Soldiers at the Augar Guf ziggurat, on the outskirts of Baghdad. (photo by John Goodman)
Most of the areas surrounding the Victory Base Complex are densely populated, but but from the northern gates, the way is not far to bucolic scenery reminiscent of Nineteenth Century Romantic literature. When the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion embarked upon a mission to meet with municipal officials regarding the establishment of archaeological tourism in their jurisdiction, these particular Baghdad outskirts were -- for me anyway -- an escape from the dirty, desperate urban hell I'd been confronted by for so many weeks. I had not yet traveled from Camp Liberty's northern gate, and as our convoy distanced itself from the base, the number of people on the streets dwindled. Concrete blast walls gave way to low concrete block walls, and then to mud walls that have probably been part of the scenery here since biblical times. Brush covered the desert, and flocks of sheep wandered amongst rows of green crops planted between dusty stands of palm trees. The air was warm, and the sky changed from blue to gray to yellow as cloud banks drifted by in intermittent waves. The night before, dust from a sudden wind storm had reduced visibility to about ten feet, but the next day had dawned clear, revealing v-formations of birds making their way north to escape the withering heat that will soon arrive.
The scene felt historic, and in point of fact, it is. Some of the first civilizations sprouted up here when nomads decided farming was a better way to live than hunting and gathering -- the physical remains of ancient civilizations are abundant throughout modern day Iraq. Although it has been difficult to track down concrete records, what I've been able to piece together from interviews with local officials and internet research indicates that state sponsored tourism in Iraq is a fairly recent occurrence. In addition to constructing many modern buildings around Baghdad during the 1980s, Saddam's government also promoted the tourism industry for Iraq's cultural heritage sites, presumably to bolster national pride. That pride remains today, and while most people are apt to muddle the finer details of ancient history, they will enthusiastically recount it nonetheless. There are many sites around the country related to Islam, and a multitude of Judeo-Christian prophets are said to have been born here. In a place where Islam is such an important facet of culture, even the non-religious light up when they begin talking about "the prophets."
This particular mission involved visiting a 5,000 year old ziggurat -- one of the massive stepped platforms once used by ancient Sumerian priests to make offerings to the gods, and in some cases, as a place where they could escape the rising flood waters of the Tigris River -- at Augar Guf. Said to have been built by the Syrian king Namrud -- who, according to the Koran, unsuccessfully attempted to burn alive the prophet Ibrahim -- to be closer to the heavens, the massive remains of the ziggurat stand as a monolithic symbol of the tourism trade's potential. Captain Cole Calloway, commander of the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion's Headquarters Company, has been gathering information on how to turn historical resources in his area of operations into financial asetts with which the Iraqis can generate some much needed revenue, and met with Ilaa Mardeisker, the chair of the local neighborhood council for a site visit. The ruins stand atop a brick pedestal that was supposedly built by the Iraqi government during the early 1980s, as were the crumbling remnants of what used to be a visitors center and summer concert stage. Apparently, there were shops on and around the property as well. Mardeisker said that many tour groups visited the site during Saddam's time.
A museum building stands nearby, but that was looted in 2003, shortly after the American invasion. According to local officials, many priceless relics were carted off. Today, bits and pieces of cuneiform-inscribed bricks and pottery shards litter the floor of the building. Flashlights from the soldiers' helmets pieced the darkness, and Mardeisker pointed out two large stones sitting on the floor amidst scattered documents dated from the 1970s. He said that the stones' carvings were Sumerian; about 4,000 years old. Unfortunately, Atta Abu Anor, the man who has been the ziggurat site's curator for over 60 years, was not available. He is considered the resident expert there, although I was curious how much of his knowledge had been derived from local folklore.
Looting and site degradation have been a problem in Iraq since 2003, when protection of cultural resources went by the wayside and opportunists carted off thousands of archaeological items. Many archaeologists have criticized the US military for allowing it to occur. The Iraq museum -- once a significant cache of historical artifacts -- was reopened on February 23 after more than 4,000 looted items were returned from around the world. Most of them had been in Jordan, but many were in the United States as well.
There wasn't much left to loot at Augar Guf, as the area was for several years a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and squatters, and a well known hideout for Al Quaeda operatives. Even though the site is now vacant and under 24 hour armed guard, we watched as a giggling Iraqi man climbed about 200 feet to the top of the crumbling ziggurat. The kiln-fired bricks which once cased the structure are now gone, and the sun-baked earthen bricks and straw matting used to construct its core show signs of wear from millennia of rain and wind. When I touched it, little flakes of dried mud fell into my hand, so I'm pretty sure the guy's scrambling Pumas didn't do much to help.
Plans have been drawn up by the neighborhood council to develop the area for tourism. Mardeisker said that although water, sewer and electrical problems take top priority right now, he would like to see the visitor center and museum refurbished, and a hotel built next to the site -- things he felt would vastly improve the economy in his impoverished rural municipality. Although the Baghdad government has promised $5 million to get the project started, he said the money will not be available until 2010, if it comes at all. "Now, we can't receive anyone, because the area is in bad condition," he said. "There is nothing here to support [visitors]."
Groups such as Third World Watch have decried efforts to boost tourism in countries with poor infrastructure as irresponsible attempts to aid business that will only lead to further degradation of cultural and environmental resources. Based upon what I've seen in other areas in Baghdad, where trash piles up in the street and residents have difficulty getting reliable electricity and clean drinking water, this may not be an inaccurate assessment. Still, I hope that a program may be put in place which benefits both the Iraqi people and their history, for theirs is a history in which the world shares. For my part, I am glad to have seen it as it is now -- a place unfettered by throngs of gift shop customers and camera-wielding tourists. The silence of the worn down relic speaks volumes of the intense human drama which has unfolded before it.