Standing in the traditional birthplace of the biblical Abraham, the father of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, Pope Francis on Saturday urged Iraq’s Muslim and Christian religious leaders to put aside animosities and work together for peace and unity.
He told those gathered at the interfaith meeting: “This is true religiosity: to worship God and to love our neighbor.”
Francis traveled to the ruins of Ur in southern Iraq to reinforce his message of interreligious tolerance and fraternity during the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, a country riven by religious and ethnic divisions.
With a magnificent ziggurat nearby, Francis told the faith leaders that it was fitting that they come together in Ur, “back to our origins, to the sources of God’s work, to the birth of our religions” to pray together for peace as children of Abraham.
At the 6,000-year-old archaeological complex near Nasiriyah, the pope said: “From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters. Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: They are betrayals of religion.”
Earlier Francis held a historic encounter in nearby Najaf with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, spiritual leader of most of the world’s Shiite Muslims.
The meeting, on the second day of the first-ever papal visit to Iraq, marked a landmark moment in modern religious history and a milestone in Francis’s efforts to deepen dialogue with other religions.
Sistani, 90, “affirmed his concern that Christian citizens should live like all Iraqis in peace and security, and with their full constitutional rights.”
Sistani is extremely reclusive and rarely grants meetings but made an exception to host Francis, an outspoken proponent of interreligious dialogue.
Francis then headed straight to the desert site of the ancient city of Ur, where Abraham is believed to have been born in the second millennium BCE.
“It all started from here,” Francis said, after hearing from representatives of Iraq’s diverse religious communities.
“This blessed place brings us back to our origins,” he said. “We seem to have returned home.”
Ur, known in Hebrew as Ur Kasdim and in English as Ur of the Chaldeans, is mentioned three times in Genesis. Though it is not explicitly stated, it is implied that Abraham originates from there before traveling to the land of Canaan.
The city is located in ancient Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of civilization. It was the last capital of the Sumerian royal dynasties whose civilization flourished 4,000-5,000 years ago, and was considered to be a sacred city of the moon god Sin in the Sumerian religion.
Chaldeans, Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians all lived in Ur. The site was the capital of the Sumerian kingdom in the fourth and third millennia BCE. At its height, archaeologists estimate half a million people lived there.
It is thought to have reached its apogee under King Ur-Nammu, who is believed to have ruled between 2112 and 2095 BCE, and his successors.
Ur was abandoned around 500 BC, in part because the river Euphrates shifted some three kilometers eastward.
In the early 1900s, US archeologist Charles Leonard Woolley made some stunning finds when he unearthed 16 tombs of Ur’s elite. Inside, he found some of the greatest treasures of antiquity: a golden dagger encrusted with lapis lazuli, an intricately carved golden statue of a ram caught in a thicket, a lyre decorated with a bull’s head and the gold headdress of a Sumerian queen.
Those treasures have been compared to the riches from the tomb of the Egyptian boy-king, Tutankhamun, but they excite archeologists even more because the graves at Ur are more than 1000 years older.
Archeologically, the most astonishing find of Ur has been a remarkably well-preserved stepped platform, or ziggurat, which dates back to the third millennium BCE, when it was part of a temple complex serving the administrative center of the Sumerian capital. The ziggurat, which towers over the flat desert floor, is the best-preserved one in the region.
But there have been few major excavations at Ur, which lies about 300 kilometers (185 miles) south of Baghdad, since digs funded by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania in the 1920s and 1930s.
To date, less than 30 percent of the site has been excavated. Decades of war and violence have kept international archaeologists away from Iraq, where significant archaeological sites as yet unexplored are located.
Meanwhile, for the past half-century little has been done to preserve the sites that yielded those finds.
The ziggurat was partially restored in the 1960s, but all of the finds have suffered a slow process of erosion. The site is plagued by wind, extreme summer heat and excessive salinity of the soil. The climate is not solely responsible for the degradation of the site, which also suffered from the presence of an Iraqi military base that was bombed during the 1990-1991 Gulf War.
Some archaeologists believe the site’s treasures could rival Egypt’s Giza pyramid complex once properly explored.
The Sumerian capital boasted paved roads, tree-lined avenues, schools, poets, scribes, and stunning works of art and architecture of the kind discovered by Woolley and his team.
The ziggurat is believed to have been about 26 meters (85 feet) high during its heyday. But the top of the structure was knocked down, and today it stands at 17 meters, with a base 62 meters by 43 meters. The walls gradually slope inward, with a top level measuring 20 by 11 meters.
After the ousting of former president Saddam Hussein, the eight-square-kilometer site fell within a restricted area near a United States military airport for a few years. It was eventually returned to Iraqi authorities in 2009.
Pope Francis’s visit fulfilled a desire once held by late pope John Paul II to visit the site. A planned trip in 2000 was eventually canceled due to security reasons.
One site visited by Francis on Saturday is a sprawling complex composed of 27 rooms and five courtyards known as Abraham’s house, though it is likely to have actually been an administrative complex.