Oil vs Antiques: Pipeline across Ancient Babylon Threatens Centuries-Old Antiquities

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A savage controversy over safeguarding the irreplaceable architectural treasures of ancient Babylon has been sparked over the future of a petroleum product pipeline, which would cut through that cradle of civilisation. The Baghdad government backs the project and although it makes valid medium-term economic sense, specialists fear it could ruin priceless antiques that may well lie just inches beneath unexplored ground in an area rich in history.

The implications of the issue are enormous. They involve interests throughout the Arab World and beyond, raising questions over the responsibility of regional powers for the cultural inheritance of all humanity.

For many years, the defunct regime of Saddam Hussein sought to persuade the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to list that home of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon--one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, believed to have been built by a great king as a token of love for his wife--as a World Heritage Site. Its applications were persistently rejected because of the regime's poor standards of care for the antiquities. And the last Gulf War has done enormous further damage to the site.

Iraq is still campaigning for a UNESCO listing. But the controversy over the pipeline could once again postpone a decision indefinitely. Yet the route of the pipeline may still be altered at this late stage of the debate.

The ruthlessly plundered architectural remains of Babylon, the capital of ancient Mesopotamia, lie some 55 miles south of Baghdad. The site is near the ruins of the legendary Tower of Babel built at the dawn of civilisation to challenge the heavens. The seat of power of two renowned rulers of antiquity--Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC) and Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 BC)--the city has been excavated very inadequately for over two centuries.

This was the first modern city as we know it, organised around palaces, places of worship and other community centres along carefully laid-out streets. Babylon was the birthplace of modern architecture, writing and recorded law. The beauty of the city once moved the Prophet Jeremiah to describe it as "a golden cup in the Lord's hands ... that has made the whole earth drunk."

The new one-mile petroleum products pipeline crossing the Babylon site was completed in March to be launched into service in June. It is intended to supply 45,000 barrels of fuel a day for domestic consumption from refineries in Basra that lie further to the south and will supplement two existing dilapidated pipelines that have been in operation over the past three decades. The Iraq Ministry of Oil describes the new line as a "strategic" link essential to the projected, sustained development of the country's hydrocarbon exports to rival even those of Saudi Arabia and Russia within the foreseeable future. (Iraq's rapidly rising oil exports reached a record 2.508m barrels a day in April.)

Nevertheless, the authorities have just announced their preparedness to rebuild the pipeline to bypass the sensitive Babylon site after the State Board of Antiques and Heritage launched legal action against the oil ministry. …