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
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
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. …