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Posted by Andreas from dtm2-t8-2.mcbone.net ( on Friday, April 11, 2003 at 3:57PM :

April 3, 2003, 7:30 a.m.

Iraq’s Heritage

The war and archeology.

By David Klinghoffer

Archeologists from around the world have been demanding that U.S. forces conduct the present war only in such a way as to spare the ruins of ancient Mesopotamia. These scholars recently published an open letter on the subject in Science magazine, accompanied by an article by Professor McGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. “Under threat is an important part of the world’s cultural heritage,” warns Gibson, whose colleagues “urge all governments to recognize that fragile culture heritage is inevitably damaged by warfare.”

In such statements, a word that keeps coming up is “heritage.” Another is “treasures.” Says Patty Gerstenblith of De Paul University: America should exercise caution so as to protect “cultural and religious treasures.” Do the “treasures” Iraq has bequeathed to civilization oblige America to alter war plans? What, exactly, is the “heritage” of Iraq?

Is it just a lot of ruined buildings? Many of these sites are of interest because they appear in the Bible. With U.S. troops now parked 50 miles south of Baghdad, they could take a quick detour a few miles away to the ruins of Babylon, from which the tyrant Nebuchadnezzar emerged to sack ancient Judah and bring the Israelites back to his capital as war captives.

Further south, the most-celebrated Mesopotamian metropolis of all is Ur, commonly identified as the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham. In 1922 Sir Leonard Woolley began to dig up the site. A famous friend of the archaeologist, mystery writer Agatha Christie, visited him at the dig, bringing back romantic accounts of four-day sandstorms swirling around the three-story ziggurat, “standing up, faintly shadowed, and that wide sea of sand with its lovely pale colours of apricot, rose, blue and mauve changing every minute.” Christie even happened upon what she confidently took to be Abraham’s own house (“I felt in my mind no doubt whatever”).

An archaeological mound on the outskirts of Baghdad, as yet unexcavated, is Cuthah, a more likely birthplace of Abraham. Further south one finds the remains of Uruk, called Erech in the Bible. These are merely the most prominent among thousands of dig sites that archaeologists either have explored already or hope to explore.

In discussions of Iraqi antiquities, still another word that keeps coming up is “Abraham,” who left Mesopotamia to settle in Canaan and founded what became monotheism. There is some irony in the way archaeologists venerate material stuff like ziggurats and earth mounds and ruined walls and pillars while losing sight of what the patriarch actually stood for.

By discovering God, as distinct from the countless gods of his Mesopotamian neighbors, Abraham initiated the beginning of the end of paganism. At least that’s the account of his career accepted today by more than half the world’s people — Jews, Christians, and Muslims. What was scandalous to his idolatrous contemporaries was that this deity could not be identified with any material object. Quite literally, the idols were their gods. In philosophical terms, pagans were the ultimate materialists, seeing divine beings as immanent, physically present, in wood, stone, wind, and water.

The real gift of Iraq is not the sand-blown walls of Ur. The country’s most precious heritage is Abraham’s revolutionary idea. This idea of one invisible and immaterial Deity has ethical implications, entailing basic standards of right and wrong that, unlike in the ancient pagan world, do not vary from one people with its gods to another people with their own quite different gods. America went to war because our people and government felt that Saddam had violated, grossly and repeatedly, the ethical standards that the God of Jews, Christians, and Muslims demands that we all uphold.

To tie the hands of U.S. war planners, to insist that they spare ancient buildings despite the cost this might exact in battle effectiveness, is to distort the true heritage of Iraq, the genuine treasure that emerged from that land. The Abrahamic idea calls us to bring evildoers to justice, even if that means endangering interesting ruins. The notion that mere objects can be sacred is itself a ruin whose passing from the world we need not mourn.

— David Klinghoffer's new book is The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism, published this month by Doubleday.

-- Andreas
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