Ruined Treasures in Babylon Await an Iraq Without Fighting
BABYLON, Iraq — In this ancient city, it is hard to tell what are ruins and what's just ruined.
Crumbling brick buildings, some 2,500 years old, look like smashed sand castles at the beach.
Famous sites, like the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens, are swallowed up by river reeds.
Signs of military occupation are everywhere, including trenches, bullet casings, shiny coils of razor wire and blast walls stamped, "This side Scud protection."
Babylon, the mud-brick city with the million-dollar name, has paid the price of war. It has been ransacked, looted, torn up, paved over, neglected and roughly occupied. Archaeologists said American soldiers even used soil thick with priceless artifacts to stuff sandbags.
But Iraqi leaders and United Nations officials are not giving up on it. They are working assiduously to restore Babylon, home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and turn it into a cultural center and possibly even an Iraqi theme park.
No one is saying this is going to happen anytime soon, but what makes the project even conceivable is that the area around Babylon is one of the safest in Iraq, a beacon of civilization, once again, in a land of chaos.
Ancient Babylon, celebrated as a fount of law, writing and urban living, sits just outside the modern-day city of Hilla, about 60 miles south of Baghdad. Hilla is neither haunted by Sunni insurgents nor overwhelmed by Shiite militias. And though it has a mix of Shiites and Sunnis, it has not been afflicted by the sectarian violence that has paralyzed so many other heterogeneous parts of Iraq.
Factories are churning, Iraqi security forces are patrolling and the streets pulsate with life — children bounding to school, crowds wading into markets, taxis gliding by.
Emad Lafta al-Bayati, Hilla's mayor, has big plans for Babylon. "I want restaurants, gift shops, long parking lots," he said.
God willing, he added, maybe even a Holiday Inn.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is pumping millions of dollars into protecting and restoring Babylon and a handful of other ancient ruins in Iraq. Unesco has even printed up a snazzy brochure, with Babylon listed as the premier destination, to hand out to wealthy donors.
"Cultural tourism could become Iraq's second biggest industry, after oil," said Philippe Delanghe, a United Nations official helping with the project.
But before Iraq becomes the next Egypt, he said wryly, "a few little things have to happen."
One of those, of course, is better security. The American military still maintains bases near Babylon, but next month, in a sign of how relatively stable the area has become, most troops will pull out and head north to Baghdad, where they are needed more.
Many Iraqis said it was about time. Occupying forces have been blamed for much of Babylon's recent demise.
Donny George, head of Iraq's board of antiquities, said that Polish troops dug trenches through an ancient temple and that American contractors paved over ruins to make a helicopter landing pad.
"How are we supposed to get rid of the helipad now?" Mr. George asked. "With jackhammers? Can you imagine taking a jackhammer to the remains of one of the most important cities in the history of mankind? I mean, come on, this is Babylon."
Babylon. Its name has had a magical ring since Hammurabi, the Babylonian king who ruled from 1792 B.C. to 1750 B.C. and is credited with handing down one of the first sets of codified law.
After Hammurabi, the city flourished again under King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled from around 605 B.C. to 562 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar is best known for the hanging gardens he supposedly built for his wife, who was from the mountains and missed all the green. Herodotus, the ancient Greek scholar, was so impressed that he wrote Babylon "surpasses in splendor any city in the known world."
The problem was, most of this splendor was made from mud. There was not a lot of stone handy in ancient Babylon, and its sun-dried brick monuments did not last like the Egyptian pyramids or the Roman Forum. As years passed and rivers swelled and desert sands shifted, Babylon crumbled.To make matters worse, colonial powers carted away some of the most precious artifacts that did survive. The Germans took the Ishtar Gate, the French grabbed ceramics and the Turks used the bricks, some of which still bore Nebuchadnezzar's name, to build dams on the Euphrates. Then Saddam Hussein arrived. And if anyone had big Babylon plans, he did.
Mr. Hussein started in 1985 with a project that was part restoration, part new construction and all ego. He imported thousands of Sudanese laborers (Iraqi men were tied up with the Iran-Iraq war) to build an ancient-looking palace right on top of Nebuchadnezzar's original one. Yellow brick walls 40 feet high and stamped with Mr. Hussein's name replaced the stumpy mounds of biblical-age mud.
To be fair, Mr. Hussein did shore up Processional Way, a wide boulevard of ancient stones, and the Lion of Babylon, a black rock sculpture around 2,500 years old.
After the Persian Gulf war in 1991, he commissioned a modern palace, again over some ruins, done in the pyramidal style of a Sumerian ziggurat. He called it Saddam Hill. In 2003, he was about to begin construction on a cable car line stretching over Babylon when a certain invasion got in the way.
American marines stormed up the Euphrates River valley on their way to Baghdad and turned Saddam Hill into a base. Their graffiti is still scrawled on the walls, including, "Hi Vanessa. I love you. From Saddam's palace" and "Cruz chillen' in Saddam's spot."
But more serious than that, archaeologists said, was the use of heavy equipment, like helicopters and armored vehicles, which may have pulverized fragile ruins just below the surface.
Mr. George, who was Mr. Hussein's field director for Babylon in 1986, said he remembered once scraping a few inches beneath the topsoil and unearthing a "wonderful little plate."
"So just imagine what we have lost," he said.
Looters did not help, either. After the invasion, a locust-like swarm of thieves descended on Iraq and picked clean countless historical sites. (Iraq has more than 10,000 of them.)
Babylon was not as badly hit as others, but many of its prized artifacts disappeared from museums. By the summer of 2003, cuneiform tablets, among the oldest examples of writing, were being sold on e-Bay.
Ancient artifacts and even bones have also ended up in sandbags filled by soldiers who were defending the site, according to an investigation by the British Museum in 2004.
Elizabeth Stone, an archaeologist at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, who is helping to restore Babylon, said troops "took big scoops out of major ruins."
According to a recent BBC report, an American Marine colonel said he was willing to apologize for the damage caused by American troops, but added that the ruins would have been worse off if no troops were there to protect them. Americans are now staying out of the site and allowing Iraqis to guard it.
Ms. Stone is spearheading a comprehensive damage assessment and using high-resolution satellite imagery to compare the ruins before and after the invasion. The plan is to present the results to Unesco, which hopes to completely restore Babylon and turn it into a shining gem of Iraqi tourism.
That seems a long way off. Today, the site is dominated by the two kitschy palaces Mr. Hussein built, some mud ruins, some deep holes and lots of barbed wire.
But even Mr. George is not dispirited. He is meeting regularly with archaeologists from around the world and laying plans for a cuneiform study center and a tourist village — to be erected outside the ancient city's borders, no doubt.
"One day millions of people will visit Babylon," he said. "I'm just not sure anybody knows when."
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