Every one knew how laborious the usual Method is of attaining to Arts and Sciences; whereas by his Contrivance, the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write Books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.

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Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.
Marsh Arabs Part II

Posted on Friday 19 January 2007

Continued from Part I of this article

In 1968, archaeologists digging at the mound of al-Hiba in Iraq were struck by the fact that the people living in the surrounding area depended on many of the same resources, and seemed to use them in the same way, as the people who had lived there in the 3rd millennium BC. So while archaeological excavations continued, they initiated an ethnographic study of the modern villages around the mound. The ethnoarchaeology project was carried out under my direction and lasted twenty years. Its goal was to cast light on the use of locally available raw materials, and on the function and manufacturing technology of the same or similar artifacts in antiquity. The materials we focused on were mud or clay, reeds, wood, cattle, and sheep. We eventually added bitumen–a natural tarlike hydrocarbon–to the list because it appeared so often in conjunction with wood, reeds, and mud in the villages, as well as in the archaeological record. There was abundant evidence that many of the details of village life had parallels in the archaeological record. We hoped that knowing how people in the present day made and used the objects they needed for survival could help us make sense of the isolated bits of archaeological evidence and weave them into a coherent tapestry of ancient life.

The 2-mile-long mound of al-Hiba was in antiquity the ancient city-state of Lagash (see map on p. 3). It stood on the edge of a permanent marsh bordering a tributary of the Tigris, in southern Iraq, and lay about 75 kilometers north of Ur. Like Ur, Lagash was a major Sumerian city. It reached its greatest size in the Early Dynastic III period (2600-2350 BC), at the same time as the Royal Cemetery of Ur was in use. At that time Lagash was the capital of the Sumerian empire and probably the largest early Sumerian city.

The early years of the project were marked by the on-going removal of the sheikhs (local hereditary leaders) by the central government of Iraq. As a result of the inevitable disruption in the management of the farmlands, these were times of unbelievable poverty for the people of al-Hiba. With the draining of the marshlands initiated in 1992, many thousands of marshland residents moved deeper into the swamps or fled to Iran. The way of life that we documented, and that I describe briefl y here, no longer exists in the area around al-Hiba.



MUDHIF UNDER CONSTRUCTION. Reeds had the same physical properties in the past as they do today, requiring similar innovations for structural soundness. For instance, if arches were made from bundles of fresh reeds, the structure would collapse in short order. For maximum soundness the core of a new arch bundle was made up of reeds taken from an older structure. From studying the physical properties of reeds used today, we have learned a great deal about the details of their use in the past.



CARVED GYPSUM TROUGH FROM URUK. Two lambs exit a reed structure identical to the present-day mudhif on this ceremonial trough from the site of Uruk in southern Iraq. Neither the leaves or plumes have been removed from the reeds which are tied together to form the arch. As a result, the crossed-over, leathered reeds create a decorative pattern along the length of the roof, a style most often seen in modern animal shelters built by the Mi'dan. Dating to ca. 3000 BC, the trough documents the extraordinary length of time such arched reed buildings have been in use.

Life on the Edge of the Marshes, Edward Ochsenschlager, 1998


"Fire in a reed house cannot be extinguished!"

Gilgamesh and Huwawa

Growing Hardship The marshes provided ample refuge for rebellious tribes increasingly at odds with outside authorities, from British colonial rulers to Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards. One day during Ochsenschlager's first year at the excavation site, the crew heard faraway drum sounds, a warning from a neighboring tribe of the approach of outsiders.

"The entire group of local men who worked for us dropped what they were doing, picked up their guns and cloaks and disappeared into the marshes," he said. Men who were drawn to cities for work often returned to the marshes after running into trouble with the government

Threats from outside were starting to take a toll by the time of Ochsenschlager's first encounter with the Ma'adan in 1968. The government was in the midst of a campaign to get rid of sheiks, eroding traditional leadership. Traders were increasingly demanding money for some commodities and refusing barter.

Dam and irrigation projects executed in the 1970s cut the annual flow of water in the Euphrates by more than one-third. That began the depletion of the marshes, reducing permanent wetlands and spring floods that had carried nutrient-laden sediments.

