Not today, or tomorrow.
Probably not for several years, and certainly not as a soldier — but I want to go to Iraq.
I want to go as a tourist, a student, a pilgrim of sorts.
I want to see where Western civilization was born, where writing was invented, where ziggurats once reached for the sky.
I’d like to visit the ruins of Ur, where the Sumerians lived, where Abraham was born, where kings like Meskalamdug and Shulgi ruled. It’s in the Basra region of southern Iraq.
I’d like to stand on what is left of the Etemenanki, a massive temple in Babylon. I show satellite images of it to my students to remind them what great builders the Babylonians were. I’d like to walk where Nebuchadnezzar walked, not far from modern-day Baghdad. I’d like to sit, like the Hebrew exiles, by the waters of Babylon, but without any cause for weeping.
I want to go to Nineveh, near the northern city of Mosul, in the heartland of what was once Assyria. I’d like to lay eyes on what is left of the great palace of Sennacherib and other evidence of the ancient land that plays such a large role in the Bible.
Most of all, I’d like to go in peace. I’d like to visit a land where people recognize the lunacy of self-triggered body bombs and the fringe fundamentalists who exploit terror for their own gain.
I don’t know when that day will come, but I pray for its advent. There are recent signs of hope. The war seems to be winding down and the populace seems restive for peace. More specifically, officials have announced plans to reopen the Iraqi National Museum within the next month (though other officials disagree). The museum, which suffered unconscionable looting when U.S. troops invaded Baghdad in 2003, has recovered many of its priceless artifacts, and is supposed to be secured by a “relics protection force.”
Iraqi officials have also expressed a desire to develop the ruins of Babylon as a tourist destination, according to a report on AlArabiyah.net. A temporary U.S. Army base on the site caused major damage to ancient pavements and walls, but the U.S. Embassy is reportedly spending $700,000 toward restoration efforts. It’s not enough, I’m sure, but it’s a start. The World Monuments Fund is also aiding the efforts, and if peace becomes a reality, others will pitch in.
When they’re ready for tourists, I want to be one of them, and for once, I hope there’s a crowd.
Tony Cartledge is associate professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School and contributing editor to Baptists Today, where he blogs.