Treasures in the sand WAR IN THE GULF

February 21, 1991|By Linell Smith

Thousands of years ago the people who lived in the land tha is now Iraq invented the wheel, developed writing, built the world's earliest cities and laid most of the groundwork for our lives today.

It was also in Mesopotamia - the green countryside near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers - that people discovered that monumental art could serve as a powerful expression of life.

A few examples remain. Ruins of the Tower of Babel, the greatest architectural wonder of the ancient world, are in the partially excavated city of Babylon. A many-leveled pyramid built from bricks, the tower was about 300 feet high - twice as high as Baltimore's National Aquarium - and 300 feet long on each side. Over the course of history, it was destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again. Now, it has become of one of thousands of archaeological projects under way in Iraq.

The Iraq Museum in Baghdad is one the world's most important museums. It holds most of the ancient treasures found in Iraq during modern times. Some of the most famous are giant winged lions from the walls of an ancient Assyrian palace. The Assyrians, who ruled in the Middle East from about 1000 B.C. to 612 B.C., decorated the walls of their palaces with carvings of their battle scenes. They were among the first people in the world to use art as a way to tell stories.

The museum also contains priceless clay tablets covered with cuneiform, one of the world's earliest forms of writing. Scholars translate these ancient records in order to understand what daily life was like for people thousands of years ago.

Artists of Mesopotamia worked primarily in clay because it was the material that was most available; most of their wood and stone and metal had to be brought from other lands.

Mesopotamian artists pioneered the art form of decorative brick glazing. The famous city gates of Babylon, for instance, were faced with blue and yellow glazed bricks that had lions, dragons and bulls molded on them.

Other architectural treasures in Iraq include the mosque at Samarra - north of Baghdad - and the Ctesiphon Arch, just south of Baghdad. The mosque was the largest in the ancient world of Islam. The brick arch is 86 feet wide and 105 feet high. Originally part of a palace, it is the world's highest remaining arch from ancient times.

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