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.

No matter -- there was more to see, so the soldiers trooped back down the long stairway and through the surrounding sprawl of ancient ruins largely unearthed by Sir Leonard Woolley in the 1920s and '30s.

"I found some asphalt," exclaimed Col. Gary E. Johnson, who commands the Corps of Engineers in southern Iraq.

It certainly looked like asphalt, and it was probably pretty old. The ancients bound their bricks with an asphalt-like substance made of bitumen.

"Great," someone shouted back. "Boil it down and use it to resurface the roads."

As the engineers wended their way around, across and over the maze of foundations, partial walls and narrow archways, Johnson grew reflective.

"Just when you think you're real smart," said Johnson, who holds a master's degree in structural engineering from the University of Maryland, "you see something like this and you realize they had real intelligent people a long time ago."

As he spoke, Johnson was standing on one side of a rectangular pit that one member of the group identified as the Sumerians' royal tombs. Triangular arches at either end of the bottom of the pit marked the entrances to chambers where kings and queens were once buried. The arches also supported the ledges on which the soldiers stood gazing into the dark pit.

How much longer the arches would hold up appeared debatable.

Johnson looked across the pit to see the man who will become his boss in October, Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh. The general was standing at the apex of an arch that had seen better days. When Johnson warned the general that his perch might not last many more millennia, Walsh responded that the ledge supporting Johnson and a reporter was severely bowed.

Time to move on.

It was about 4 p.m. when the engineers reached the end of the trail. Before them stood the roofless structure revered as the home of the prophet Abraham.

The Bible refers to "Ur of the Chaldees" as the place where Abraham lived before heading off to the land of Canaan, though many historians say there isn't much evidence that this is the same Ur.

Until the 1990s, Abraham's house was nothing but a foundation. But when Pope John Paul II expressed interest in visiting someday, Hussein ordered up the walls, arches and steps that now grace the site.

As their day ended, the engineers moved respectfully, from room to room. Johnson again marveled at the genius and skill that made Ur the pride of Sumer.

"And," he drawled through a broad grin, "they didn't use a calculator."

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