Last Updated: Tue Nov 02, 2010 18:13 pm (KSA) 15:13 pm (GMT)

Ancient city of Babylon to be revived from ruins

The U.S. military occupied Babylon as a base for five months before handing over to a Polish-led division (File)
The U.S. military occupied Babylon as a base for five months before handing over to a Polish-led division (File)

For a site whose historical importance ranks up there with Egypt's pyramids, the ancient Mesopotamian city of Babylon has suffered some rough treatment but officials are hoping it can re-gain some of its might and become a major tourist attraction.

In recent times, U.S. troops and allied armies have parked tanks and weapons on the site in southern Iraq and used earth containing ancient fragments to fill their sandbags.

Looters ransacked its treasures, and before that Saddam Hussein "restored" parts of it using new bricks bearing his name and built a kitsch palace overlooking it.

Now officials hope Babylon can be revived and made ready for a rich future of tourism, with help from experts at the World Monuments Fund (WMF) and the U.S. embassy.

Once a mighty city

Babylon is one of the cradles of civilization

The ruins of the once mighty city are a far cry from the Babylon of popular imagination, with its magnificent golden gate and lush gardens cultivated by King Nebuchadnezzar for his wife.

Its clay-brick walls are crumbling, a statue of the Lion of Babylon has all but lost its facial features and European imperial powers long ago looted the best of Babylon. The Ishtar Gate has been in Berlin since German archaeologists seized it before World War One, despite calls for its return.

Officials say preserving Babylon, a relic of a time and place that gave birth to such milestones of civilization as agriculture, writing, codified law and the wheel, is crucial.

"It's extremely important. When people say this (region) is the cradle of civilization, that's certainly true of Babylon," Lisa Ackerman, WMF vice-president, told Reuters. "It's a culture that had a profound impact on what we think of as modern civilization."

It may also help war-racked Iraq generate revenue in the future through tourism, as it seeks to rebuild after years of sectarian slaughter and attacks by insurgents.

Babylon, and places such as the southern marshes believed to be the biblical Garden of Eden, could eventually be major attractions.


 God willing, we could surpass Jordan and Egypt's tourism 
Qais Hussein Rasheed, Committee of Antiquities and Heritage

The U.S. military occupied Babylon as a base for five months before handing over to a Polish-led division which left in 2005.

The British Museum said in a report that U.S. and Polish military vehicles had crushed 2,600-year-old pavements and their forces had used archaeological fragments to fill sandbags.

"They dug trenches for storing gas by the Babylon theater," said Maitham Hamza, who keeps the site's two museums. "They also crushed walls by landing helicopters on them."

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad is contributing $700,000 towards the site's restoration.

Saddam Hussein's insensitive reconstructions also pose a dilemma for efforts to restore Babylon. Apart from his palace, he also rebuilt Processional Way, a street of ancient stones.

 We are optimistic about ruins tourism in Iraq 
Qais Rasheed, Committee of Antiquities

And he painted on it. A mural of King Nebuchadnezzar in blue and gold, with a suspiciously Saddam-like face, adorns one wall; a tacky cartoon lion, another. He built an artificial lake in what critics called the "Disneyfication" of Babylon.

Ackerman said one of the first things the WMF would do was establish whether underground water was present and erect barriers to prevent it from seeping into the ruins and damaging the clay bricks.

But Saddam's alterations might be best left alone.

Eventually, if security in Iraq continues to improve, officials hope tourists will return.

"We are optimistic about 'ruins tourism' in Iraq," Qais Hussein Rasheed, acting head of Iraq's Committee of Antiquities and Heritage, told Reuters.

"God willing, we could surpass Jordan and Egypt's tourism."

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