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Two families of custodians remain to nurture cradle of mankind

©Associated Press

April 16, 2003

UR, Iraq -- This is the place where civilization arose, where an ingenious race of people irrigated fields, forged agricultural tools and devised the written word.

Some 6,000 years after this glorious beginning, U.S. forces drove sophisticated machines of war through the cradle of mankind. But the fighting, which was heavy in the nearby city of Nasiriyah, spared the sand-swept ruins of Ur and the two families who remain the site's guardians and guides.

"We are proud," said Dhief Nauos of his job as custodian of one of Iraq's greatest historic treasures. Five other men standing outside two humble family compounds nodded in agreement as he spoke Monday.

But their immediate concerns were not past glory, the dearth of tourists, or the meeting at a nearby air base Tuesday on Iraq's political future.

Instead, they worried about their empty water well and dwindling food stock, about the power that remained off in their homes in the biblical birthplace of Abraham.

The two extended families -- 25 people, including 15 children -- portrayed themselves as isolated from the ebb and flow of political and military conflict, threatening nobody. Both families have lived here for generations.

"We only love our country," said Dhief's 71-year-old father, Muhsen Nauos, committing himself to neither Saddam Hussein nor American forces who destroyed the Iraqi president's regime.

The Americans remain, with troops of the 141st Mechanized Infantry Battalion spread out around the ruins on a rise in the otherwise flat desert terrain.

Rising highest is a 4,000-year-old temple, a massive ziggurat of fired mud bricks that tapers to a height of about 70 feet, its fortress-like silhouette etched hard into the featureless landscape. A stairway on its eastern side led the ancient Sumerians toward heaven and closer to their moon god, Nanna.

Founded about 4000 B.C., Ur's golden century began in about 2113 B.C. when King Ur-Nammu expanded the Sumerian empire and made his capital the wealthiest city in Mesopotamia. Arts and literature flourished under successors, until enemies destroyed the city.

By the 4th century B.C., Ur had all but faded into the desert -- possibly because the Euphrates River, which once flowed near its walls, had shifted course.

Both the Bible and the Koran, Islam's holy book, tell of Abraham's two sons migrating from the city -- Isaac westward to Canaan to sire the Jewish race and through it Christianity, Ishmael to the Arabian peninsula to lay Islam's foundations.

"Abraham is the father of prophets," said Dhief, speaking in English learned from guiding foreign tourists in times of peace. "This is a sacred place to all religions."

Dhief, 44, said Ur attracted a steady flow of visitors from Europe, the United States and the Arab world until the 1991 Gulf War, when U.S. troops briefly occupied the area. Tourism fell to 75 percent of pre-war days.

Beneath the temple ramparts, Capt. Stanton Trotter, an army chaplain from La Palma, Calif., spoke with an Iraqi interpreter attached to U.S. troops.

They compared references to Ur and Abraham in the Bible and Koran. The interpreter, who had fled to the West, recalled how as a child, Jewish and Muslim families in his homeland had lived side by side in harmony.

"We Islamics and Jews are cousins and now we are fighting," said the interpreter.

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