Since the Iraq War began, only a few people have been allowed inside the walls of the ancient city of Ur. In fact, Iraqi soldiers guard the city every day, all day and all night, to prevent it from being ransacked by looters. 

The city of Ur is a historical, religious, and archaeological goldmine. With countless treasures—such as the childhood home of the patriarch Abraham, the oldest freestanding arch in the world, and the famous Great Ziggurat (the base of a massive ancient temple structure that dates back to about 3000 BC)—it is no wonder that the city merits constant guard.

The city’s ruins were a destination for archaeologists through the 1930s, until political turmoil made the Middle East unsafe. When the Iraq War broke out in 2003, the United States assumed control of the ancient city and its vast treasures to safeguard them until May 2009, when the city was returned to Iraqi authorities. 

Near this ancient city is the US Tallil Air Base. Paul Jeffries, then CEO of Al-Morrell Development, was working as a civilian on the base. His company built and operated water purification and bottling plants in Iraq, providing clean drinking water to the troops and eventually to the population.

On a sweltering 125 ºF (52 ºC)  day in June 2009, Jeffries and three civilian coworkers answered the call of adventure. They wanted to experience the city of Ur for themselves, but by that time, control of the city was in Iraqi hands. Despite the dangers presented to civilian Americans in Iraq—and without any military protection—they drove a truck from their water plant to the entrance of the ancient city. Their mission was a peaceful one; they were armed with only a dozen cases of bottled water that represented an expected gift in exchange for entrance into the city.  

“It’s hard to describe how hot 125 degrees really is,” Jeffries laments. The digital thermometer on the sun-baked dashboard of their truck read 156 ºF (69 ºC). But the temperature actually worked to their advantage. In that kind of heat, says Jeffries, “water is life.”

Pulling up to the entrance of the city, the four Americans climbed out of the truck and began negotiating with the soldiers. The Americans had only one thing to offer—the cases of clean, filtrated bottled water. They unloaded six or seven cases before the soldiers started protesting. “No, no,” they said. “That’s enough. Thank you, thank you. That’s enough!”

 “Are you sure?” Jeffries asked.

 “Yes, yes.” 

When the Americans stopped unloading the cases of water, the Iraqi soldiers started waving them back, saying, “No, no! It’s okay! If you insist!” Their refusals had simply been a cultural desire to be polite. The Americans left nine of their twelve cases with these Iraqi soldiers, providing them with safe, clean drinking water in the blistering heat. 

Negotiations began again with the onsite curator, a third-generation guardian of Ur. For their last three cases of water and a $20 dollar bill, Jeffries and his companions got a fabulous tour from an Iraqi expert on the city of Ur. 

As they explored the ruins, they occasionally ducked into houses in the ancient city to escape the blazing sun. Even houses that had only one or two walls remaining provided immense relief from the heat. The walls “would block the wind, block the noise, and instantly cool the air down 30 degrees,” says Jeffries. 

The famous Royal Tombs of Ur also provided refuge from the heat. Though the tomb is roped off, the curator allowed Jeffries and his companions to descend into the tomb. They walked past cuneiform writing inscribed nearly 4,000 years ago. Looking up, they saw the sun shining through the triangle of bricks that famously marks the Royal Tombs. Jeffries says that the tombs are “deep and cool, with lots of drainage to manage water.” 

An inside look at the Tomb of Kings

Descend into the depths of the Royal Tombs of Ur and look backwards to see a unique perspective on the famous triangle of bricks that marks the tombs.

The city’s drainage systems were particularly impressive to the four visitors. Most of Ur is mud, brick, and clay. To prevent damage to their structures, the ancient people would dig deep holes and fill them with pottery to prevent ruinous runoff. 

As the men walked up to the Great Ziggurat, a large structure that temples had been built on, they noticed huge holes in the sides. They learned that those holes were designed to prevent massive pressure that would otherwise press down through thousands of tons of bricks when it rained. Instead, the rain rushes out of the holes in the sides. 

The ziggurat’s sheer size was mind-numbing to the adventurers. Climbing over 100 feet of stairs in the stifling heat was an arduous undertaking. 

The men continued their explorations, discovering the oldest freestanding arch in the world—an impressive creation that has withstood the elements for 2,000 years. They marveled at the longevity of brick and mortar that has stood in the face of wars and weather. 

When the men visited the rebuilt foundations and walls of what is thought to be Abraham’s childhood home, the curator spun a tale of a 28-room house with an inner courtyard, where sunlight would stream into the home. The outer walls had doors, he told them, but “the ancient inhabitants weren’t big on glass windows.” So there were no outer windows, and when the doors were closed, the home was secure. 

In 2012, tourism in Iraq is still restricted but is starting to increase. Limited archaeological and preservation efforts have also again begun. With kings’ tombs, Abraham’s childhood home, and a soaring ziggurat to explore, the ancient city of Ur is sure to become a favorite for many tourists.

—Megan Jeffries