UR, Iraq (Army News Service, Jan. 19, 2007) - The Ziggurat, a 50-foot pyramid temple, towers over the vast Iraqi desert. Less than a mile away sits the royal palace, which was the capital of Sumeria more than 6,000 years ago. This is Ur, one of the world's oldest cities, and its ruins are all that remains of a society long gone.
These historic relics of Mesopotamia, the "cradle of civilization," are tourist sites for coalition forces to visit. After Saddam Hussein's army abandoned Tallil Air Base, which surrounds the ruins, during the initial Operation Iraqi Freedom push in 2003, U.S. and British troops secured the area and now run the base. Ur curator Dhief Muhsen, 45, from An Nasiriyah, Iraq, has been giving tours to coalition servicemembers ever since.
Muhsen said the hour-long tour around Ur's historic sites attracts troops from all over the Central Command Area of Operation. On Nov. 30, eight Soldiers from the 449th Aviation Support Battalion, 36th Combat Aviation Brigade, received one of his special tours.
The 449th ASB Soldiers traveled to the holy ruins through the Duty Day with God program, established by the chaplains within the 36th CAB. The day-long event lets Soldiers take time away from their workplace to visit either the Biblical remnants of Ur or more secular sites like the Crossed Sabers Memorial or the Tomb of the Unknown Iraqi Soldier in Baghdad, Iraq.
The program's purpose is to allow Soldiers to refresh their spiritual faith and boost morale, said Chap. (1st Lt.) Benjie Bender, Headquarters Services Company, 449th ASB.
"A Duty Day with God trip is important because it gets us back in touch with the roots of our faith and it helps the Soldiers realize this didn't just happen in some far-away fantasy world, but that our faith is grounded in history. It is connected to a place, time and location, and is something very concrete that you can see, feel and touch," said Bender.
While all Soldiers on the trip went for different reasons, Spc. Larry Anthony of Company B, 449th ASB, went to Ur to pray at Abraham's home.
"Abraham was the first prophet chosen by God to believe in the one true God and to preach His message. The prophets came from his bloodline, so seeing his house was very important for me; it was almost like a pilgrimage," said Anthony.
Trips to Ur might soon become a thing of the past, however, because the Iraqi government plans to take back the religious ruins. No official date has been set.
Ur is purported to have been called "the city of firsts." Historians claim the first arch, the first wheel, the first museum and the first forms of writing were created here. Excavation efforts from 1922 to 1934 unearthed many treasures buried in the tombs of Sumerian kings and queens. Several bricks making up the royal palace and smaller temples have cuneiform writing on them. Arches adorn doorways. Holes made with human fingers are found in a brick in the building's floor, which was how a builder then marked his work. Muhsen compared the finger holes to how Iraqis vote today, by dipping their index finger in purple ink and marking a ballot.
Before leaving the holy land, Bender took the Soldiers up to the top of the Ziggurat for a prayer service. He told them the story of how Abraham left Ur of the Chaldeans, which is the city's Biblical name, to spread the word of God around the world.
"I wanted to find a story that would help them break the routine of the mission; sometimes their spirituality runs dry," said Bender. "I wanted to give them an opportunity to participate in this spiritual retreat and refresh their faith. I may have gone outside the wire, but I have never gone outside God's wire."