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The History of Ur

Article excerpt

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. …