The coup de grace came after the 1991 Gulf War, when Shiite Muslims in the south rose up against Saddam. After their defeat, the regime's soldiers burned and bombed marsh villages, while its engineers completed massive dikes and canals to divert the entire flow of the Euphrates away from the marshes.

Satellites beamed ghastly images of the unfolding ecological catastrophe. By 2000, marshes that had covered nearly 4,000 square miles – comparable to Florida's Everglades – had almost disappeared.

Iraq's Marsh Arabs, Modern Sumerians

The Marshlands of Lower Mesopotamia

The extensive but shallow marshlands of the lower Tigris-Euphrates basin represent an outstanding natural landmark of Mesopotamia. They comprise the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East and Western Eurasia. A rare aquatic landscape in desert milieu, the marshlands are home to ancient communities rooted in the dawn of human history. They also provide habitat for important populations of wildlife, including endemic and endangered species. The key role played by the marshlands in the inter-continental flyway of migratory birds, and in supporting coastal fisheries endows them with a truly global dimension. For these reasons, the Mesopotamian marshlands (called Al Ahwar in Arabic) have long been recognised to constitute one of the world's most significant wetlands and an exceptional natural heritage of the Earth. Most recently, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) placed the Mesopotamian marshlands in its select list of two hundred exceptional ecoregions in the world for priority conservation (the Global 200).

Situated for the main part in southern Iraq (29°55' to 32°45' N and 45°25' to 48°30' E), the wetlands covered in 1970 an estimated area ranging from 15,000 - 20,000 square kilometres. The eastern margins of the marshlands extend over the border into southwestern Iran. In terms of custodianship, they therefore constitute a transboundary ecosystem under shared responsibility. 3.1 Formation of the Marshlands Understanding how the marshlands of lower Mesopotamia were formed historically is crucial to grasping how they have been affected by water management projects. The topography of the lower Tigris-Euphrates

Space view of the Mesopotamian Marshlands taken by the earth observation satellite Landsat in 1973-76. Dense marsh vegetation (mainly Phragmites) appears as dark red patches, while red elongated patches long river banks are date palms.


The marshlands support the inter-continental migration of birds. Pelicans congregate in marshland lagoon.
valley is distinguished by an extremely flat alluvial plain. The Euphrates falls only 4 cm/ km over the last 300 km, while the Tigris has a slope of 8 cm/km (Scott, 1995). As a result of the level terrain, both rivers deviate from a straight course, meandering in sinuous loops and eventually divide into distributaries that dissipate into a vast inland delta. This is particularly true of the Euphrates, whose velocity rapidly diminishes as it lacks tributaries along its lengthy course, and begins to develop a braided pattern nearly 520 km upstream of the Gulf. Immediately south of Al Nasiriyah, the Euphrates main channel dissolves into the marshes, only to re-emerge shortly before its confluence with the Tigris at Al Qurnah. The Tigris, which is drained along its eastern flank by several tributaries from the mountains and hills of the Zagros chain, has a relatively stronger hydraulic force, enabling it to maintain a more stable course. Nonetheless, in its lower stretches around Al Amarah, the Tigris also rapidly begins to lose its velocity and flares out into multiple distributary channels feeding directly into the marshes. Water extraction by an elaborate irrigation network criss-crossing the alluvial plain between the two rivers significantly reduces water flow, and contributes to the rivers' splitting into a diffuse array of shallow waters in their final stretches.

