Oil and politics are ancient Babylon’s new curse
While the US holds Iraq’s Jewish archives, UNESCO and World Monuments Fund scholars are being denied access to the archaeological site
BABYLON, Iraq (AP) — Nowadays it seems that Babylon just can’t catch a break.
Once the center of the ancient world, it has been despoiled in modern times by Saddam Hussein’s fantasies of grandeur, invading armies and village sprawl.
Now come two more setbacks for the city famous for its Hanging Gardens and Tower of Babel: Parts of its grounds have been torn up for an oil pipeline, and a diplomatic spat is hampering its bid for coveted UNESCO heritage status.
The pipeline was laid in March by Iraq’s Oil Ministry, overriding outraged Iraqi archaeologists and drawing a rebuke from UNESCO, the global guardian of cultural heritage.
Then Iraq’s tourism minister blocked official visits to the site by the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based group that is helping Babylon secure a World Heritage site designation after three rejections.
It’s payback for an unrelated dispute with the US over the fate of Iraq’s Jewish archives, rescued from a waterlogged basement after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and taken to the US
It’s payback for an unrelated dispute with the US over the fate of Iraq’s Jewish archives, rescued from a waterlogged basement after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and taken to the US.
“I will make Babylon a desolate place of owls, filled with swamps and marshes. I will sweep the land with the broom of destruction,” God warns in Isaiah 14:22-23.
Today desolation and destruction are all too evident.
Uncontrolled digging, paving and building have resulted from Saddam Hussein’s heavy-handed attempt to replicate the splendor of a city dating back nearly 4,000 years.
Since his downfall foreign troops have camped in parts of Babylon’s 10 square kilometers (four square miles). Growing villages are spilling onto its grounds and rising groundwater threatens the ancient mud brick ruins in the roughly 20 percent of its area that has been excavated over the past century.
“It’s a mess and there are a load of problems,” said Jeffrey Allen, a consultant for the World Monuments Fund. “A lot of this feeling you get from a major archaeological site is missing from Babylon.”
Babylon, straddling the Euphrates River some 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of Baghdad, was both a testament to human ingenuity and a symbol of false pride and materialism.
It produced two of the major kings of antiquity — Hammurabi, author of one of the world’s oldest written legal codes, and Nebuchadnezzar II, conqueror of Jerusalem in 597 BCE.
With towering temples and luxurious palaces, Babylon was transformed by Nebuchadnezzar into the largest city of its time. His Hanging Gardens, according to legend a multilevel horticultural gift to his homesick wife, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
Babylon is mentioned dozens of times in the Bible, which tells the story of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the Jewish temple and enslavement of the Jews. Pop lyrics were inspired by the verse capturing the Jews’ pain of exile: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion” (Psalms 37-1).
Visitors would have to struggle to imagine the ancient city once nestled among date plantations
Visitors would have to struggle to imagine the ancient city once nestled among date plantations.
There are still palms, but otherwise Saddam’s works overpower the scene — modern brick and mortar on brittle ruins, a wide thoroughfare and a new palace for the latter-day despot.
After he was toppled, coalition forces camped on the grounds for 20 months, according to a 2009 UNESCO report. It said they dug trenches, spread gravel and damaged parts of Babylon’s famed Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way.
The new oil pipeline runs 1.7 meters (six feet) under Babylon for about 1.5 kilometers (a mile), alongside two other pipelines dug in the Saddam era.
The Oil Ministry says no artifacts were found during the digging, and that the new pipeline is needed to ease energy. Spokesman Assem Jihad said the ministry is looking for an alternative route, but needs time. “I think this issue was blown out of proportion,” he said.
The antiquities department has nonetheless sued the ministry, demanding it remove the pipeline. UNESCO said it wrote to the Iraqi authorities, expressing concern.
Meanwhile, the World Monuments Fund is trying to help authorities protect the ruins from rising groundwater caused by the government’s irrigation policies, said Allen, the group’s Babylon site manager.
The WMF is training Iraqi staff and helping to prepare Babylon’s bid for UNESCO recognition. Previously, the Saddam-era reconstructions were a major obstacle to getting the nod.
Allen said one option is to embrace some of Babylon’s flaws and nominate the site as a “cultural landscape,” which would include some of Saddam’s additions, such as his hilltop palace.
But now the WMF itself has fallen foul of officialdom. Iraq’s government decided several months ago to suspend ties with US universities and institutions involved in archaeology in Iraq.
It’s part of a long-running dispute over the fate of the Iraqi Jewish archives. The trove of books, photos and religious items were found in Baghdad by US troops and taken to the US for study and preservation under an agreement with Iraqi authorities that stipulated they would be returned.
Tourism Minister Liwa Smaysin alleges that the US sent some of the artifacts to Israel for an exhibition, a claim denied both by the US State Department and Israel’s Antiquities Authority
But Iraqi authorities grew impatient to get them back, and now Tourism Minister Liwa Smaysin alleges that the US sent some of the artifacts to Israel for an exhibition, a claim denied both by the US State Department and Israel’s Antiquities Authority. The US says the archives will eventually be returned to Iraq.
Allen said he was recently prevented from visiting the site. WMF officials expressed hope the measures are temporary and that the group can continue some of its work.
Qais Rashid, head of Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, said the government also called off a US training course for employees of the antiquities department.
“This is a big loss for us, the frozen relations,” he said.
But he also argued that Babylon will remain a top archaeological attraction, regardless of its formal designation.
“If it’s not listed, it’s not a big deal,” he said. “Babylon can survive on its own.”
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Mazin Yahya in Baghdad contributed reporting.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.
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