Back to Babylon Some See `Re-Creation' of Fabled Ancient City by Saddam as More Disney Than Mesopotamia

Article excerpt

Over the millennia, many calamities have struck this cradle of civilization, site of the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and place of the captivity of the Jews.

It was disastrous in 538 B.C., when Babylon fell to elephant-riding Persian imperialists, and 200 years of decay set in. But among the worst indignities inflicted, some experts say, was when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein set out to re-create the ancient glories of Babylon according to his own imagination.

Under Saddam's reign, a new Babylon is rising, but probably not one that that Hammurabi or Nebuchadnezzar would recognize.

The Euphrates River, which once bisected the square inner core of Babylon, long ago changed course and now lies well to the west. In its place is a concrete ditch with shallow, murky water.

Nearby, a new Ishtar Gate, barely half the size of the original, now stands, decorated with friezes of bulls, dragons and lions executed in enameled, colored brick. The effect is more Disneyland than Mesopotamia.

And what remains of a broad boulevard known as Procession Street is now barely discernible - as a narrow dirt path overgrown with weeds. In its place, a new stone path leads up to the Ishtar Gate.

Inside the gate, over the crumbled remains of Babylon's original double row of defensive walls, the Iraqis have put up new walls, perhaps 60 feet tall or higher. The neatly cut bricks are bright yellow - and were clearly mass-produced in a modern factory. Each brick bears Hussein's name.

Aside from the reconstructed Ishtar Gate, the new double walls and a few temples and other replicas, the site is little more than a vast expanse of arid mounds and hills, occasionally dotted by the crumbling remains of original brickwork.

The place is eerily still under the hot sun. On a tour one recent afternoon, a visitor saw no other tourists. And the Nebuchadnezzar Museum was padlocked - until a gift-store owner shuffled over to open the heavy wooden doors.

"It's the sanctions," the merchant said dismissively, referring to the economic sanctions, which include a ban on air traffic into and out of Iraq. Later, a busload of bedraggled Jordanians arrived to tour Babylon.

Despite the paucity of visitors, the site is strewn with a surprising amount of trash - and even some graffiti.

Actually, the first indications that little remains of old Babylon - and the extent to which the present now intrudes upon the past - emerge well before one reaches Babylon, about 60 miles south of Baghdad.

No matter what direction one approaches the city from, it is impossible to miss the bigger-than-life billboards of Hussein, the new guardian of Babylon.

It was under Nebuchadnezzar II that Babylon attained its greatest glory. …