TELL AL MUQAYYAR, Iraq—Hundreds of years before Abraham of Bible and Quran fame trod here, the desert people who lived in the green Mesopotamia Valley reached for the moon, brick by brick.
Now the boots of U.S. soldiers are pounding the hallowed ground of what was once E Gish Shir Gal, the political and religious center of the ancient kingdom of Ur.
Troops from the Army's 141st Mechanized Infantry Battalion stand guard on the remnants of a civilization born 6,000 years ago. What has endured are the walls of a crumbling castle and a still-towering mud brick pyramid, built as a stairway to be nearer to the Sumerian moon god Nanna.
It was here that humanity conceived one of its earliest forms of writing, first fashioned metal into tools and devised crop irrigation.
Today, though, the two Iraqi families who have inherited the job of guarding the site are thirsty and forlorn.
"We need water," a coughing Muhsen Nauos, 70, told U.S. military police Monday. "We need to get to the village just to drink from the river."
Speaking through an Iraqi expatriate working as an interpreter with U.S. troops, he said soldiers had not allowed them to pass through a checkpoint to a poor village a mile away.
The ancient city is on the outskirts of the American-occupied Tallil Airfield, and the road is watched closely by U.S. troops because of guerrilla attacks nearby. Nauos was told Monday that the Americans would get him to the river.
The site that has drawn the curious for centuries is today an isolated patch of desert where two families—25 people in all, including 14 children—live shut off by the ragged front of war.
The ruins sit halfway between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf in a parched clime. Thousands of years ago, the Euphrates River took a different course, churning past the walls of the city that was then called Ur, turning the countryside green and giving its inhabitants passage to the sea.
Ur developed around 4000 B.C. from the toil of Ubaidian residents of Sumer. By 2800 B.C., ancient records suggest, it had grown to be one of the most prosperous of Sumerian city-states, with influence reaching from what is now Iran to Saudi Arabia.
The city reached its zenith in its third dynasty under king Ur Nammu, who launched a renaissance of literature and art.
It was under his reign that the pyramid to Nanna began to rise, about 2100 B.C. Partly rebuilt today, the ziggurat stands 70 feet tall.
The book of Genesis says Ur is where Abraham's family began its move west to Palestine about 1900 B.C.
Nammu's descendants fell to invaders, and by the fourth century B.C.—due in part to the shift of the Euphrates—the city of Ur was crumbling.
The two families standing as guides and sentries earn a combined $40 a month, surviving on allotments of flour, rice, sugar and tea, courtesy of the United Nations' food-for-oil program to Iraq.
Nauos inherited the caretaker duties in the early 1960s from his uncle, who had watched over the site since he worked with British archeologists in the 1920s. Now his son, Dhief Nauos, is raising a family in the shadow of the temple and is in charge of tours.
Tourism was brisk before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but it has faded. About a month ago, with a new war looming, the trickle of visitors dried up completely.
"I'm proud to take care of this," said Dhief Nauos, 43. "It's my job and my hobby. But I don't know what will happen before the war is over. I worry."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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