In this ancient city, it is hard to tell what are ruins and what is just ruined.
Crumbling mud-brick buildings, some 2,500 years old, look like smashed sandcastles at the beach. Signs of military occupation are everywhere: trenches, bullet casings, shiny coils of razor wire and blast walls stamped “This side Scud protection.”
Babylon, the 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 had even used soil thick with priceless artifacts to stuff sandbags.
But Iraqi leaders and UN officials are not giving up on it. They are working assiduously to restore Babylon, home to the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. They want to turn it into a cultural center and possibly even an Iraqi theme park.
No one is saying it is going to happen any time soon, but what makes the Pollyannaish project even conceivable is that the area around Babylon is amongthe safest in Iraq, a beacon of civilization once again in a land of much chaos.
Ancient Babylon, celebrated as a fount of law, writing and urban living, sits just outside the modern city of Hilla, about 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, south of Baghdad. Hilla is neither haunted by Sunni insurgents nor overwhelmed by Shiite militia and, while it is home to both Shiites and Sunnis, it has not been afflicted by the sectarianviolence that has paralyzed so many other parts of Iraq.
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 UN Educational, Scientific andCultural Organization is pumping millions of dollars into Babylon and a handful of other sites. It has even printed a snazzy brochure to give to wealthy donors. “Cultural tourism could become Iraq’s second biggest industry, after oil,” explained 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 U.S. military maintains bases near Babylon but next month, in a sign of how stable the area has become, most troops will 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 Polish troops dug trenches through an ancient temple and American contractors paved over ruins to make a helicopter landing pad.
“How are we supposed to get rid of the helipad now?” 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 time immemorial. The history begins with Hammurabi, the Babylonian king who ruled from 1792 to 1750 B.C. and is credited with one of the first sets of codified law.
After Hammurabi, Babylon fell to the Hittites. But a mere thousand years later, the city flourished again under the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled from around 605 to 562 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar is best known for thehanging gardens he supposedly built for his wife, who was from the mountains and missed greenery.
Herodotus, the ancient Greek scholar, was so wowed that he wrote Babylon “surpasses in splendor any city in the known world.” But most of the splendor was made from mud. There was not a lot of stone handy in Babylon, and its sun- dried mud-brick monuments did not last like the Egyptian pyramids or the Roman Forum. As 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, theFrench 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.
He started in 1985 with a project thatwas part restoration, part new construction and all ego. He imported thousands of Sudanese laborers – Iraqis were tied up with the Iran-Iraq war – to build an ancient-looking palace right on top of Nebuchadnezzar’s original one. Walls more than 12 meters high and stamped with Saddam’s name replaced the stumpy mounds of biblical-age mud. To be fair, Saddam did shore up Processional Way, a wide boulevard of ancient stones, and the Lion of Babylon, a black rock sculpture about 2,500 years old.
After the first Gulf War, 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 beginconstruction on a cable car line stretching over Babylon when the U.S. invasion got in the way.
U.S. 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 graffiti, archaeologists said,was the use of heavy equipment in the area, like helicopters and armored vehicles, which may have pulverized fragile ruins just below the surface.
George, who was 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 swarm of thieves descended on Iraq and picked clean countless of Iraq’s more than 10,000 historic sites. Babylon was not as badly hit as others, but many of its prized artifacts disappeared from museums. By summer 2003, cuneiform tablets, among the oldest examples of writing, were being sold on E-bay.
But even George is not dispirited.”One day millions of people will visitBabylon,” he said. “I’m just not sure anybody knows when.”