UR — A way long time ago, the Ubaidians settled the southern part of Iraq, and started a town near where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers then drained into the Persian Gulf. The territory was eventually taken over by the Sumerians, who expanded the town into the city. Then, about 4,340 years ago, King Sargon of Agade showed up, kicked the crap out of the reigning Sumerians and began the Akkadian dynasty.
The Akkadians eventually produced a king named Ur-Nammu, who, 4,100 years ago, built a big whopper of a ziggurat and dedicated it to a moon goddess named Sin, also called Nammu.
The ziggurat, which is something like a dirt-and-brick pyramid, saw Ur fall to Elamite raiders, and to the Babylonians, and the Assyrians, and the Babylonians again, and the Medes, who were sucked up by the Persians, who were beaten by the Greeks, etc., etc.
On the afternoon of Jan. 16, representatives of the latest conquerors showed up at Ur, near the city of Nasiriyah, unfolded an American flag on the ziggurat’s front steps, took a few souvenir photos, and then, led by an Iraqi guide (who referred occasionally to “the Criminal Saddam,” as if “criminal” were Saddam’s title) spent an hour or so wandering around the archaeological site.
The trip, involving five members of the 2-147th Assault Helicopter Battalion of the Minnesota National Guard, was organized by Capt. Philip “Buddy” Winn of Osseo, Minn., the unit’s chaplain, as part of the Army’s spiritual support program. Conservative members of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths believe that Ur was the original home of Abraham, the accepted patriarch of all three religions.
Winn is a smart guy and a chaplain, but he’s also Army: when briefing the group on Ur, he spoke of a queen who died, and was buried with a contingent of attendants who would care for her in the after-life. The attendants either committed suicide or were killed at the queen’s death; Winn referred to them as the queen’s “security detail.”
Combat stress and isolation
A military unit in a combat situation has a variety of problems, and for certain kinds of spiritual or just personal problems, Winn is an early contact between the individual soldier and some kind of help.
“I do counseling, but I’m not a counselor,” he said. “If I have a kid who’s really getting in trouble, psychologically, I’ve got a combat stress company that I can get them to. We’ve got a good relationship with them. They can help.”
Combat stress isn’t the only problem for soldiers isolated in Iraq — there are family issues, re-integration issues when soldiers go home on leave, loneliness. “I’ve had over 400 counseling-type sessions since April [2007, when the unit was first deployed] and wouldn’t be surprised to see that go over 900 or a thousand by the time we leave [in August,]” Winn said.
He also talks to unit members about matters of faith — and though he himself is a member of a religiously conservative community, he doesn’t try to press any specific spiritual view on his military flock. “On spiritual questions, I’ll take people as far as I can, and then, if the problems get too specific to a particular religion, I’ll refer them to somebody of that faith,” he said.
One of his biggest problems, he said, is dealing with people who are worried about what will happen when they go home on leave, after life in a combat zone — wondering how they will fit in with old friends and family, or stressing over personal relationships. “I try to help them manage their expectations. I try to get them to slow things down, take it easier. And then, I start to think, how does this apply to me? I’m due for leave in March, I’m going to meet my family in Florida, and I’m thinking, we don’t have much time, we’ve got to go-go-go…and then I think, whoa, slow down. Take it easy. This kind of thing applies to all of us.”
Tourists showing up
On this day, the traveling company assembled at battalion headquarters at Balad Air Force Base at 3:30 a.m., moved to the flight line, and caught a military plane called a Sherpa. The flight south from Balad took a couple of hours, including one stop at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Delta, eventually ending at Tallil, a former Iraqi air base outside of Nasiriyah. There, Winn did his Ur briefing, using a laptop PowerPoint show, and, after a quick lunch, the group headed for Ur.
On the way, a Rumanian — their spelling — army patrol rumbled by, flags flying.
The ziggurat is enormous, but not exactly original. The core is original, and some of the higher walls, but the lower reaches were reconstructed by the Iraqi government years ago, using modern bricks. Still, the ziggurat is enormous, and dominates the countryside around it. It is pierced by square holes which look like small windows, but are actually drains, designed to move water out of the inside of the structure when it rains. There are no interior spaces — it is, essentially, a brick-clad hill.
