Wearing their traditional cassocks and scarlet fascias, and with large golden crosses around their necks, members of the Vatican delegation to Iraq paced across the ruins of the House of Abraham in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur.
Not long after, Pope Francis arrived to hold an interfaith prayer service at the site, revered as the birthplace of the father of the three Abrahamic religions, surrounded by the camera lenses of photographers and journalists who gathered to capture the unfamiliar site and report on the pope’s landmark visit to the war-torn country, the first ever by the Bishop of Rome.
Iraq’s archaeological heritage was suddenly cast back into the spotlight and the pages of international newspapers.
Although the claim that Prophet Abraham was born at the ancient site of Ur before he left to settle in the land of Canaan has been contested by some scholars who believe his home was further north in Mesopotamia in a place called Ura, Ur’s biblical associations have made it famous in the modern day.
But the significance of the ancient Sumerian city stretches long before the bible had even been written.
As Iraq continues to be embroiled in conflict, with decades of war and political instability fending off international visitors, it is easy to forget that this is the region where civilisation itself was born and the building blocks for the modern world were laid.
Meaning the land between the two rivers, Mesopotamia was the region between the Tigris and Eupherates rivers in modern-day Iraq. Long before the rise of ancient Greece and Rome, Mesopotamia was home to some of the world’s earliest civilisations, including those of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, and Assyria, which laid the foundations for the concepts of government, religion and literature.
The ancient city of Ur
Dating back to the Chalcolithic and early Bronze Ages, Sumer was the earliest civilisation known to mankind, which saw the development of the earliest form of writing and the invention of the wheel more than 5,000 years ago.
Sumer was made up of walled city-states, each with its own king, and Ur was the capital city. Known today as Tal Al-Muqayer, Ur was established around 3,800 BC and emerged as a significant port city and an important urban centre of southern Mesopotamia. It is one of four ancient Sumerian cities in the modern Iraqi province of Dhi Qar approximately 300 km from the capital Baghdad.
Originally a coastal city near the mouth of the Euphrates on the Arabian Gulf, Ur now lies well inland, nearly 16 km from the south bank of the Eupherates river, due to the shifting of the coastline. Owing to its position on the Gulf, Ur drew vast wealth and flourished as a trade centre.
The Ziggurat of Ur, a temple dedicated to the Mesopotamian moon god Nannar, is one of the oldest pyramids of the ancient world. Its burnt-brick facade and monumental staircase were partially restored under Saddam Hussein’s regime in the 1980s
The archeological site forms part of the Ahwar of Southern Iraq, also known as the Iraqi Marshlands, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the world’s largest inland delta systems despite the hot and harsh environment.
In 1922, British archeologist Sir Leonard Woolley led a joint expedition of the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania to Ur. His excavations of the site over the following decade uncovered some 35,000 artefacts and burials indicating the Sumerians of Ur enjoyed a life of luxury in their day.. The extraordinary discovery rivaled that of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt.
Stunning crowns and jewellery dating back to about 2,600 BC were dug up from a royal cemetery Woolley discovered at the ruins of Ur, and an elaborate grave complex he dubbed the ‘Great Death Pit’.
News of the excavations and the discoveries at the time made Ur a desirable destination for many westerners, including a heartbroken and recently divorced Agatha Christie who, upon hearing the fascinating tales about Iraq from a couple that had recently returned from Baghdad, jumped at the idea of an escape to historic Mesopotamia.
The renowned British murder mystery novelist hopped on the Orient Express towards Baghdad. She then set off to the excavation site at Ur where she fell in love with the ancient ruins, as well as one of Woolley’s assistants, Max Mallowan, who soon became her second husband.
I fell in love with Ur, with its beauty in the evenings, the ziggurat standing up, faintly shadowed, and that wide sea of sand with its lovely pale colors of apricot, blue and mauve, changing every minute. I enjoyed the workmen, the foremen, the little basket boys, the pick men—the whole technique and life. The lure of the past came to grab me. To see a dagger slowly appearing with its gold glint, through the sand was romantic. The carefulness of lifting pots and objects from the soil filled me with a longing to be an archaeologist myself.
Christie’s many journeys to Baghdad aboard the Orient Express and her experiences at excavation sites in the region inspired her best-selling novel Murder on the Orient Express, and later in 1936 Muder in Mesopotamia which transported readers to the excavation site at Ur.
Whether it is the news of an enthralling excavation expedition or a historic visit by the Pope, the world certainly should not need an excuse to recall, appreciate and explore the exceptional history of Iraq; the Cradle of Civilisation and under the Abbasid caliphs the seat of the an empire that stretched from Central Asia to Spain.