Mythical Garden of Eden now a wasteland
Al-Qurna - AFP - April 12:
It is believed to be the Garden of Eden, the mythic place where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers join, the cradle of mankind where Adam came to pray to God.
Today it is a desolate wasteland of excrement, cracked paving stones and bullet holes. The eucalyptus known as Adam's tree, a place of holy pilgrimage for Christians, Muslims and Jews alike, stands bleached and dead.
"Once we believed it to be a little parcel of paradise on earth," said Qassem Khalif, an English teacher.
"Every generation was taught that this was the true Garden of Eden and this was Adam's tree, the place where he first spoke to God. Now, as you can see for yourself, it is ruined, there is no respect, no humanity, no..."
He struggled for the words. "No loving or kindness."
Whether you believe the holy tradition or not, Mesopotamia, the fertile crescent between the watery junction of Euphrates and the Tigris, was home to the first modern man.
It was here that the alphabet was invented and our days divided into 24 hours. It was here where the first epic poems were composed to hand down our collective history, and where we learned how to cultivate crops.
And it was here that Saddam Hussein's Baath party built a shrine in the 1970s, in this village known as Al-Qurna, trying to capitalise on the tourists who poured here in pilgrimage.
But within years the war had been begun with next-door Iran, remembered here by a shelter sandbagged against attack. The site fell into neglect and disrepair. The walls and floor of the shrine are now cracked and warped.
Beneath the Garden is a mudflat polluted with urban waste where children fight packs of mangy dogs before plunging in to swim and fish.
"Since those years Iraq has been all but closed. It is so foolish. How can the Garden of Eden be closed?" Khalif said.
"Look at what is left. It is a tragedy. We feel ashamed for we are its keepers. It is our truest hope that when peace comes to Iraq, the people of the world will come back here and pray again at Adam's tree," he said.
In the wake of the last Gulf War, Saddam made the region a victim of his scorched earth policy, punishment for the southern support of British and American forces and the failed uprising against him.
The ruling Baath drained the water and destroyed the life of the indigenous Marsh Arabs, descendants of the ancient people of Sumeria and Babylon.
It was rudely disguised as a feat of civil engineering designed to turn the salty marshes into cultivable farmland but the world saw it as no more than revenge.
Now after another war, British troops from the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment are greeted with waves and applause. They covered the army vehicles with pink frangipani and vibrant orange marigolds.
Ragged children ran from their fields, often with bundles of wood or tin pails of water on their heads while village elders waited on the corners to applaud the convoys.
Some homes, standing on emerald-green inlets and bounded by fragile fences of plaited rush, flew the white flag of surrender but it was unnecessary.
Children followed the troops carnival fashion and asked them to enter the Garden but they declined.
Major Mike Murdoch, the Royal Irish officer who took control of Al Qurna in the immediate hours after Saddam's rule here was ended, said: "It is no place for uniforms and weapons, it should never have been and it will not be now."
"For his actions we are grateful," said Khalif.
"We, the people of Al Qurna, believe this is a special place and it is our earnest hope that one day it will be restored to glory. For the glory of the Garden of Eden is the glory of God."