The guide, Dhaif Muhsen, who taught himself English by memorizing words from a dictionary, says, “The Criminal Saddam closed everything here because it was too close to the [air force] base, and so nobody can do anything. But he didn’t care. Then the Pope was going to come, and to speak. We thought then maybe something would happen here, but the Criminal Saddam said that he cannot guarantee the Pope’s safety, so the Pope doesn’t come and everything ends.”
After several years of a hand-to-mouth existence, his life began to improve when a trickle of American military tourists began showing up, hiring him to give his rapid-fire tour, delivered with statistics kept in a notebook.
Away from the ziggurat itself, the area is a rubble of ruined ancient buildings and palaces, and the spoil piles of old archaeological excavations. There are ancient tombs, from which the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania took gorgeous artworks dated to about 2600 BCE. Among the works is the famous Standard of Ur, which shows the city in peace and at war. There is also the modern “House of Abraham,” reconstructed walls built on ancient foundations, and represented to tourists as the house of the patriarch Abraham.
The house has 27 rooms and three courtyards, built of exceptionally solid brick — this despite the difficulty presented by Biblical texts, which say such things as “The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day” (Genesis 18:1) or “So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. ‘Quick,’ he said, ‘Get three seahs of fine flour and knead it and bake some bread.'” (Genesis 18:6)
Dhaif Muhsen, who said his grandfather worked on the most famous of the archaeological expeditions to Ur, that led by Sir Charles Leonard Woolley in the 1920s and ’30s, conceded that it was possible that this was not exactly Abraham’s house, but that “he came from around here somewhere, at that time,” around 2000 BCE.
Despite the decrepitude of the site, it is still a magnificent archaeological opportunity, if somebody would provide funding for its revival. Its age is staggering — it was more than a thousand years gone when David and Solomon lived; there were more years between its construction and the time of Christ, than there are between us and the time of Christ.
After the tour, Winn’s group headed back to Tallil Air Force Base to catch a plane back to Balad, where they started the day. By the time they were done, they would have been traveling for 20 hours or so. Instead of going directly to the base, they retired to the Ciano Pizza Shop and Internet Cafe, dumped packs, body armor, and helmets on the floor, and spent a few more hours eating pizza, reading, watching music videos which screamed down, unrelenting, from a ceiling-mounted TV. And they talked shop.
In addition to Winn, the men included Spc. Peter Mogck of Shoreview; Sgt. Richard Crear of Cottage Grove; Sgt. Robert Bennett of Tacoma, Wa.; and Sgt. Ryan Rohling of St. Cloud. Part of the shop being talked was re-enlistment bonuses offered by the National Guard for re-enlistments.
Crear had already taken the offer, signing up for another three years for a bonus of a few thousand dollars. Crear is a door-gunner on a Blackhawk; he thought he’d gotten a pretty fair deal.
In a way, the Ciano Pizza Shop and Internet Cafe was as interesting as the ziggurat of Ur.
It was a social focus for young soldiers coming off duty at Tallil, and they’d come in spurts as their duty assignments closed down for the day, pulled in by the non-DFAC food (DFAC = Dining FACility in Army-speak), by the Internet computers and by the loud music.
But it was weird, to say the least, to sit slumping on the broken down couch, and to watch Sgt. Crear sitting there — a 50-year-old American soldier, a door-gunner, reading a romance by Kathleen Eagle (“The Last True Cowboy”) — who had just re-enlisted for an amount of money less than the cost of almost anything seen in the music videos screaming down from the ceiling.
It’s hard, even, to believe that they come from the same culture: a quiet door-gunner with a book, versus videos featuring women who appear to have come from a different planet, buckets of hundred dollar bills being thrown at the camera, pimped-out SUVs, guys flashing diamonds as big as acorns. A culture that appears to be having a screaming fit about Tom Cruise being a Scientologist.
You sit there at Ur, in the Ciano Pizza Shop and Internet cafe, and ask, “What’s up with that?”
John Camp is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling novelist who writes under the pen name John Sandford. He can be reached at jcamp [at] minnpost [dot] com.
Ur photo gallery from Iraq, Monday, Jan. 21, 2008
MinnPost photos by John Camp