US returns Ur, birthplace of Abraham, to Iraq

Posted at 05/13/2009 7:23 PM | Updated as of 06/17/2009 8:35 PM

UR, Iraq - The US military on Wednesday handed control of ancient Ur, the biblical birthplace of Abraham, back to Iraqi authorities, who hope now to relaunch it as a major tourism site.

"We officially announce the taking over of Ziggurat of Ur from our friends the Americans," Talib Kamil al-Hassan, governor of Dhi Qar province, said at a ceremony to mark the return of the site six years after the American invasion.

"We are pleased with this great success for the nation," he added while the Iraqi flag was hoisted atop the temple.

"Abraham, peace be upon him, was born here, the father of prophets and religions," he said.

The site is renowned for its well preserved stepped platform or ziggurat, which dates back to the third millennium BC.

It lies near the US air base of Talila, outside the southern city of Nasiriyah, and has been closed to the public since the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

Ur of the Chaldees was one of the great urban centres of the Sumerian civilisation of southern Iraq and remained an important city until its conquest by Alexander the Great a few centuries before Christ.

The city, which dates back to 6000 BC, lies on a former course of the Euphrates, one of the two great rivers of Iraq, and is one of the country's oldest sites.

The Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced in early April that the ceremony would pave the way for the rehabilitation of Ur and its reopening to the public.

"The local government will begin the renovation of the archaeological site in cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism to be ready to receive tourists from the region but also across Iraq," said Hassan.

"All Iraqis are proud of this site and are eager to visit as soon as all the barbed wire has been removed," he added.

Hassan did not say when the site would reopen.

Improved security over the past two years has prompted Iraqi authorities to launch the restoration of several of its archaeological sites in a bid to draw tourists from around the globe.

Home to the world's third largest known petroleum reserves, Iraq is trying to diversify its crude-dependent economy and tourism is viewed as key growth sector.

Tourism visas procedures are in the process of being simplified and in March the first official Western tour group arrived in Iraq for a week-long visit. They were followed by a group from Asia this month.

Tourism to Iraq was already much reduced under Saddam's regime in the 1990s when the country was subject to crippling UN sanctions and there are still no international hotel chains operating inside the country.

Restoration work on antiquities is often undertaken by local authorities without the assistance of experts who say politicians' plans are often ill-conceived and risk damaging the country's delicate archaeological riches.