Ruins a memento of Iraqi Christians' glorious past





A hundred meters (yards) or so from taxiing airliners, Iraqi archaeologist Ali al-Fatli is showing a visitor around the delicately carved remains of a church that may date back some 1,700 years to early Christianity.

The church, a monastery and other surrounding ruins have emerged from the sand over the past five years with the expansion of the airport serving the city of Najaf, and have excited scholars who think this may be Hira, a legendary Arab Christian center.

"This is the oldest sign of Christianity in Iraq," said al-Fatli, pointing to the ancient tablets with designs of grapes that litter the sand next to intricately carved monastery walls.

The site's discovery in 2007 and its subsequent neglect are symbolic of a Christianity that has long enriched this country, and is now in decline as hundreds of thousands have fled the violence that followed the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

At the same time, the circumstances of the find reflect a renaissance for Najaf, a holy Shiite Muslim city. The airport expansion that revealed the ruins was needed because Najaf attracts multitudes of pilgrims.

The ruins left in the baking heat are within the airport perimeter and relatively safe from vandals and looters. The site's stone crosses and larger artifacts have been moved to the National Museum in Baghdad.

For al-Fatli, it's all very tantalizing. "I know if we were to work more, we will find more and similar churches," he said.

But there is no money to mount a proper dig, he laments. In a country where bombings constantly kill people and much of the populace lacks reliable electricity or clean water, archaeological preservation is a low priority...

Historians believe Hira was founded around 270 A.D., grew into a major force in Mesopotamia centuries before the advent of Islam, and reputedly was a cradle of Arabic script...



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