"Oldest Human History is at Risk" (NYtimes)

John M Cox coxj at email.unc.edu
Tue Feb 25 10:23:11 MST 2003

February 25, 2003
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 world.

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."


Also in Feb. 25 New York Times:
War in Iraq Would Halt All Digs in Region

War in Iraq would halt archaeology not just in that country but across the
Middle East, experts say, and could result in some of the earliest cities
of Mesopotamia being bombed or looted into ruins of ruins.

Researchers with long experience in Iraq say they are worried that postwar
looting could cause even more damage to the antiquities than combat. They
also fear that some art dealers and collectors might try to take advantage
of any postwar disarray and change in government to gain access to more of
Iraq's archaeological treasures. After the Persian Gulf war of 1991,
ancient treasures were plundered and sold illegally in international

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/25/arts/design/25DIG.html


John Cox
Chapel Hill, NC

This Week in History:
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Feb. 28, 1893 Vsevelod Pudovkin born

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