Can Babylon's Past Be Rescued?

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), November 16, 2008 | Go to article overview

Can Babylon's Past Be Rescued?


Byline: Associated Press

BABYLON, Iraq It was one of the worlds first, greatest cities a place where astronomers mapped the stars millennia ago and kings created an early code of law and planted what became known as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Yet little remains of the ancient capital, as seen by The Associated Press during a trip to Babylon last month on one of the few permits issued by Iraqs government since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The site has the aura of a theme park touched by the ambition of dictator Saddam Hussein and the opportunism of looters: Modern walkways run beside crumbling old walls, a reconstructed Greek theater and a palace built for Saddam atop an artificial hill.

Now, for the first time, global institutions led by the U.N. are thoroughly documenting the damage and how to fix it. A UNESCO report due out early next year will cite Saddams construction but focus, at the Iraqi governments request, on damage done by U.S. forces from April to September 2003 and the Polish troops deployed there for more than a year afterward.

The U.S., which turned Babylon into a military base, says the looting would have been worse but for the troops presence. The U.S. also says it will help rehabilitate Babylon, funding an effort by the World Monuments Fund and Iraqs State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, but has yet to release precise funding figures.

Archaeologists say they hope the effort will lead someday to new digging to follow up on the excavations done by a German team in the early 1900s.

"The site is tremendously important," said Gaetano Palumbo of the New York City-based World Monuments Fund. Yet in its present state, Babylon is "hardly understandable, as a place where so much happened in history."

Past excavations focused on the monuments such as temples. But domestic quarters remain largely unexplored, Palumbo said, and new methods could reveal new facts or reinterpret findings from excavations done 100 years ago.

For decades, Babylon has been virtually off-limits to the world whose culture it helped create.

First came Saddams attempt to create a major tourist attraction aimed at glorifying his own image, which led to shoddy reconstruction of ancient sites and construction of restaurants and other facilities in the 1980s. Most international experts stayed away because of the regimes reputation, the eight-year war with Iran and U.N. sanctions.

Next, Babylon suffered in the chaotic days after Saddams downfall in 2003, at roughly the same time that Baghdads national museum was looted. …

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