FOR THE PAST month, allied forces have steadily bombed the lands where humanity took the first steps to make itself civilized. Sometimes, underneath the barrage of military reports, one hears the names of antiquity -- Nineveh . . . Ur . . . Babylon . . . -- names whispered like reproaches from older, wiser relatives.
Archaeologists say there are tens of thousands of archaeological sites in Iraq, a country roughly the size of California. The world's earliest cities flourished in the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In certain parts of the country, scholars say, every hill contains buried treasures. They fear this war's ability to destroy the past as well as the present.
"It's the most archaeologically rich country in the world, as far as information. Maybe as far as objects of beauty, other places can make that claim. But as far as telling us who we were and what the human species has accomplished, there is no place with greater potential than Iraq," says Paul Zimansky, professor of archaeology at Boston University.
Signs of human activity in the region date back as far as 100,000 years. It was here, in ancient Mesopotamia, that humans invented the wheel and developed writing. Sites in Iraq hold critical explanations of how hunters and gatherers became farmers, how they planned and built cities, how they created civilizations which had calendars and monuments.
Despite its importance, the region has never captured the popular imagination as successfully as Egypt or Greece, says Johns Hopkins scholar Jerrold Cooper.
"The sites are not interesting to look at except where things have been restored, like the ziggurat [a Mesopotamian temple tower] partially reconstructed at Ur," Cooper says. "These temples were built of mud brick and in their ruined state look like piles of dirt, in contrast with the majestic stone ruins of Egypt or Greece,. . . which partially explains why we are less aware of the glories of Iraq's antiquities."
Head of the Near Eastern Studies department at Hopkins, Cooper is one of two dozen American scholars who work with ancient Mesopotamian documents in their original language. The future of his field depends upon the safety of thousands of ancient clay tablets stored in the Iraq Museum in Baghdad and at various archaeological sites. Scholars say undeciphered cuneiform documents may range from property lists to unknown works of literature and poetry -- records of some of humanity's early achievements.
Many dread the loss of treasures they have begun to reclaim. In the ancient city of Babylon, for instance, there's the reconstruction of the palace of Nebudchadnezzar, known for its "hanging gardens" on terraced balconies. There are also remains of the Tower of Babel, the greatest architectural wonder of the ancient world. Ur, fabled birthplace of Abraham, has the world's best-preserved ziggurat.
Scholars have reported that many ancient ruins are perilously close to sites which the allied forces might target for bombing. Some of the sites at risk include:
* Nineveh, ancient capital of the Assyrian empire, is close to Al Mawsil, which has air bases and weapons factories. An 80-foot high mound containing many of the ruins at Nineveh has an oil storage tank on it. It also hosted anti-aircraft guns during the Iran-Iraq war because it was the highest spot for miles, according to University of Chicago scholars.
* The largest mosque in ancient Islam was at Samarra. Modern Samarra, which overlaps the site of the ancient city, has a chemical weapons plant.
* The 6,000-year-old site at Ur lies within view of an air base in southern Iraq. Ur has a partly reconstructed ziggurat which is roughly 4,000 years old.
* The brick arch of Ctesiphon, (86 feet wide and 105 feet high) is the world's highest remaining arch from ancient times. The 1,700-year-old structure is already cracked and in extremely delicate condition. It would not require a direct hit to damage it. Reports place it near a nuclear reactor.
* The Iraq Museum in Baghdad, home to the world's most fabulous Mesopotamian treasures, is near the railroad station as well as the television and radio station and two major bridges.
* Erbil, in northern Iraq, is one of the world's longest continuously inhabited cities. Its first settlements, contained under a mound in the center of the city, date back to 6,000 B.C. It is also near military targets.
Zimansky and his wife, Dr. Elizabeth Stone of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, supervised one of the handful of American archaeological expeditions in Iraq last year. (The country also hosted many teams from Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan.) Before the war, the couple had planned to spend the next 20 years excavating the site of the lost city of Mashkan-shapir, 95 miles south of Baghdad.
Although many scholars fear for the safety of individual sites, they are more apprehensive about the treasures of the Iraq Museum, a museum comparable in importance to the Louvre or the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Along with the Cairo Museum, it contains the best records of the world's earliest civilizations.
Since its founding in the 1920s, the Iraq Museum has become the world's most varied repository of Mesopotamian treasures, ranging from spectacular golden jewelry to the world's earliest written documents. It also contains giant winged Assyrian lions -- remains of a relief from the palace of Sargon -- and temple facades which date back several thousand years before the time of Christ.
"The Iraq Museum has everything that has been excavated from Mesopotamia since the 1950s," says Stone. "There have been reports to the effect that it has been evacuated, but some very large sculptures there would be at risk."
So would thousands of years of knowledge on tablets awaiting study.
Cooper doubts that the war -- or the instability of the Middle East -- will turn away potential archaeologists; he says the profession attracts a low number of applicants because of its chronic lack of jobs.
"Field work in the Near East is always tricky; some of my friends built careers in Iran and now have had to relocate their areas of activity," he says. "I don't think that American archaeologists will be getting to Iraq for a while, though, which is a shame because it took a lot of time and effort to build relationships to the point where Americans could field six different expeditions in recent years."
"At the moment, archaeology in general is on hold. My fear is that we're not going to be able to recover from this too easily," Zimansky says. "In the short run, nothing, literally, is going to happen. And I hope they won't be against foreign archaeologists working there in the long run.
The Iraqis have been very generous at making their cultural resources available to us."
"The Iraqis have been particularly good about not blaming archaeologists for the policies of our government," Stone says, "But if our landlords have had their children killed by Americans, we'll be dealing with something quite different."