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Archaeology, Iraq

Third-generation Iraqi looks after Abraham’s birthplace

Main Zigurrat at Ur, outside Nasiriyah, Iraq. Photo: US Air Force

by Carlos Hamann

UR, Iraq Aug 20, 2005 (AFP) –   Dhia Mhesen rattles off fact after fact about this ancient mud brick city, the site of a giant ziggurat and the reputed birthplace of Abraham — the prophet revered by Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike.

“The ziggurat was the temple of the moon god,” said Mhesen. “And over there is the house of Abraham. The bible calls this place Ur of the Chaldeans.”

Mhesen, 46, is the third generation caretaker at Ur, a 4,000 year-old city located near Nasiriyah, 375 kilometers (235 miles) southeast of the Iraqi capital. The site is also known as Tell Muqayyar.

The most imposing building at Ur is the ziggurat, a stepped mudbrick temple with sloping stairways that towers over the flat desert floor. It is the best preserved ziggurat in the region.

Since the ousting of Saddam Hussein, the eight square kilometer (three square-mile) site has fallen within a restricted area near a US military airport.

Dhia Mhesen, third generation guardian of the ruins of Ur, Iraq

Speaking surprisingly good English, which he said he had learned from the dictionary, Mhesen recounts how his grandfather excavated the site in 1922 with British archaeologist Sir Leonard Wooley.

Then Mhesen’s father took over as Ur caretaker from his grandfather in 1961, and he took the job in 1991. He has lived all his life at Ur.

Built around 2100 BC, the ziggurat is believed to have been 26 meters (yards) high during its heyday.

But since the top structure was knocked down, today it stands at 17 meters, with a base 62 by 43 meters, Mhesen said. The walls gradually slope upward, with a top level measuring 20 by 11 meters.

“My birthplace is right over there,” Mhesen said, pointing to a hut about 200 meters (yards) from the ziggurat. Today he lives in that same hut with his father, his wife, six daughters aged four to 15, and his year-old son.

Chaldeans, Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians all lived at Ur. The site was the capital of the Sumerian kingdom in the fourth and third millennia BC. At its height, archaeologists estimate half a million people lived here.

Ur was abandoned around 500 BC, in part because the river Euphrates shifted some three kilometers (two miles) eastward.

During the 1990-1991 Gulf War, Saddam ordered that four of his prized fighter jets from the nearby air base be placed next to the ziggurat to shield them from destruction by US warplanes.

When Mhesen’s father protested, soldiers threatened to kill him if he told anyone, Mhesen said.

The planes were spared, but the air base was largely abandoned when a no-fly zone was established across southern Iraq at the end of the war.

Later Abraham’s house was rebuilt in anticipation of a visit by Pope John Paul II in 2000.

“But (when) Saddam changed his mind and said he couldn’t be held responsible for security, the pope canceled the visit,” Mhesen said.

The site described as Abraham’s home has 27 rooms and five courtyards, most of them small by contemporary standards.

Cuneiform writing on the bricks at Ur. Or maybe ancient graffiti insulting Hammurabi’s mother.

When US-led forces invaded Iraq in March 2003, an advance team with tanks rushed in to secure the nearby airfield for US warplanes.

Terrified Iraqi soldiers fleeing the base stopped by Mhesen’s hut and urged him to hide.

“I said: why? I am a civilian,” Mhesen recalled.

When US troopers called by four days later, Mhesen was surprised to find US-trained Iraqi soldiers with them. Soon “they were in my house drinking tea,” he said.

Visitors can enter the site only if accompanied by an armed military escort.

US air force staff Sergeant Natalicio Ruiz, who has escorted visitors to the site at least 50 times, knows exactly where next to move as Mhesen gives his presentation.

A visitor risks collapsing from dehydration in the summer heat as Mhesen compresses thousands of years of history into the hour-long guided tour.

“I tell visitors that the longer you talk with Dhia, the hotter it will get,” he said.

Mhesen is now trying to convince one of his six brothers, 19 year-old Akram, to follow the family tradition. “He hasn’t decided yet,” he said.

LOAD-DATE: August 20, 2005

Copyright 2005 Agence France Presse

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About Carlos Hamann

Washington D.C.-based writer and editor

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