Iraq's national museum in Baghdad. Photo: AFP
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq’s southern Dhi Qar province is “a global museum of antiquities,” dotted with hundreds of unexcavated ancient cities whose archeological treasures could rival those of the great Sumerian capital of Ur, experts say.
The imposing ziggurat of Ur, the Biblical birthplace of the Prophet Abraham and capital of a prosperous empire that ruled over Mesopotamia more than 4,000 years ago, could be one among many such monuments, according to Amer Abdul Razaq, an Iraqi antiquities expert.
“The archaeological sites in Dhi Qar may contain more than one ziggurat, which were mostly places of worship for the people of Sumer and Babylon,” he says.
“We must highlight important and significant kingdoms and empires in the province of Dhi Qar,” Razaq adds, likening the area to “a global museum of antiquities.”
“There are more than 1,200 cities comparable and equivalent to the archeological city of Ur,” waiting to be unearthed, he says.
“Ur of the Chaldees,” mentioned several times in the Bible, was first excavated in the 1850s by the British consul John George Taylor.
Razaq notes that the archaeological site of the ancient Sumerian Kingdom of Lagash, which lies north of the Dhi Qar capital of Nasiriyah, is the largest in the Middle East, spreading over an area of 1,600 square kilometers.
The Sumer region was long believed to have been inhabited around 4,500 BC. But flint, stone tools and other relics discovered there now lead archeologists to believe that the area was inhabited by an unknown prehistoric people who are termed the “Ubaid.”
Ninety kilometers north of Nasiriyah lies a city called Umm al-Ajarib (Mother of Scorpions) and the Kingdom of Ki An, in an area that cradles one of the oldest agricultural villages of Mesopotamia.
In addition, there are more than 400 archeological sites dating back to the Islamic Abbasid era.
"These sites are all unexcavated. Substantial sums of money are needed to make a quantum leap in the field of antiquities and archeological tourist cities in the province and to set up a museum worthy of the antiquities,” Razaq says.
Hussein Sharifi, an Iraqi MP and member of the Commission of Tourism and Antiquities, agrees.
“The government must develop plans and strategic programs to improve the reality of tourism in the field of archeology,” he says.
Many of the old sites in Dhi Qar have recently attracted a large number of international exploration missions, Iraqi officials say.
The important site of Tel Khyber is being excavated by a British mission, following an agreement between Manchester University and Iraq’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
"The British team came back again for excavations for the second season at the archeological site of Khyber, after they discovered artifacts in the first season that dated back to the era of ancient Babylon, the first dawn dynasties," explains Wissal Naim, director of the Archeological Inspectorate of Dhi Qar.
She adds that an Italian team also has returned to continue work on the site of Tal Abu Tberh, and a Belgian team is working on the site of Tel Yuha.
“The governorate allocated two billion Iraqi dinars from the budget last year, as a first step for the maintenance of the royal cemetery and the ziggurat of Ur," Naim explains.
There have been no major excavations at Ur since digs funded in the 1920s and 1930s by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania. Experts say that only 10 percent of the site has so far been excavated, and that treasures may lie literally under the feet of excavators and visitors.
Last November, more than 150 Christians, including clergymen, nuns and ordinary worshippers from the cities of Basra and Amarah, performed a spiritual pilgrimage near the house of the Prophet Abraham, singing hymns and calling for peace to be restored to Iraq’s war-torn provinces.