2011
04.14

DAY 72 – URUK

SYNOPSIS:

Another ziggurat at Nippur and a most authentic experience:  Uruk in a sand storm.

We are staying at the worst hotel in the most boring town in Iraq, so it seems:  As Samawa.  There is nothing to look at here, but As Samawa provides a convenient half-way point between Najaf and Basra and allows us to take in a maximum number of historical sites.  The speed and efficiency at which we are checking off important sites is truly breath-taking.  One factor for this speed is that we not only have our own private transportation – a luxury you rarely have when you are an individual traveler – but that we are escorted with sirens and blue-lights the minute there is the slightest amount of traffic.  We pass cars even when it is not safe since the oncoming traffic will simply be waved out of the way – into the ditch if need be; hopefully not.  When we are out of gas and there is a line at the gas station – that happens more often than not – we will be squeezed in before all other cars.  I am not comfortable with this arrangement at all; none of us is, but we have no control over it, not even Geoff.   Our escorts are so reckless at times, you want them to be arrested, but they seem to be above the law.  We also seem to have picked up a lot more soldiers than before, six total today!  We have to feed them and house them and they won’t leave us alone until we are back in Baghdad.  What a pain in the butt they are.  At the archaeological sites they are constantly ruining our pictures by walking around without any concept that we do not want them in our images.  And they are much more interested in ordering us around or taking our photos than “guarding” us.  I could go on and on about this…  But of course, I understand that there still is too much violence and there are too many people armed who should not be.  This escort is a deterrent and these guys a minor nuisance in the bigger picture.

That I was in Nippur today will envy just about any Mesopotamian archaeologist.  The site has not been accessible in well over a decade.  We literally walked over pristine ground.  And after we were done, there was crumbling earth.  But of course, within a few weeks our footsteps will be covered again, too.  I cringe every time I think how much potential damage there is from a group like us walking through ancient mud brick towns and temples.  There are few if any protective measures taken for the monuments.  We just do as we please – unless our police force has some objections.  But if anything, these soldiers do more damage than we do by jumping around in their heavy boots.  Many of these sites also have been recent battlegrounds.  We have picked up numerous spent bullet cases many of American make like AK47s.

Over 5000 years of uninterrupted occupation at Nippur, undisturbed by major catastrophes, has made this site unique in all of Iraq.  There are material remains from 4500 BC to 800 AD. This was not a capital, but a center of learning and philosophy.  There was a library which yielded thousands of clay tablets, many of which have not even yet been published!  Hard to believe that just 100 years ago, there was still so much water in the area – reason for the existence of the town in the first place – that it was only accessible by boat.  We walked in completely dried out riverbeds.  No trace of water is left.  Every archaeological site we have visited has a ziggurat, the temple tower each Mesopotamian town would have erected to honor its city god.  These places, no matter how crumbled, offer the best views of the area.  By now I have seen quite a few of them.  I should have counted them!

A major sand storm swept the region today and we were in the midst of it.  As annoying as it was, it was the most authentic moment I have had in all of Iraq.  It was scary to stand on top of the ziggurat at Uruk.  The wind was so strong that if you stood at the edge of the monument you did have to worry to be blown off.  My baggy pants added another catch for the wind and at times I was swaying to keep my balance.   Within two hours we saw the sky go from cloudy and gray to an eerie yellow and green.  What a privilege to be in the middle of this.  Mesopotamia’s world views, their cultural psyche and, I am sure, much of history was influenced by these unpredictable and extreme weather conditions.  I sure won’t forget that one.

At Nippur as well as at Uruk, heaps and heaps of pottery shards litter the area.  It feels as if the archaeologists had so much to work with and had dug up so much already that they did not know what to do with the “leftovers”.  Both sites had railroad tracks and small iron wagons left which point to recent and major excavation efforts.  At Uruk, many of them were still in place zigzagging the actual site.  In Nippur, they had been discarded into a courtyard at the archaeologists’ headquarters.  For decades these sites have not seen any active archaeological work, not even a visiting archaeologist.  The whole visit felt like treading on virgin territory.

Mind you, there is no visitor center, no ticket booth; there are no refreshments and there is no souvenir shop; there is not even a toilet.  There is a group of soldiers guarding the site, who usually live in the old site headquarters.  At times there is a site keeper.  In Uruk, the site keeper invited all of us for tea.  He had a large family with many kids who came out full of curiosity over this strange bunch of visitors.  If we need bathrooms, we have to share the armed guard’s facilities and since we are practically the only visitors here, they don’t mind.  It is good to see that fences around the areas have been completed.  Just a few years ago looting was still going completely wild.  I doubt it has stopped completely, but at least now these areas are under lock and key.  I wonder if in a few decades there will be thousands of people treading this path?

Uruk was one of the major centers of Mesopotamia.  It was here, around 3200 BC that cuneiform script was developed. Gilgamesh was supposedly one of the rulers of Uruk and fought here with Enkidu.  That spurs the imagination!  How the sand-covered hills and the crumbling mud walls translate into palaces, temples and residences, and even a port stretches my mind beyond its capacity.

At Uruk the sandstorm which we had seen brewing while we drove out here, came to a peak.  Most of us covered mouth and nose and wore sunglasses to keep as much sand at bay as possible.  All of us had red faces after our visit from the sand hitting our skins nonetheless.  Our cameras…  you don’t need much imagination to know that this is not what cameras like.  The sand was permeating everything.  Hours later, at the wonderful garden restaurant overlooking the Euphrates where we ate an obscenely huge dinner, I only had to grind my teeth to conjure up more of the quite real memories of sand.

What an experience!

Good night.

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