Another important factor contributing to the formation of the marshlands is that the lower Mesopotamian plain becomes very narrow towards the Gulf. This is created by the large alluvial fan of Wadi Batin and the Al Dibdibah plain drawing in from the Nejid in the west, and the Karkheh and Karun river systems descending from the Zagros Mountains in the east. The Karkheh disperses into the marshes on the eastern bank of the Tigris, whose waters eventually overflow into the Shatt-al-Arab via Al Suwaib River. For its part, the Karun joins the Tigris-Euphrates system below their confluence in the lower section of the Shatt-al-Arab, at the port city of Khorramshahr 72 km from the Gulf. Both rivers, but particularly the latter, carry a large sediment load. By fanning out at the head of the Gulf, the Wadi Batin/Al Dibdibah, the Karkheh and Karun constrict the lower Mesopotamian valley to a width of less than 45 km and prevent the twin rivers from flowing directly into the sea (Rzóska, 1980). In so doing, the natural drainage of the Tigris and Euphrates is impeded and they are forced to deposit their sediment loads inland. This results in the creation of a double delta composed of a continental marshland complex and a marine estuary. As mentioned earlier, a notable feature of both the Tigris and Euphrates is the large fluctuation in their water discharge volumes. Spring floods, occurring form February to May, are caused by snowmelt in the headwater region in Turkey and the Zagros Mountains in Iran and northern Iraq. These short-lived but intense seasonal floods, which formerly have been on the order of 1.5 to 3 meters (with a record of 9 meters on the Tigris in 1954) cause large-scale inundations (Scott, 1995). As a result of the flat topography, the flood pulses are able to maintain an extensive complex of interconnected shallow lakes, backswamps and marshlands in the lower Mesopotamian plain. The marshlands, which are of great though changing extent, may dry up completely in shallower areas under the influence of high summer temperatures, leaving salt flats and reverting back to desert conditions. This highly dynamic ecosystem is therefore dependent on spring floods for its replenishment and very existence.

The Mesopotamian Marshlands: Demise of an Ecosystem, United Nations Environment Programme, 2001



Diversion of Euphrates waters downstream of Al Nasiryah by the twin canals of the‘Third River' and ‘Mother of Battles River'. (May 2000).


Clearly visible in this SPOT image recorded in December 1993 is the 2-km wide and 50 km long ‘Prosperity River' which captures the waters of Tigris distributaries and channels them across the marshes to the Euphrates near its junction with the Tigris at Al Qurnah.


This satellite image taken in 2000 shows most of the Central Marshes as olive to grayish-brown patches indicating low vegetation on moist to dry ground. The very light to grey patches are bare areas with no vegetation and may actually be salt evaporites of former lakes.
The idea of draining the marshlands of southern Iraq is not a new concept, and certainly not the first time the Tigris-Euphrates river system has been harnessed for man's use. The delta/marsh area "was probably the first region of the world where humans gained mastery over major rivers. Irrigation and flood protection were vital to the farmers who fed the inhabitants of the world's first known cities, built in Mesopotamia more than 5,000 years ago." The marshlands region was part of this development. Dams were built to harness water and energy for irrigation and electricity. Within Iraq, there are at least four dams on the Euphrates and three major dams on the Tigris, which are contributing heavily to a water shortage in the area.

The first major marsh-draining scheme was proposed in the 1951 Haigh Report, "Control of the Rivers of Iraq," drafted by British engineers working for the Iraqi government. "The report describes an array of sluices, embankments and canals on the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates that would be needed to 'reclaim' the marshes." The study's senior engineer, Frank Haigh, felt that the standing marsh water was being wasted, so he "proposed concentrating the flow of the Tigris [River] into a few embanked channels that would not overflow into the marshes. He proposed one large canal through the main `Amara marsh." In this way, Iraq would be able to "capture the marsh water for irrigation" purposes to aid in feeding the newly created State of Iraq.

Construction of the large canal, called the Third River, began in 1953. Further construction took place in the 1960's. It was not until the 1980's, however, during the Iran-Iraq War, that major work was resumed. Today, many of the water projects in the marsh area bear a striking resemblance to the Haigh Plan – the only problem is that the projects are not being used for agricultural improvement!

Various international organizations such as the U.N. Human Rights Commission, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the International Wildfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau, and Middle East Watch have been monitoring the Iraqi situation. All have found evidence to indicate that the Iraqi Government has been attempting to force the Ma'dan people from their homes through water diversion tactics copied from the Haigh Report. Iraq's majority Sunni government is attempting to weaken the Ma'dan because they are Shiite Muslims, maintaining religious links with Iran's Shiite leadership. They have also been accused by the government of harboring refugees from oppression in Baghdad.

Since the end of the Gulf War, the above-mentioned organizations have uncovered the following intelligence: 1) By 1993, the Iraqi Government was able to prevent water from reaching two-thirds of the marshlands. 2) The flow of the Euphrates River has almost been entirely diverted to the Third River Canal, bypassing most of the marshes. 3) The flow of the Tigris River has been channeled into tributary rivers (with artificially high banks), prohibiting the tributary water from seeping into the marshlands.

