Babylon, world wonder and jewel of Iraq’s national narrative

Author: 
AFP
ID: 
1562451534835290300
Sun, 2019-07-07 01:18

HILLA, IRAQ: Babylon was once hanging gardens and opulent
temples before parts were excavated and smuggled to Europe. A
bastion for Saddam Hussein, then the forces overthrowing him. A
center of enlightenment, repeatedly destroyed.
Like Iraq, the 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian city has borne witness
to the heights of grandeur and lows of destruction, a long legacy
now recognized on the UN list of World Heritage sites.
The World Heritage Committee met on Friday in Azerbaijan’s
capital of Baku and voted to include Babylon on the prestigious
list, a rank Iraqi authorities had been lobbying since 1983 to
reach.
Hundreds of kilometers away, under the setting summer sun,
38-year-old Farzad Salehi walked in awe with a friend and their
guide along the processional walkway into the city.
“It’s amazing!” exclaimed the Iranian businessman between
selfies and comparisons with his country’s treasure of
Persepolis.
“It’s a pity that right now I cannot see any tourists here, and
it means the government of Iraq should do more to attract tourists
across the globe to come,” he added.
Much of Iraq’s history unfolded under the same beating heat.
Babylon developed from a tiny Akkadian town along the Euphrates
River in 2300 BC to the capital of the great Babylonian empire,
straddling both sides of the mighty river’s banks.
“It was the first city in the world where the religious temples
and government palaces were kept separate,” says Qahtan Al-Abeed,
who heads the Basra Antiquities Department and led efforts to get
the site listed by UNESCO.
It became famed for its hanging gardens and the biblical Tower of
Babel, the Akkadian religious structure known to archaeologists as
the “ziggurat of Babylon.”
Perhaps most well known is the Ishtar Gate, which marked one of
Babylon’s eight entrances with bright blue bricks and reliefs of
mythological animals.
Many of these wonders were built under Nebuchadnezzar II, even as
he destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem.
Excavations began in the 19th century, and by the 20th, thousands
of pieces had been carried in the suitcases of colonial
archaeologists to Europe.
Original reliefs from the 28-meter-wide, 2,600-year-old Ishtar Gate
can be found at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, and Iraq has thus
far been unable to repatriate them.
Years later, Saddam left his own mark at Babylon, building an
immense palace overlooking the site adorned with replicas of his
own face.
He was toppled by the 2003 US-led invasion — but Babylon paid a
heavy price, too.

BACKGROUND

Babylon developed from a tiny Akkadian town along the Euphrates
River in 2300 BC to the capital of the great Babylonian empire,
straddling both sides of the mighty river’s banks.

US and Polish soldiers set up a base there and were accused of
crushing Babylon’s ancient walkways with military vehicles and
breaking mud bricks to fill sandbags.
“They left tons of military debris and even repainted the replica
of Ishtar’s Gate in black,” says Abeed. The site had already
suffered damage and looting during previous decades of virtually
nonstop conflict. And its characteristic mud bricks were known to
crumble in Iraq’s searing heat, even as it was being built.
But most of the sprawling city has withstood time and tragedy,
nestled between palm trees and hugging the river bank.
It features in every textbook and is a favorite memory of
generations of Iraqis who took school trips there. Replicas of the
Ishtar Gate adorn restaurants nationwide and a huge copy even
welcomes contemporary visitors at the Baghdad airport. “It’s
impossible to skip over Babylon in Iraq’s multimillennial
national narrative,” says Geraldine Chatelard, a researcher at
the French Institute of the Near East who consults Iraq’s
government on heritage. UNESCO’s decision, she said, “is a
prestigious recognition and good news for authorities who hope it
will reinforce national pride.” Iraq already had five sites
recognized by UNESCO, including three that are also on the
agency’s endangered list.
Among them is Hatra, a city in Iraq’s northern Nineweh province
dating back to the 2nd century BC that was damaged by Daesh in
2014.
Daesh considered pre-Islamic culture as heretical, and its members
destroyed and looted historical sites across Iraq and neighboring
Syria.
After declaring victory against the militants in late 2017, Iraq is
hoping to make a cultural comeback by drawing tourists to its 7,000
heritage sites.
That will require massive government effort and funds. Authorities
have already allocated $50 million to Babylon, said Abeed, hoping
the UNESCO listing will open the door to even more support. That
could build on the work of Iraqi cultural authorities and the World
Monument Fund, which 10 years ago began rehabilitating Babylon and
training staff on preserving artefacts and hosting tourists. Among
the young staff now working at the site is engineer Ghadir Ghaleb.
“Babylon makes me proud. Here, we find our roots and the roots of
civilization,” the 24-year-old told AFP. “Our ancestors built
all this. But it’s up to us to protect it.”

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Source: FS – All-Travel destinations-News
Babylon, world wonder and jewel of Iraq’s national narrative