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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

A view from the bridge that spans millennia and cultural and physical divides is a particularly inspiring one

The rebuilding of the world's first known bridge in Tello, Iraq, is a potent symbol of a nation emerging from war, writes Jonathan Gornall

Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi. Andrew Henderson / The National
Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi. Andrew Henderson / The National

As poets from the schools of the sublime (Longfellow) and the ridiculous (McGonagall) have noted, bridges are possessed of a special quality. On one level they are nothing more or less than a practical engineering solution to the problem of how to get from an A to a B, separated by the natural barrier of a chasm, river, lake or even sea.

On another level, however, even the most basic of bridges is somehow imbued with a meaning and even a magical quality that transcend the mundanity of its functionality.

The meaning is that bridges are signifiers, symbols of an age-old and uniquely human will to overcome natural impediments to progress and economic development.

The magic stems from the elevated perspective afforded by the view from a bridge. Up there, horizons are more expansive and the world looks different. The view from a bridge can raise the spirits and inspire.

Bridges – or perhaps, the urge to build them with beauty as well as concrete and steel in the mix – can also speak volumes about the breadth of the vision of the bridge builders.

When Abu Dhabi commissioned the Baghdad-born architect Zaha Hadid to create Sheikh Zayed Bridge, it was no accident that the elegant structure linking Abu Dhabi Island and the mainland towered over the site of the former Maqta crossing, the simple, flooding-prone causeway that until the late 1960s was the emirate’s only land link to the outside world.

As Sheikh Khalifa, the President of the UAE, remarked during the ribbon-cutting ceremony in November 2010, the sinuous, 842-metre-long bridge was “more than a link between two points”. It was “a symbol for the continuous development process started by the late Sheikh Zayed”.

Abu Dhabi has no shortage of such symbolic bridges. When the Sheikh Khalifa bridge and highway linking Saadiyat Island and Abu Dhabi’s Corniche opened in October the previous year, the panorama that greeted drivers revealed for the first time the full extent of the emirate’s ambitions, crystalised in a 30km-long crescent of development unifying the city and its once barren outlying islands with the mainland.

Such was the breathtaking view, which served to remind nationals and expatriates alike that they were part of the grandest of projects, that the fact the commute from Dubai to downtown Abu Dhabi had just become a whole lot easier seemed like a mere bonus.

In human myth, legend and religion, bridges have always served as powerful symbols, promising passage to a better place, in this world or the next, though rarely without first obliging us to confront existential truths about ourselves.

Indeed, in one of the hadiths, or sayings, attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, As-Sirat is a slippery, razor-thin bridge that believers will cross “as quickly as the wink of an eye, some others as quick as lightning, a strong wind, fast horses or she-camels" while the less virtuous “will fall down into hell”.

Small wonder, then, that with this long pedigree of symbolic awe and wonder, an ancient bridge built by long-forgotten human hands is emerging from the sands of time in Iraq as a ready-made symbol of the rebirth of the country after years of war and suffering that have laid low an entire people and their proud culture.

The bridge at modern-day Tello in the south of Iraq is not just any old bridge. In fact, it is the world’s oldest and, like so much of the country’s vast cultural inheritance, it occupies a special pedestal in the pantheon of human progress and development and bears witness to Mesopotamia’s undisputed status as the cradle of civilisation.

The bridge, part of the infrastructure of the ancient Sumerian city of Girsu, was constructed 4,000 years ago to span a now long-vanished waterway. It remained lost until its rediscovery in 1929 by French archaeologists, who at the time could not fathom the purpose of the “enigmatic construction” they had unearthed.

Only fresh research at the site over the past few years, backed by high-tech analysis of drone photography and recently declassified satellite imagery, has revealed that the structure, once thought to have been some kind of dam or even an unusual temple, was in fact the world’s first known bridge.

Since its initial excavation 90 years ago, the bridge has remained exposed and neglected. Its plight came to the attention of the British Museum’s Iraq emergency heritage management training scheme, set up with British government funding in 2015 to respond to the destruction of heritage sites by ISIS – and never has the overworked phrase “building bridges” been more appropriately applied.

In April eight heritage professionals from the Mosul region travelled to London for training at the British Museum in the latest techniques in archaeological fieldwork and emergency archaeology. This week, they return to Iraq to join the effort to protect the bridge and to continue excavations at the site.

All eight are women and their participation in the programme represents another step in the evolution of Iraqi society, one that would have filled the late Hadid with joy.

As the first woman to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize and to be awarded a gold medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects, she would surely have understand both the symbolic meaning of the bridge at Tello and the significance of breakthrough roles for women.

The trainees will be taking part in work at the site which is dedicated to ensuring all Iraqis have the opportunity to engage with their remarkable heritage, in the land where that heritage was forged. It is a scheme no less significant than the UAE's commitment, announced in April, to make good some of the destruction wrought by ISIS by funding the rebuilding of the Great Mosque of Al Nuri in Mosul.

Excavations in the vicinity of the ancient bridge have already unearthed artefacts from the fifth millennium BC which, in the words of the British Museum, “contain a wealth of information on the origins of Girsu and, consequently, the birth of urban centres in Mesopotamia, one of the earliest known civilisations”. And those treasures, unlike the tens of thousands of artefacts “liberated” by imperialist archaeologists and residing today in the museums of the western world, will remain in Iraq and go on display in its own institutions, including the Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.

There are ambitious plans for the bridge and the region in which it stands – an area where the once powerful Sumerian city states vied for supremacy, in the process laying the foundations for our modern, urban way of life and leaving behind extensive evidence of their times in the tens of thousands of cuneiform-inscribed tablets unearthed over the decades, each one a witness to the birth and evolution of writing.

The bridge, says the British Museum, is “a potent symbol of a nation emerging from decades of war and of a brighter future for the Iraqi people”. One day, it says, the site could be “welcoming tourists from around the globe to learn about Iraq’s rich heritage” – and one day soon. A new visitor centre is planned that will explain in Arabic and English how the bridge has contributed to world history and it is anticipated that tour groups from outside Iraq could begin to visit as early as 2020.

Bridges don’t just link places. They bring together people and ideas and can span cultural as well as physical divides. They are also capable of elevating the outlook and perspective of those who cross them and the view from this particular bridge, the world’s oldest human-built connection between A and B, is a particularly inspiring one.

Jonathan Gornall is a regular contributor to The National and the author of How To Build A Boat, published on June 28