As a result, the environmental effects are thought to be "irreversible with disastrous ecological, social and human consequences for the region." The sparse water remaining has contributed to the salinization of the land. "Over-irrigation and poor drainage compound the problem: as the stagnant water evaporates, it leaves behind a crust of salt." The future for wildlife in the region looks bleak, as well. The marshes are home to fish and migratory birds from western Eurasia such as pelicans, herons and flamingos. Without fresh water, the ecosystem will easily become damaged.

In economic terms, the effects are just as severe. The marshlands region, is home to various crops, trees and livestock. The staple crops of the region are rice and millet. Date palms from the area have played an important part in Iraqi exports as well as the weaved reed mats and harvested cereals from the Ma'dan people. The marshes are also home to cows, oxen, and water buffalo. The recent scarcity of water in the marshlands has contributed to transport problems, which has all but put a stop to economic movement in the region. "Instead of moving...goods by boat the Ma'dan are often having to struggle through hip-deep mud on foot...in addition, hundreds of thousands of inhabitants have fled their areas. If this process continues, Saddam Hussein will become responsible for destroying not only the environment and culture, but one of the oldest and most important links with Iraq's past – the people of the marshlands.


Marsh Arabs, Water Diversion, and Cultural Survival, The Inventory of Conflict & Environment , 2001



In addition to the array of military and security techniques being deployed against the people of the marshes, the campaign with bulldozers and cranes was proceeding apace. What became strikingly clear in the second half of 1992 was the impact of the drainage works: ‘The Third River is draining the marshes', said Emma Nicholson in September. ‘I can give you first-hand visual evidence. I've seen it myself. For the first time ever, the level of water in the marshes has sunk. I was previously there in early June, and three days ago I was in Iraq, and in those weeks this Third River has started to achieve its objective of draining the marshes.' Not only the Third River: by November, according to SCIRI sources, engineering units around Amara had completed their blockade of the rivers coming off the Tigris and diverted their waters from the marshes. Six of the feeder rivers had been completely drained and were now passable on foot; ‘these atrocities took place when rice was being harvested and resulted in the total destruction of the crop'
That month, a team from the Organisation for Human Rights in Iraq became the first observers since the imposition of the no-fly zone to go deep inside the marshes. In the eastern Hawizeh marsh they found that because of the draining, ‘wide stretches of marshland have been reduced to a crazy paving of mud inimical to water buffalo'. The Third River was nearing completion, and the observers found that increasing dryness in many areas was making it more difficult to plant traditional crops. ‘"We saw a white line that extended like chalk on the reeds for dozens of miles"' said the team's leader. ‘"It was the old water level - at least three feet higher than the present level. Many, many people told us there is something wrong with the water, too."'

On 7 December 1992, Baghdad announced the completion, at 565 kilometres and after almost four decades' work, of the Third River. The Iraqi government would soon be able to prevent water from reaching two-thirds of the marshlands. The flow of the Euphrates at its seaward end was diverted to the Third River, thus bypassing the Hammar marsh, while the flow of the rivers and streams running southwards from the Tigris into the Central marshes was channelled into the ‘moat'. As the marshlands dried out, it was much easier for the Iraqi military to advance their land-based attacks on the villages. In January 1993 a number of villages in Amara marsh were reported burned to the ground; in April, government forces burned homes in two villages in Misan governorate; in June, villages in the Hammar marshes were bombarded for four days, and what was left of the inhabitants' homes was then flattened by tanks and armoured vehicles.

...the Observer journalist Shyam Bhatia became the first foreign journalist to be taken deep inside the marshes by the Shi'a resistance. He spent 10 days in the area, under constant threat of capture, or death by shelling, before bringing back a lengthy eyewitness account. He could see that water levels had dropped ‘alarmingly' and confirmed earlier accounts of the impact of the drainage scheme: ‘Massive earthen dykes erected in the north near the town of Amara have succeeded in turning the tributaries of the Tigris so that their precious water is now channelled into the massive new canal, Anfal 3 water levels in the northern marshes have dropped by as much as two metres, making it easier for the Iraqi army to move in. In the southern marshes, the Euphrates has been dammed, its lifegiving water channelled to flow uselessly into the Gulf at Khor Zubair.' Bhatia also heard about the dumping of toxic chemicals in the waters (referred to above), and he saw at first-hand the effects of the continued artillery bombardment of marsh villages: ‘The army's favourite tactic is to blow up villages selectively and then sow mines in the water before retreating. In Chabaish village they even planted butterfly mines disguised as toys, pens and cigarette lighters.'

