- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

UR, Iraq Shortly after the 392nd U.S. Infantry Brigade captured this desolate flatland in southern Iraq, soldiers were dispatched to guard monuments and archeological sites older than the rocks themselves.
The infantry surrounded the Ziggurat of Ur, a famous pyramid temple to the moon god Nanna, and the purported birthplace of Abraham. There was no disturbance in this sparsely populated area, but U.S. commanders decided to ensure that U.S. forces protected these sites revered by major religions and cherished by the Iraqi people from sabotage and vandals.
"They're in the exact shape we found them in," said an officer whose unit is based near the Mesopotamian ruins. "I don't know who was making decisions [about] Baghdad, but you can bet we protected these sites."
The untouched ruins of Abraham's sprawling home and the majestic precision of the Ziggurat are even more important now that looters picked clean the Iraq National Museum last week.
Coalition forces were careful not to bomb the museum in central Baghdad, but they did not protect it during the turbulent days after the fall of Baghdad. The loss of the museum's treasures is especially painful to Dhief Muhsen, whose family has served as custodians of the archeological complex here for three generations.
"Many of the artifacts excavated here were taken to many museums, including the museum in Baghdad," said Mr. Muhsen. These include a queen's golden headdress of stars, the famed golden lyre of Ur, and a trove of cups, jewels and daggers made of gold and silver.
Sumerian King Ur-Nammu built the Ziggurat in roughly 2100 B.C., according to most guidebooks. The remaining structure is 30 yards tall and easily ascended by symmetrical staircases.
From the top, Abraham's partially restored home, a royal tomb and the remains of two temples are visible, as is Iraq's Tallil air base.
"When you get to the top of this, you've transcended politics, conflict and religion," said Col. Christopher Holshek, commander of the 402nd Civil Affairs Brigade, based at the nearby airfield.
"When you look out there at the horizon and the skies, you can imagine the mathematics and geometry and astronomy that inspired the Sumerians."
The Buffalo, N.Y.-based 402nd has made sure the isolated Muhsen family has adequate food and water and organized a few hours a day for coalition troops to visit the sites, rather than overrunning the place continually.
The site is in remarkably good shape, despite its predating Christ by 2,000 years. The Ziggurat is a marvel of ancient engineering and building techniques.
Sandstone bricks have held up well, still joined by the original black tar-like mortar. It is in such good condition that visitors can plainly see the imprint of the straw thatch laid between the bricks and mortar to allow for expansion in the desert heat.
The area, which still has seashells from the now-distant Euphrates River, is assumed to be the birthplace of Abraham, an Islamic prophet and the Old Testament patriarch whose descendents formed the Biblical nation of Israel.
Abraham's home has 27 rooms and five courtyards, according to archeologists, who had begun excavating and stabilizing the ruin.
Many of the American soldiers who have wandered across the ruins find themselves transported by the significance and beauty of the site. Yesterday morning, a Roman Catholic reservist murmured a Psalm as he toured Abraham's small rooms and vaulted archways.

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