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Unearthing the riches of Ur in war-ravaged Iraq

By Mehdi Lebouachera (AFP)

TELL AL-MUQAYYAR, Iraq — The buried antiquities of Ur, Biblical birthplace of Abraham and one of the cradles of civilisation, could one day outshine those of ancient Egypt, archaeologists and workers on the site believe.

With Iraq ravaged by war and strife since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Baghdad's struggling government has had greater priorities than funding large-scale digs at Ur, where only small teams have been working since 2005.

"When the (large-scale) excavations restart, tons of antiquities will see the light of day, filling entire museum wings," enthused Dhaif Moussin, who is in charge of protecting a site that has been prone to looting.

"This site will become perhaps more important than Giza," he added, referring to the plateau outside the Egyptian capital of Cairo where some of mankind's most treasured antiquities have been unearthed, including the Sphinx and several notable pyramids.

That may not be just an idle boast.

In the early 1900s, American archaeologist Charles Leonard Woolley made some stunning finds when he unearthed 16 tombs of Ur's elite.

Inside he found some of the greatest treasures of antiquity, including a golden dagger encrusted with lapis lazuli, an intricately carved golden statue of a ram caught in a thicket, a lyre decorated with a bull's head and the gold headdress of a Sumerian queen.

Those treasures have been compared to the riches from the tomb of the Egyptian boy-king, Tutankhamun, but they excite archaeologists even more because the graves at Ur are more than 1,000 years older.

Archaeologically, the most astonishing find of Ur has been a remarkably well-preserved stepped platform, or ziggurat, which dates back to the third millennium BC, when it was part of a temple complex that served as the administrative centre of the Sumerian capital.

To date, hardly 20 percent of the site has been excavated, mainly by American and British archaeologists.

"Some archaeologists estimate it will take more than 30 years to dig out the entire city," said Moussin, surveying the site. Ur lies near a US air base just outside the southern city of Nasiriyah, a major battle ground of the American invasion.

"It is certain that much more material remains to be discovered," said Steve Tinney, professor of Assyriology at the University of Pennsylvania which, together with the British Museum, sponsored Woolley's excavations between 1922 and 1934.

Ur of the Chaldees, as it is mentioned in the Bible, was one of the great urban centres of the Sumerian civilisation of southern Iraq and remained an important city until its conquest by Alexander the Great a few centuries before Christ.

It is thought to have reached its apogee under King Ur-Nammu, an accomplished warrior and founder of Sumer's third dynasty, who is believed to have lived between 2112 and 2095 BC.

During his rule, the Sumerian capital boasted paved roads, tree-lined avenues, schools, poets, scribes, and stunning works of art and architecture of the kind discovered by Woolley and his team.

The kingdom was governed by a real administration and code of laws. Sumerian script, called cuneiform, is the earliest known writing system in the world. Tinney said he hoped for the discovery of texts that would shed light on the culture and polytheistic religion of the Sumerians.

"We do not have literature on Ur-Nammu and his successors, the Sumerians or their rituals," Tinney said.

The site would be unequalled in the world if it proves to be the birthplace of Abraham, revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, said Moussin. Woolley wanted to prove that Abraham had lived in Ur, after discovering Abraham's name on a brick unearthed there.

But for all of its former glory, Ur is likely to remain buried under the site that is protected by a fragile barrier and some guards, lost in a country rocked by violence and more worried about rebuilding its present capital.

"Much remains to be done, and an endeavour must be authorised together with the central government if Iraq wants to benefit from its enormous potential as a Mecca of tourism," said Anna Prouse, an Italian diplomat in charge of a regional rebuilding team in the Iraqi province of Dhi Qar.

In addition to Ur, the province has 47 other sites "of great archaeological value," she added.

The provincial authorities do not have the budget to start titanic archaeological excavations because they are focusing on restoring electricity, sewerage systems, schools, roads, and drinking water for their war-ravaged population, Prouse said.

Copyright © 2010 AFP. All rights reserved

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