Iraqi Marshlands: Prospects 2001 (AMAR)


Marshes: North of Basrah, 100,000 "Marsh Arabs" used to live in this swampy region short before Euphrates and Tigris merge. For a long time, Iran-backed rebels have used its treacherous waters as a safe haven. To put an end to their uprising (which finds little approval among the majority), Saddam has decided to drain the region. The result is an immense ecological and cultural tragedy. The Marsh Arabs had to flee to reservoirs in cities or across the Iranian border. Many of their villages were destroyed, few inhabitants remain.

The picture shows an empty ditch and a "mudhif" on the left, ie. an oblong reed hut.
All but desert. I gape incredulously at what is supposed to be marshes, according to my tourist map printed in Iraq only five years ago. Miles after miles of flat, barren, hostile nothingness. It does not even have the beauty of sand deserts, endless steppes or cracked earth. Why ?

- To favour agriculture! the army officers of Jubaiesh told me.

Only few areas show actually scarce wheat. And this does not explain the several destroyed houses along the road from Al-Qurna. The children in the school bus from Jubaiesh to Nassiriya do know the reason: the marshes were drained to deprive the Shia rebels of a safe den.

- How many Marsh Arabs were living here ?

- Don't know... 100,000 ? They now live in reservoirs in cities, but many have fled abroad, especially to nearby Iran.

- Why is there a soldier guarding at each bridge? (many such bridges from the time there was water).

- They control the road and arrest those who smoke hash.

A few nice reed houses (mudhif) are still standing. Many villages have been abandoned, only larger ones are still inhabited. Speak of a cultural genocide, of an ecological tragedy!


The marshes, now.
"To eradicate terrorism, we don't just catch one mosquito or another, we rather have to drain the whole swamp"; we all remember the radical stance of the Wolfowitz-cabal after Sept. 11. Little do they know that Saddam had long complied with their incitement...

Trip to Iraq: Marshes and Rebels 2001 Daniel B. Grünberg





after An had frowned upon all the lands...
after Enki had altered the course of the Tigris and Euphrates...

[so] that the marshes should be so dry as to be full of cracks and have no new seed,

that sickly-headed reeds should grow in the reed-beds,


that they should be covered by a stinking morass,


that there should be no new growth in the orchards,


that it should all collapse by itself


Lament for Sumer and Urim (Ur) c. 1950 BC




Marsh Arabs return
In mid-April [2003], a few days after Hussein's government fell, Ali Shaheen returned to his job as director of the Irrigation Department in Nasiriyah. Located about 25 miles northwest of Zayad, Nasiriyah was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting during the war. But with the hostilities over and Shiites firmly in control of the local government, he decided to try to reverse the damage Hussein had wrought. With a U.S. military escort, he drove to Garmat Bani Hassan, a town a mile away from Zayad. There, he ordered creaky metal gates on the Euphrates to be cranked open for the first time since 1991.

Shaheen, a short, balding civil engineer with a stubble-covered face, did the same thing with two other gates before embarking on a bigger engineering challenge – redirecting the Euphrates. He requisitioned several Irrigation Department bulldozers and smashed the dam Hussein had constructed to divert water to the Mother of All Battles River. For good measure, he had Hussein's river blocked off with a mountain of dirt.

He had no orders to redirect the rivers. There was no functioning Irrigation Ministry at the time. But he assumed he was doing what the Marsh Arabs wanted.

"Drying the marshes was a crime," said Shaheen, who joined the Irrigation Department in 1998, after the canals and dams were built. "I felt I needed to do whatever I could to restore what Saddam destroyed."

As the Euphrates returned to its original course, water surged toward Zayad and other villages on the western side of the marshes that are closest to the river's mouth. The arid flats were covered with more than three feet of water, swallowing the scrub brush and a few homes that were built after the marshes were dried.

