A Plan for Opening Abraham's Biblical City

American archaeologist Brian Rose visited Iraq this month to work with antiquities officials in making southern Iraq's historic site of Ur, a reputed home of the Biblical Abraham, accessible for tourists and research. But nothing about Iraq's vast and beleaguered archaeological treasures is simple, even the management of one of the country's better-protected ruins.he ancient city, one of the world's first, lies within the perimeter of the Tallil Air Base, an old Iraqi installation that has been used by U.S. and Coalition forces since 2003. That proximity has helped protect the site from the looting that occurs at many of the country's thousands of unguarded sites. The Coalition is scheduled to transfer control of the site to Iraqi authorities next month, prompting Rose's State Department-sponsored trip to consult on the site's needs. For starters, the change will require new fencing and a round-the-clock contingent of Iraqi antiquities guards, Rose told NEWSWEEK after his return last week. The site also lacks electricity, water, sufficient parking or the facilities like a visitors' center, public bathrooms, tourist paths or explanatory signage.

The Bible places Abraham as living in "Ur of the Chaldees." The ruins near Iraq's city of Naseriya are more than 7,000 years old and were populated until about 500 BC. Rose, president of the Archaeological Institute of America, is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, which, along with the British Museum, did the pioneering excavations on the site in the 1920s. They turned up royal tombs stocked with offerings of gold, ivory and items for entertainment in the afterlife, like a harp adorned with a golden bull's head and a mother-of-pearl game board (many of these are now viewable in Western museums). Though most of the area is still underground, Rose says excavation is the last thing it needs until work can be done to prevent damage to structures amid the ruins. Rose hopes to return in the summer to work on a management plan for the site.

Archaeologists worry that hasty excavation could alert thieves to the location for new loot. On his helicopter flights, Rose says he could see hundreds of looter holes dug like honeycombs into other historic locations – Iraq has more than 12,000 known archaeological sites. Visiting another site, Ubaid, he saw trenches for Saddam Hussein's tanks cut through the ruins mounds.

Saddam added embellishments to Ur. In hopes of a never-made visit by the late Pope John Paul II, he ordered the foundations of three ancient homes to be combined and built into a mansion to represent Abraham's house – surely a distortion of the modest abode Abraham probably had if he was indeed from there. The site's greatest landmark is the mountain-like ziggurat of Ur-Nammu, which was covered in the 1960s with new brick facing. Soldiers have had held ceremonies atop the structure and recently Iraqi and American jazz bands held a concert at its base April 1.

This was Rose's first trip to Iraq. He praised the country's resourceful antiquities officials, including director Amira Edan al-Dahab. He also found value in some of Iraq's modern artifacts, namely the four enormous hands that hold crossed swords in arches over an old regime parade route in the current Green Zone. The hands are modeled after Saddam Hussein's and the new government made an aborted, controversial start at dismantling them. He says it's up to Iraqis what to do with the hands and Saddam's gaudy house of Abraham in Ur. But he'd rather the country keep them rather than "attempt to erase history through iconoclasm."