Nasiriya, Iraq – This is where the wheel was invented, the Code of Hammurabi – or Rule of Law – was first established, and where oil was first burned as a source of energy.
It is the ancient Iraqi city of Ur – located in the province of Dhi Qar, 300 km (200 miles) south of the capital Baghdad – and where Pope Francis plans to visit on his historic journey to three days in the country.
Over 6,000 years ago, Ur became one of the world’s first major urban centers and, centuries later, it became the center of the then global economy with its factories mass-producing woolen rugs and clothing for export to Mesopotamia and abroad.
Ur – also called Tal al-Muqayer – has been considered one of the most important archaeological sites in history.
The pontiff is expected to host an interfaith meeting in Ur on Saturday.
Dhi Qar is the heart of the ancient Iraqi civilization of Sumer and includes the ruins of Ur, Eridu, Lagash, Gisu, Umma, and Bad-tibira, or the Copperworkers’ Wall.
In July 2016, UNESCO inscribed Ur on the World Heritage List, in addition to the swamps of southern Iraq and other sites like Eridu and Al-Warka.
During his visit to Iraq, Pope Francis will travel to Ur after meeting with politicians, religious figures and archaeological sites in the cities of Najaf, Erbil, Mosul and the capital Baghdad.
A life of luxury
Ur is one of the many cities built by the Sumerians who made it the capital of their state. When they settled in southern Iraq around 3,500 BC, they surrounded it with walls and built markets, workshops and farming villages inside. It spawned the development of the main commercial transport routes with other cities and nations of the time.
Excavations in the early 1900s in Ur indicated that its inhabitants led a life of luxury as the town flourished in the cultivation and trade of wheat and barley. Excavations continue to this day as there are treasures yet to be discovered that will give better insight into one of the world’s first progressive cities.
For decades, archaeological excavations have been banned due to conflict and security concerns. But Iraqi and American researchers began to resume excavations in the area a few years after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein.
âDuring the 2007 excavation season in the ancient city of Ur, we found around 100 tablets containing important ancient texts,â Mustafa al-Hussaini, an archaeologist based in Nasiriya, told Al Jazeera.
âWhen we studied the texts helping the American University of Stony Brook, it was discovered that these tablets are a miniature library. I discovered about 45 of them, “he said.
The Sumerians developed irrigation systems and grain cultivation, as well as the invented cuneiform script used in ancient Mesopotamia and Persia. They also developed an algorithm on which the time measurement is based to date.
Sumerian society recognized the mother’s leadership role in the family, and women commanded great respect. Another cultural heritage of Sumerian civilization was poetry and pottery.
British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, who excavated in Ur in 1922, discovered a royal tomb that matches the Pharaonic tombs in the pyramids of Giza in Egypt.
The Sumerians were interested in building mud and asphalt temples. An ancient ziggurat, or terraced compound, still stands in Ur and is considered one of the oldest pyramids in Mesopotamian civilization.
The complex next to the Ziggurat is said to date back to around 1900 BC and was at one time the home of the Prophet Ibrahim, known as Abraham to Christians and Jews.
Amer Abdulrazzaq, director of the Nasiriyah Civilization Museum, explained why Ur is considered so important to Christians, Jews and Muslims.
âUr is the birthplace of the Prophet of Ibrahim and it is mentioned in the Torah and the Gospels, and for this reason all religions consider him to be their spiritual father.
âTherefore, visiting his native land is considered one of the most important religious rites of Christian pilgrimage,â he told Al Jazeera.
Investigations by al-Hamdani and American archaeologists suggest that there are 15,000 archaeological sites across Iraq.
âIn Nasiriya alone, there are around 1,200 archaeological sites, which is equivalent to all the antiquities of France and Italy put together,â he said.
Pope Francis’ historic visit aims to boost the morale of Iraq’s besieged Christian minority, which has declined in recent years amid wars and persecution, and to encourage religious coexistence among Muslims, Christians and other minorities.
âPolicies must promote the spirit of fraternal solidarity,â the pontiff said on Friday.
âThere is corruption, abuse of power, it’s not like that. At the same time, we must think about justice, transparency, reinforce certain values, this is how credibility can grow so that everyone, in particular young people, can have hope for the future.