Installment # 9, 11 May 2009:
Back again! As promised, I’ll finish telling you about my visit to Ur…
The trip was made at night by helicopter. As our departure time approached, we formed two lines, separated from the airfield by massive concrete barriers. Bright lights cast our silhouettes, one after another, against the grimy walls. Helmets and weapons gave our shadow warriors a menacing appearance. They loomed there, ghostly-dark soldiers that distorted and amplified our every move.
Out on the runway the engines of two CH-47 Chinook helicopters spooled up. On signal, both lines moved through a gap in the wall and onto the tarmac. We entered at the rear and took seats along the sides. A crewman stood at each of two forward windows, manning machineguns, and another sat on the tail ramp, legs bowed around a third weapon, his body secured to the airframe by a lifeline. Hot air, strongly scented by jet fuel, flowed in from the front and then out the gaping opening at the tail. We leapt into the air, banked hard, and climbed away. The pilots turned off our position lights as we crossed the perimeter. We raced high and unseen through the ink-black skies of Iraq.
It was a two hour journey, and we made it without incident. We slept briefly, went to breakfast, and then whiled away a couple of hours at a coffee shop beside the chapel. The shop is called God’s Grounds. Gourmet coffee, cold drinks and goodies are dispensed free of charge to all who enter. There are lots of places to nap, read or converse. From the rooftop veranda you can see Ur several miles away, marked by the famous ziggurat.
A ziggurat is a truncated pyramid, very similar to those found in Central America. Typically there are several levels, each successively smaller. For centuries dirt blew over the ziggurat at Ur, burying and preserving its lower part. The topmost portions were left exposed and perished. This ziggurat was eventually lost to the memory of man. The only hint that it ever existed was a “hill” in the middle of nowhere. In the 1920s, it was excavated along with a number of other structures that once comprised Ur.
The ziggurat was probably the focal point of Ur. The city surrounded it and thrived. This barren land was once an oasis of lush grasses and tended crops, ingeniously irrigated from the waters of the Euphrates River. Ur was also a coastal city with access to the Persian Gulf. Since then, the Euphrates has meandered far away and fluctuating sea levels caused the Gulf to recede a great distance to the south. In the absence of abundant water, Ur died.
So there I was in the middle of a war, learning about all of this. As I walked among the ruins, the periodic hammer of gunfire echoed over me: each patrol exiting the nearby base was required to test fire its automatic weapons. Not something you would expect to hear on just any ol’ run-of-the-mill archeological tour!
From the ziggurat we moved to a partially excavated building where I stood beneath the oldest manmade arch in the world. I saw cuneiform writing scratched into bricks that were thousands of years old. I looked into deep tombs where the rulers of this ancient land had been laid to rest. I saw many remarkable things, but the highlight was the house of Abraham. I climbed onto its restored walls and took a remarkable stroll, minding my balance as I walked more than 10 feet above rooms that may have been used by Abraham’s family. There was the kitchen; there was the well; there were the sleeping areas. I lingered, walking across the walls many times before descending into the chambers. I tried to make sense of it all, but found myself overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the experience. How was it that I found myself in this wondrous place, pondering the life of one of the most extraordinary men in history? It was from Ur that God told Abraham to venture forth and do the great things that he did. I returned to the ziggurat and spent the rest of my time gazing out from that commanding pinnacle—and thinking. Certainly everything is for a purpose, even if we understand that purpose poorly or not at all. If nothing else, I have visited a true biblical city. I have personally experienced a small portion of the greater truth found in Genesis. And now, through this letter, I have passed the message along to you…
Okay, before I close, I promised to tell you how not to say “ziggurat.” As a proud native of southern Ohio, I am prone to pronounce the last three letters as “rat,” as in the rodent, rather than “rot,” as in something putrid, which this particular group (mostly from Minnesota) considered as the proper pronunciation. I was, therefore, at odds with the group. On one occasion when I said “ziggu-rat” instead of “ziggu-rot”, I noticed more than one person display facial expressions commonly associated with that special subset of irritation reserved for the bumpkin who slaughters standard spoken English. That, in turn, irritated me, so I commenced saying “ziggu-rat” with unbridled zeal and frequency, all the while displaying facial expressions of my own that are commonly associated with the profound self-confidence one has when one knows that one has actually pronounced something correctly. I started feeling better right away. Ah, linguistic diversity: you say “rot” and I say “rat”—but, at least in this case, I’m right!
Until our next and final letter, your friend and far-ranging neighbor,