Time Zones

Army Engineers Taste History, Humility as They Explore the Ziggurat of Ur

By Andy Mosher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 11, 2006

UR, Iraq

By mid-afternoon, it had already been a long, hot day for the Army engineers. They had toured a nearly complete water treatment plant and a half-built prison, but they had one more stop to make -- a place where the workmen had finished the job long before anyone had heard of George W. Bush or Saddam Hussein.

Or Jesus.

Or Alexander the Great.

Breathing a little easier as their convoy of armored sport-utility vehicles pulled through the gate of Tallil air base at 3:15 p.m., the engineers headed not for the comfort of their air-conditioned bunks but for an enormous mound of mud and brick tucked inside the base.

A few minutes later, they stood at the foot of the 4,100-year-old ziggurat, or temple tower, of Ur. They were no longer two dozen or so tired, sweaty soldiers toiling to rebuild a war-torn country. They were construction wonks returning to their oldest, deepest roots. Their sidearms and holsters could just as easily have been tool belts, their body armor, comfy denim or well-worn flannel.

As he clambered up the mud-brick stairs leading to the ziggurat's flat top -- which the ancient Sumerians considered the dwelling place of their moon god, Nanna -- Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock recalled his first visit to Ur.

It was 1991, and Strock's Engineer Brigade of the 24th Infantry Division was taking apart Tallil air base, while American air power was doing the same to Iraqi troops retreating from Kuwait. Strock, who is now the Army's chief of engineers, found time to visit the ziggurat and toyed with the idea of pocketing one of its bricks as a souvenir.

He decided against it.

Like Strock 15 years before, the Army engineers scrambling around the ziggurat on this breezy-but-blistering July afternoon seemed content to take in the sights without taking them home.

For all the intimations of empire attached to the U.S. presence in Iraq, these troops exhibited none of the rapaciousness associated with armies encountering antiquities, such as Napoleon's in the conquest of Egypt more than 200 years before. The engineers were just having fun, a subdued, compassionately conservative kind of fun.

"Okay, who knows the history?" Once posed, the question drew an assortment of answers, all different.

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