U.S. Soldiers make their way up the stairs of the 4,000-year-old Ziggurat of Ur, Iraq in May 2010. Photo: Spc. Samantha Ciaramitaro.
On December 17th, the same day the last U.S. troops left Iraq, a group of archaeologists from Stony Brook University arrived in the country, becoming one of the first foreign archaeology teams to visit in more than 20 years.
According to a recent report by USA Today’s Dan Vergano, the team spent four weeks excavating a mound called Tell Sakhariya near the southern city of Nasiriyah. It was a “small” dig, but for international archaeologists who have tracked every conflict in the region with bated breath — and who have anxiously awaited another chance to study Iraq’s ruins — the news was significant.
Elizabeth Stone, one of the archaeologists on the trip, described it as “a really hopeful moment,” saying, “It was wonderful to be back.”
Vergano’s article includes information about other historic sites in Iraq, including Ur, famed as the birthplace of Abraham and home to the world’s largest ziggurat. Ur is also the focus of a GHF project in partnership with the Iraq Ministry of Culture, the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) and Dhiqar Antiquities Office.
(Last April, Vergano wrote another USA Today feature about how Global Heritage Network is helping archaeologists monitor Ur and other endangered Iraq sites.)
Click here to explore Ur, Iraq on Global Heritage Network
Meanwhile, this month’s issue of The Atlantic includes a profile of Liwass Semeism, Iraq’s Minister of Tourism and Antiquities. The story describes him as “the man with the hardest job in Iraq,” tasked with “persuading foreigners that a country beset by years of brutal warfare and political instability is the perfect place for their next vacation.”
In the article, Semeism defends against claims that Iraq is unsafe for visitors. He estimates that 1.5 million people came to the country last year, up from 266,000 in 2006. His staff, however, points out that the vast majority of visitors are Shia pilgrims from Iran, and that fewer than 200 tourists from the U.S., the U.K. and other Western countries are expected to visit in 2012.
Still, Semeism’s hopes are not without due cause. With a history of civilization that dates back thousands of years, the country abounds with ancient cities and holy sites central to each of the world’s three major religions. It provided the setting for key developments in language, mathematics, agriculture and more.
As much as Iraq remains an archaeologist’s paradise — a place where every foot of earth conceals potential hidden secrets — that same terrain contains billions of dollars in untapped tourism revenue. Perhaps one day soon both can be revealed.