The pontiff lands in Baghdad in highly symbolic visit for dwindling Iraqi Christian communities affected by conflict.
Nasiriya, Iraq – It 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 Dhi Qar province, 300km (200 miles) south of the capital Baghdad – and where Pope Francis plans to visit during his historic three-day trip to the country.
More than 6,000 years ago, Ur emerged as one of the world’s first main urban centres and centuries later developed into the hub of the then global economy with its factories mass-producing carpets and wool clothing for export within Mesopotamia and abroad.
Ur – also called Tal al-Muqayer – has been considered one of the most important archaeological sites throughout history.
The pontiff is expected to host an inter-religious meeting in Ur on Saturday.
Dhi Qar is the heartland of the ancient Iraqi civilisation of Sumer and includes the ruins of Ur, Eridu, Lagash, Gisu, Umma, and Bad-tibira, or the Wall of the Copper Workers.
In July 2016, UNESCO placed Ur on the World Heritage list, in addition to the marshes of southern Iraq, and other sites such as Eridu and Al-Warka.
During his visit to Iraq, Pope Francis will visit Ur after meetings 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 several 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 agricultural villages inside. It spawned the development of primary commercial transport routes with other cities and nations of that time.
Excavations in the early 1900s in Ur indicated its people lived a life of luxury as the city prospered in the growing and trading of wheat and barley. Excavations continue to this day as there are treasures still undiscovered that will provide further insight into one of the world’s first progressive cities.
For decades, archaeological digs were prohibited because of conflict and security issues. But Iraqi and American researchers began resuming excavations of the area a few years after the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein.
“During the 2007 excavation season in the ancient city of Ur, we found about 100 tablet artefacts that included important ancient texts,” Mustafa al-Hussaini, a Nasiriya-based archaeologist, told Al Jazeera.
“When we studied the texts by 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 invented cuneiform writing used in ancient Mesopotamia and Persia. They also developed an algorithm on which time measurement is based to this day.
Sumerian society recognised the mother’s leadership role in the family, and women commanded a high level of respect. Another cultural legacy of Sumerian civilisation was poetry and pottery.
British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, who excavated in Ur in 1922, discovered a royal tomb that matches the Pharaonic ones in the pyramids of Giza in Egypt.
The Sumerians were interested in building temples from mud and asphalt. An ancient Ziggurat, or terraced compound, still stands in Ur and is considered one of the oldest pyramids of Mesopotamia’s civilisation.
The complex next to the Ziggurat is said to date back to about 1900 BC and at one time was the home of the Prophet Ibrahim, known as Abraham by Christians and Jews.
Amer Abdulrazzaq, head of the Nasiriyah Civilization Museum, explained why Ur is considered so important to Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
“Ur is the birthplace of the Prophet of Ibrahim and this is mentioned in the Torah and the Gospels, and for this reason, all religions consider him their spiritual father.
“Therefore, visiting the land of his birth is considered one of the most important religious rites of the Christian pilgrimage,” he told Al Jazeera.
Surveys carried out by al-Hamdani and American archaeologists suggest there are 15,000 archaeological sites throughout Iraq.
“In Nasiriya alone, there are about 1,200 archaeological sites, which is equivalent to all of the antiquities of France and Italy combined,” he said.
Pope Francis’ historic visit aims to boost the morale of Iraq’s besieged Christian minority, which has dwindled in recent years amid wars and persecution, and to encourage religious coexistence between Muslims, Christians and other minorities.
“The politicians need to promote the spirit of fraternal solidarity,” the pontiff said on Friday.
“There is corruption, abuse of power, that is not the way. At the same time, you need to think of justice, transparency, to strengthen certain values, that is how credibility can grow so everyone, especially the young people, can have hope for the future.”