Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Nameless Towers

I went to Catholic school when I was a kid, and I remember sitting in convocation one morning and listening to the priest tell us a Bible story about some long-forgotten city in the Old Testament. I can’t even remember the details of the story, but it was pretty interesting, and the ancient city sounded pretty neat. It still seemed almost make-believe, though. History books “weather” events. What in our generation may receive lengthy attention, our kids will learn only little about in a few short paragraphs. Details get lost along the way, which is sad. This old city seemed about as real as a fairy tale.

Ten years later, though, I was sitting in that same ancient city in Iraq, and all I could think about was that sermon I’d heard. It all came back to me; the people, the streets, the open markets, and everything that happened in the story. It wasn’t just a tale anymore, but real. I could run my fingers along the same stone walls and walk along the same cobbled roads as the ancients had thousands of years earlier. It came alive to me. The whole country was like that.

People have the impression that Iraq is just some miserable, dust-filled wasteland, that there is nothing more than miles of sand, the occasional mud hut, and a profusion of people trying to kill us. They forget it was the cradle of civilization. Time itself, or at least the self awareness of its passage, began there. It’s not ugly; it’s beautiful. You feel like you’ve stepped into history itself. Not a history book, but history itself.

Almost every small town is a “tell.” Some places look like they’re built on hills, but those are actually the ruins of countless civilizations that settled there, built their legacy, and slowly died off to be replaced by another. You could consider the whole country an archeological dig. This is a land full of cities that Heroditus wrote about. We like to talk about our great grandfathers and how they rode horses when they were kids, but here – some people still do. It’s another world; an exotic one.

When we moved north of Baghdad, we ended up crossing the Tigris river and getting assigned to an old Iraqi Army ammo depot in the middle of nowhere. The place was truly vast. Our job was to guard it and catalogue all the munitions, which was going to take forever. We ended up building a base from scraps and other stuff we scrounged up. It wasn’t big at all, but only large enough to hold our company. I remember making a sign for the front gate with nothing more than markers and a piece of plywood. I think I did okay, considering I didn’t have anything else to work with. We named it Camp Tinderbox for some reason.

Now and then, we’d run missions another base, and people would ask us where we were from. We’d tell them Camp Tinderbox, and they’d look at us like we were stupid. It was like a joke for us. We’d been banished to the obscurest depths of Iraq. But you know, I liked that little base. It was small, mostly quiet, and everybody left us alone usually. When we left a few months later, I never heard anything about it again. I don’t even know if it still exists.

I remember once that some pontoon bridge broke free and washed down the Tigris, so they sent us out to look for the missing pieces downriver. We drove for hours not seeing anything, and eventually we stopped at a cluster of about five houses along the water’s edge. There really wasn’t much else. Somehow the command knew that this was where we’d find the pieces of the bridge, so we waited for a little bit, but didn’t see anything.

After we waited for awhile, we pushed north into the desert to set up a secure perimeter and continue standing by. I figured we’d just park in a wadi, but as we’re driving away from the river, we suddenly saw an enormous structure like a fortress.

Huge stone columns formed a row of arches that surrounded an area ten times larger than a football field, and in the middle of the field was a tower. It looked exactly like all those Biblical paintings of the Tower of Babel – a gigantic round building with an external ramp spiraling all the way to the top. It was at least six stories tall, and at the top was a little covered balcony or something. I wondered how many westerners have ever seen it.

It was completely silent at that place. There were no nearby houses, no water sources, nothing. Just this huge tower sitting in a middle of a field, and surrounded by the pallisade of arches. It was absolutely beautiful. I took a few pictures of it, and before long, we left.

I’m going to go back there someday. It’s not a matter of if, but when. It may be ten years from now when it’s quieter and safer, but I need to go back. I fell in love with that place, and other places, too. Monolithic ruins randomly scattered throughout a country steeped in history.

For millennia, men have assembled on those hills and charged against the conscripts of other nearby city-states. They’ve struggled to bring life from the dirt and create lush, irrigated floodplains. They built cities on their predecessors’ ruins. And some parts survived all the changes – stark reminders to a time in history when monuments were built with the enslaved masses of those defeated in war. It’s mesmerizing.

It’s hard to explain, but I feel like history came alive for me over there. I still get goose bumps whenever I think about it. My biggest regret is not paying closer attention to the names of the places we went, and also not learning more about the history before we deployed. I was busy with other things, I guess, but I still wish I’d paid closer attention. I was always asking where we were, but nobody ever really knew. I want to see those places and those rivers again. I like to think of it as a strange marriage between us, the present, and distant, ancient history. It’s part of me now, and I have to see it again. I want my children to see it, too, and their children. I don’t really want to live there, but I want to go back. I need to know the name of that tower, and I need to know why it’s there. I want my children to remember.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. Yeah, you are already back there. Mentally.

  2. The name Iraq means country with deep roots.

    If you stumble upon The Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, the Tower of Babel, Nebuchadnezzar's Palace, will you call me?