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Iraq: the cradle of the written word

Ur may have been the world's first city and the location the first libraries.

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When the British archaeologist Leonard Wooley looked out on this forbidding stretch of desert near the Euphrates River in 1921, he judged the landscape to be a "waste of unprofitable sand." But that was before he began a series of digs that within 13 years uncovered 1,850 tombs, dozens of them royal chambers containing a wealth of artifacts that reached back five millenniums - many a thousand years older than materials from King Tutankhaman's grave in Egypt.

Acting on a hunch as to the Sumerian city's location beneath a cluster of mounds in the southern region of Mesopotamia near the city of Nasiriyah - and inspired by the story of the prophet Abraham who is said to have been born in a place called Ur of the Chaldees - Mr. Wooley's efforts revealed structures that had remained in darkness since about 500 BC, when the once-fertile flood plain had been abandoned.

The most prominent feature here today is a terraced pyramid made of mud bricks known as a ziggurat. Built in tribute to the moon god Nanna around 2100 BC, it is the best preserved ziggurat in the Near East, and was the first landmark I noticed while flying into Tallil Air Base.

My journey to this legendary place was occasioned by a visit I had made a day earlier to Camp Anaconda in Balad, a huge supply depot and air base north of Baghdad that is critical to the military effort in Iraq. I have written extensively on various aspects of book culture and had been invited to speak at the dedication of a new library stocked with books gathered and donated by a group of US Army veterans who had performed a similar service in Germany at the end of World War II.

One reason I agreed to speak was that I would be allowed to visit Ur, said by some scholars to be the world's first city and where writing as we know it began to develop. Humanity's first literary text, "The Epic of Gilgamesh," may have been composed here, too. The earliest extant text of the work was found at Ur, and the world's first libraries may have been located here as well. Here was an opportunity to touch the past in ways that I had thought impossible in today's volatile world.


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