we go. SSG Mueller gets a shot of me atop a wall, grinning and flashing a "Bloods" gang-sign. Slowly, we filter out of the House, making our way along the edges of the excavated Lesser City, back past the Crypts and the Palace, back toward the Ziggurat. A few minutes pass, during which the collected soldiers chat, smoke, and mill about aimlessly. I look at the wandering hands, the bulging cargo pockets, the way nobody dispenses with a butt by dropping it on the ground. I normally deride such unconscious acts as the product of Boy-Scout military conditioning, but in this place I am pleased. Let none drop their trash here, I think.

SSG Mueller threatens to drop the last soldier up the imposing stone stairway, and so we oblige, Elder and I, laughing and trying not to elbow each other as we race upward, grinning like a pair of seventh-graders. It's tough--the stairs are steeper than they look--but soon enough, I'm at the top. I pause to catch my breath. Behind and below me, others are talking and laughing as they climb. I wobble a bit; the wind up here is stiff and strong, and the heat at ground level is nowhere to be felt.

A strange silence falls over the gathered warrior-tourists. People wander and take pictures as before, but a hush has descended, people trying to whisper over the wind. We stand on the crumbled remnants of the second level, some eighty feet up. The third and fourth levels, which housed a veranda and roofed altar, have long since fallen. To the south, LSA Adder, a huge fenced enclosure of tents and trailers. Military traffic rumbles to and fro along the streets, too distant to be heard. To the East, the Euphrates, now dammed and girded with electric-line towers. And to the north and west, endless hardpan, cracked and split by lonely roads. Truly, I think that I have never understood the desert until now.

We linger for I don't know how long, but I keep to myself, lost in thought. I feel a strange loneliness, a sadness at the state of this place. Mostly untouched, to my relief, but parked forlorn, a tourist attraction for a foreign army. A scrap of history open only to a conqueror like myself; a note from Time's dusty record, a collection of bricks making a statement in a language none understand; a message that endures long after everything it once stood for has faded.

I stand atop that place for a long time, facing south and west. The wind tugs at my patrol cap, howls untranslatable admonishments in my ear. To the south, Adder coils silently in the desert sun, and from here it seems so impermanent, so transitory. How long, I wonder, will it be before the memory of this place is lost to the dust, and our presence with it? How long before we are forgotten, and will it matter? The Ziggurat, I think, will remain standing long after Adder's tent-pole ribs bleach in the sun. It's people, its creators, they too have been forgotten, but the Ziggurat is not.

It speaks, even now, and there are none to translate what it says.

There is no need.