Unearthing the Bible; Sacred Relics Lie Scattered beneath the Deserts of the Middle East. in Iraq, Our Religious History Is Being Obliterated; in Israel, It's a Question of Faith

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Byline: Melinda Liu And Christopher Dickey (With BABAK DEHGHANPISHEH in Baghdad Graphic by Josh Ulick and Karl Gude)

What there was in the beginning, in the world of the Bible, is what there was in the land now called Iraq. There is nothing left of the Garden of Eden, no artifact at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where myth has placed the Temptation and the Fall. But the great cities and empires from the Books of Genesis and Kings and Chronicles have left their traces: Ur, where Abraham was born; rapacious Assyria with its capital, Nineveh, and Babylon, where the ancient Israelites were carried into captivity and where, as the psalm tells us, they wept when they remembered Zion.

Beneath the sands and silt of Iraq, for millennium after millennium, truths have waited to be pieced together about these legendary places that loom so large in the faith and culture of Jews, Christians and Muslims. "This is where the first writing began, where the first ideas of law and religions were written down," says archeologist McGuire Gibson at the University of Chicago. Golden calves, winged bulls and rampant lions have emerged from the dust, helping explain the consequential journey from the opulent polytheism of Mesopotamia to the more ascetic monotheism of the Promised Land. It is a story that has emerged slowly, painstakingly, over the past century from some 10,000 scientific excavations in Iraq and innumerable ones in Israel.

Across the Middle East, the quest for sacred artifacts and for the lessons they can teach us is taking on new urgency. Archeology is growing more sophisticated; the technology of dating relics is improving. Driven by curiosity and faith, ambition and sometimes avarice, diggers yearn to unearth the Bible, to try to solve its mysteries and reveal its secrets.

It is the most challenging of archeological obstacle courses. In Iraq, the fall of Saddam Hussein raised hopes that new money and new freedoms would help open up many sites to more scientific investigation and restoration. But the ravages of war are clouding that prospect. In Israel, a rising tide of funds for Bible-related projects is flowing into Jerusalem and its environs, but archeology is an overlooked casualty of the intifada : the violence has cut down the number of active digs.

Indeed the hunt for treasure and truth is growing ever wilder and more worrisome. In the lawless deserts of occupied Iraq, history--both of the Bible and of the larger ancient world that scriptures only hint at--is being pillaged on an epic scale for a black market where irreplaceable fragments of our past are sold to sophisticated collectors, or just to the highest bidder on eBay. "It's wiping out a whole field of knowledge, of social and cultural history," says Gibson, "just so somebody can have a beautiful object sitting on the mantelpiece."

In Israel, much care is taken to preserve the slightest trace that might reveal literal truths about the mystical teachings of scripture. The tragedy of Iraq is that contexts are disappearing as fast as the objects them--selves. Archeologists are like crime-scene investigators trying to discover how whole societies lived and died. And to do that they need to know when, how--and especially where--each clue is found. "You take an object out of context, you are losing about 80 percent of the information it can give you," says Gibson. Near Nasiriya, in southern Iraq, a 2,700-year-old Sumerian site known as Um Al Agareb, "Mother of Scorpions," is crisscrossed by the tire tracks of looters' trucks. Holes are everywhere. "It makes you cry," says John Russell, an American archeologist who advised the Iraqi Culture Ministry until June. The thieves no longer wait for the cover, or even the cool, of the night. One day last week a portly 35-year-old who said his name was Hassan clawed the earth with a pickax and shovel in 120-degree heat. When asked why, his answer was simple. …