BAGHDAD - Built by the Persians on the northeast bank of the Tigris River almost 1,500 years ago, an arch from the ancient city of Ctesiphon still stands today as an impressive monument to the great powers of the past.
Considered the oldest and largest free standing arch in existence today, some see the arch as a symbol for unity in Iraq; a bridge between its violent past and a peaceful future.
In the sixth century, Ctesiphon was the largest city in the world. On the other side of the Tigris River sat its sister city, Seleucia. After the Arab Muslims conquered the area from the Persians in 637 AD, they combined Ctesiphon and Seleucia, calling the area Al-Mada'in, or "the cities."
Today, the arch is located in the small Iraqi town of Salman Pak. The site of Ctesiphon - and especially its famous arch - used to be one of Iraq's major tourist attractions, but over the last couple of decades the area fell into disrepair.
That has all changed now due to a large clean-up effort and the recent construction of the new Mada'in Park, said Lt. Col. Michael Davey, deputy commanding officer for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division.
"A lot of the locals came here and this was where they either burned or dumped their trash," Davey said. "You had kids out here trying to play soccer [and] walking through the trash field. [Now there's] a place for families to eat, kids have things to play on, there's a parking lot and [there] is a soccer field where they can have youth tournaments. It's all trying to bridge the gap ... and bring people together for the betterment of Iraq."
The Government of Iraq, together with U.S. authorities, designed the park and hired local contractors to build it, complete with landscaping, picnic tables and swing sets. The hope, Davey said, is that tourism will be restored to the area and that local families will have a clean, safe place to spend time together.
Local Iraqi residents seem to share that sentiment. Ali Haider has lived in the same house across from the new park for the past 30 years and said he's very happy about the progress being made since the new park officially opened June 1.
"It is gorgeous indeed," he said. "At first, it was not as good as it is now. It used to be a mess. But as you can see, [we] are very happy and proud of the progress that the U.S. forces have made here. Now there's a soccer field, and a park where kids can actually play ball. We're very happy and thankful."