Oldest Human History Is at Risk



Iraq has hundreds of thousands of archaeological

sites. Some 10,000 have been identified, but only a

fraction have been explored. Any of them could change

what we know about human history, as past excavations

have done. Some have already revealed the world's

earliest known villages and cities and the first

examples of writing.

 The country is also one of the prime centers of

Islamic art and culture. It is home to some of the

earliest surviving examples of Islamic architecture —

the Great Mosque at Samarra and the desert palace of

Ukhaidar — and it is also a magnet for religious

pilgrimage. The tombs of Imam Ali and his son Husein,

founders of the Shiite branch of Islam, at Najaf and

Karbala, are two of the most revered in the Muslim


During the Persian Gulf war in 1991 at least one major

archaeological monument, the colossal ziggurat of Ur,

was bombed. Shock from explosions damaged fragile

structures like the great brick vault at Ctesiphon,

and the 13th-century university called the

Mustansiriya in Baghdad. These are among the sites

most at risk from war:

¶Ur, which flourished in the third millennium B.C. and

is identified in the Bible as the birthplace of

Abraham. In the 1920's and 30's a British-American

team excavated a royal cemetery in which members of a

powerful social elite were buried with their servants

and exquisitely wrought possessions. Ur's most

spectacular feature, though, is its immense ramped

ziggurat or tower, the best preserved in Iraq.

Although excavation is more advanced here than at most

other sites in the country, it is far from complete,

with many layers still to be uncovered.

¶Babylon (1700-600 B.C.) is rich in historical glamor.

Built on the banks of the Euphrates, it was the

capital to Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander the

Great. Monumental remains like the Ishtar Gate have

been uncovered, and locations for the Tower of Babel

and the Hanging Gardens tentatively identified. As

home to the captive Israelites, the city is a

recurrent and potent symbol in the Judeo-Christian

narrative. The site of Nippur, an important religious

center of ancient Babylonia dedicated to the god

Enlil, is also in this part of southern Iraq, about

100 miles south of Babylon. The spectacular site has

yielded an extensive sequence of pre-Islamic pottery.

¶Nineveh, far to the north, the imperial seat of the

Assyrian kings Sennacherib (about 704-681 B.C.) and

Ashurbanipal (668-627 B.C.). Royal palaces with

magnificent sculptures have been found, as have more

than 20,000 cuneiform tablets from Ashurbanipal's

library. The biblical prophet Jonah preached there.

After the gulf war the excavated palaces were looted

of sculptures. Nineveh is on the World Monuments Watch

list of the 100 most endangered sites.

¶Ctesiphon (100 B.C. to A.D. 900) is high among

architectural wonders. The audience hall is just a

shell, but its graceful vault, 120 feet high with an

83-foot span, is intact. The cracks that occurred in

1991 are believed to have been patched by Iraqi

archaeologists, but more or heavier shocks from

military sites in the area could bring it down.

While untold amounts of Iraq's ancient material past

remains buried, its Islamic art is mostly above

ground, and monuments carrying profound cultural and

religious significance abound.

Baghdad itself is one of them. Once legendary for its

wealth, learning and beauty — many of the tales in the

"Thousand and One Nights" are were set there — it has

been devastated many times. And while nothing remains

of its original circular design, superb late medieval

buildings survive, among them tombs, mosques,

minarets, the university and the revered Kadhumain,

mosque and shrine. Baghdad also has the country's

largest archaeological museum, with a collection of

the finest Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian art in

the world.

Samarra, once briefly a dynastic capital, has

extraordinary early Islamic buildings. The ruins of

the ninth-century Great Mosque of Mutawakkil, one of

the largest ever built, lies outside the modern city,

its intact spiral minaret an icon of Islamic art. The

city also has one of the oldest known Islamic tombs,

an early caliphal palace and the only brick bridge in

Iraq, dating from 1128.

Iraq's third largest city, after Basra, is Mosul, far

north on the Tigris and little studied by Western

scholars. It is rich in architecture, including the

leaning minaret of the now destroyed mosque of Nur

ad-Din. The city also attracts pilgrims to the tombs

of Muslim saints and has some of the earliest

Christian monasteries, dating to the fourth century.

Its museum holds important Assyrian antiquities from

excavations at Nineveh, Khorsabad and Assur.

Of the many Islamic monuments outside cities, one of

the oldest is the eighth-century fortified palace of

Ukhaidhar. No one knows why it is in so remote a spot,

but the surrounding land was probably irrigated for

crops and gardens, and the palace seems to have been a

self-sustaining miniature city. Architecturally, it is

also an example of the multicultural impulse that has

always defined Islamic culture, in this case bringing

together Persian, Syrian and Byzantine influences.

"If any of the holiest Shiite shrines at Karbala,

Najaf or Kadhumain are hit, we can only expect a very

angry reaction from Muslims everywhere," said Zainab

Bahrani, who was born in Iraq and teaches Islamic art

at Columbia University. "It would be like bombing St.

Peter's in Rome."


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