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."
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