Shaheen calculated that more than 1 quadrillion gallons – a 1 followed by 15 zeroes – were needed to fill the Euphrates side of the marshes. But the flow at Nasiriyah, which had been 106,000 gallons per second before 1991, was down to 21,000 gallons per second because of new dams and irrigation canals built in Iraq, Syria and Turkey over the past decade. "The water we have is not enough," he said.

'A Gift From God' Renews a Village

Luckily, Saddam didn't quite finish the job. The easternmost of the three main wetland areas, the Hawizeh marsh, was damaged in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, and parts are still mined and dangerous. But a section of it remains pristine and could provide a valuable model for restoration efforts, says Suzie Alwash, senior project adviser for Eden Again.
Another bright spot: Because the damage to the land is relatively recent, even parched areas may have intact sediment beds, which could hold seeds from the vanished marshes. This ecological legacy could be supplemented, says Alwash, by seeds and plants from the Hawizeh marsh. And because Saddam drained the marshes rather than filling them in, the original depressions and channels remain, ready to be reflooded. The marshes' dominant species–reed–is as tough as nails and may be easy to reintroduce to newly inundated lands, says Jeanne Christie, executive director of the Association of State Wetland Managers.

Yet a shattered ecosystem can never be fully reconstructed, wetlands experts say. "I prefer the term 'rehabilitated' to 'restored,' " says Thomas Crisman, director of the Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands at the University of Florida. " 'Restored' means putting it back the way it was–and that's unrealistic." He believes success should be defined as rebuilding a landscape that performs the same basic ecological functions as its predecessor, such as providing habitat for birds and fishes.

That's starting to happen in a few newly reflooded areas, although scientists worry that the meager flows in some spots could do more harm than good by creating lifeless ponds. But it will take determination–and a lot more water–to go further. "It's a great cause," says Duke's Richardson, "but it will take the political will of the new Iraqi government, the United States, and international organizations to make it happen."


Water World: Can Iraq's vast marshes be brought back to life?



"Saddam Hussein was a master 'brown field generator,'" said Richardson, referring to a term for environmental decimation. "He churned that country upside down. It looks like you let a child loose in a sand box with hand grenades." Of the three remnant marsh areas, he found the Central Marsh to be in the worst shape. "It's just a complete dust bowl," he said. Locals had broken a Hussein-built drainage dike in one area in an effort to return some water, but "nothing was growing there yet," except for a few remaining desert plants, he added. In another recently re-flooded area, too much salt had been drawn out of the long-dry soils to support freshwater vegetation, and this area was now turning into a salt-flat

His group found the Hammar Marsh area, nearest Basra, to still have some remaining lush areas where some stately date palms are still in cultivation. But Richardson said Hussein, in his vendetta against the Marsh Arabs, "basically wiped out" the local date palm industry, once the world's largest exporter. The largest remaining wetland areas are the Haweizeh Marshes along Iraq's border with Iran. That's where Richardson and his colleagues reached a place where locals had reintroduced their traditional water buffalos and were seen fishing.

While Marsh Arab villages are beginning to be reconstituted in areas adjacent to the Haweizeh marsh, in some cases reoccupying still-roofless former dwellings, "all of the communities we talked to are desperate for clean water," he reports. That's because rivers feeding the marsh areas are currently contaminated, and upstream utilities could take years to repair.

"They're having all these problems with poor water, and they're surrounded by the answer," he said. That's because, with the proper knowledge, Iraqi scientists and engineers could build special "constructed wetlands" within marsh areas, he added. By so engineering nature there, the filtering properties of natural vegetation could be harnessed to clean some of the polluted water.

Duke Ecologist Finds Devastation, Hope in Iraqi Marshes



That the Tigris and Euphrates should again carry water:
may An not change it.


That there should be rain in the skies and on the ground speckled barley:
may An not change it.


That there should be watercourses with water and fields with grain:
may An not change it.


That the marshes should support fish and fowl:
may An not change it.


That old reeds and fresh reeds should grow in the reed-beds:
may An not change it.


May An and Enlil not change it.


May Enki and Ninmah not change it.

Lament for Sumer and Urim (Ur) c. 1950 BC





Back to Part I of this article