After decades of dictatorship and disrepair, Iraq is celebrating its renewed sovereignty over the Babylon archaeological site — by fighting over the place, over its past and future and, of course, over its spoils.
Time long ago eroded the sun-dried bricks that shaped ancient Babylon, the city of Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar, where Daniel read the writing on the wall and Alexander the Great died.
Colonial archaeologists packed off its treasures to Europe a century ago. Saddam Hussein rebuilt the site in his own megalomaniacal image. American and Polish troops turned it into a military camp, digging trenches and filling barricades with soil peppered with fragments of a biblical-era civilization.
Now, the provincial government in Babil has seized control of much of Babylon — unlawfully, according to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage — and opened a park beside a branch of the Euphrates River, a place that draws visitors by the busload.
It has begun to charge a fee to visit the looted shell of the grandiose palace that Mr. Hussein built in the 1980s, along with the hill it stands on. And it has refurbished a collection of buildings from the Hussein era and rented their rooms out as suites. For $175 a night Iraqis can honeymoon in a room advertised as one of Mr. Hussein’s bedrooms (though in truth, almost certainly a mere guest room).
“Our problem, in terms of archaeology, is that we actually deal with ignorant people, whether in the Saddam era or the current era,” said Qais Hussein Rashid, the acting director of the board of antiquities, which has legal authority over Babylon, but apparently not very much power.
“Most of the people and some officials have no respect for heritage,” he went on. “They think archaeological sites are just a bunch of bricks that have no value at all.”
Now with the support of some officials in Baghdad, the local government has reopened the excavated ruins of Babylon’s ancient core, shuttered ever since the American invasion in 2003. It has done so despite warnings by archaeologists that the reopening threatens to damage further what remains of one of the world’s first great cities before the site can be adequately protected.
The fight over ancient Babylon is about more than the competing interests of preservation and tourism. It reflects problems that hinder Iraq’s new government, including an uncertain division between local and federal authority and political rivalries that consume government ministries.
“The political situation in our country is not stable,” Mr. Rashid said. “The federal government is weak.”
Mr. Rashid’s board, part of the Ministry of Culture, is at odds with the newly created State Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, its priorities made clear in its name — and the dispute is not their first.
The agencies clashed over the reopening of the National Museum in Baghdad in February, and then as now, the tourism ministry, which favored reopening, prevailed. Its power stems not from the Constitution, but from proximity to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who has pressed for reopening historic and cultural sites as symbols of the country’s stability and progress. His government made control of ancient sites a provision in the security agreement with the United States that took effect in January. Next month, the American military will turn over the last of them, Ur, the ancient Sumerian capital in southern Iraq.
“Our goal is that these sites will be tourist attractions — to convey the real, civilized image of Iraq and to bring as many tourists as possible,” said the tourism ministry’s director, Qahtan al-Jibouri. “Iraq needs another source of funding in addition to oil.”
The ruins at Babylon have long suffered. Mud bricks lack the durability of the marble of Greece or the limestone of Egypt, leaving behind little more than heaps of earth. “You need to be kind of a romantic to love the Mesopotamian sites,” said Elizabeth C. Stone, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University on Long Island.
In the 1980s Mr. Hussein ordered the reconstruction of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace and other buildings, using cheap bricks on foundations built 2,600 years ago. Many were stamped with a tribute to the “Protector of Great Iraq” in the way Nebuchadnezzar marked bricks with his own stamp in cuneiform, still visible today.
Archaeologists were appalled, but could hardly complain at the time. Such is not the case with the American and Polish troops who occupied the site from 2003 to 2004. The work they carried out to turn the area into a base, as reported by a British Museum study, provoked international outrage, though the extent of the damage is a matter of debate and perspective.
One thing officials agree on is blaming the Americans. Mr. Rashid, in a conspiratorial and anti-Semitic vein, suggested that Jews stationed with the Polish troops might have deliberately singled out the site because of their captivity in Babylon. The director of the ruins, Maryam Musa, who has worked in Babylon for 30 years, said the damage could never be repaired or adequately compensated for.
Asked who did worse by Babylon, Mr. Hussein or the Americans, however, she became taciturn. “Is it necessary to ask such a question?” she said uncomfortably, and declined to answer.
Mohammed Taher, an archaeologist and former director of the ruins who opposes reopening Babylon, said what was being done now was little better than what had been done before. “I would like to rebuild Babylon again for scientific research, not like Saddam,” he said as he guided visitors through the remains of Ishtar Gate with bas reliefs of Babylon’s gods; the Temple of Ninmakh; the Processional Way, with brick paving stones mortared with bitumen; and a symbol of Iraq itself, the Lion of Babylon, a 2,600-year-old sculpture.
What was clear during his tour was that nothing had been done to prepare the place for its official opening, now scheduled for June 1. No gates or fences prevent rambunctious tourists from rambling over ruins that can crumble like sand. The site’s shops, cafe and museum remain abandoned, shuttered and dusty.
A $700,000 project by the World Monuments Fund, financed by the State Department, was supposed to address both conservation and tourism at Babylon, but has not yet begun work at the site.
Security in Iraq has improved immensely, allowing the Iraqis to once again think about the past as part of the country’s future, even if Iraq is not yet ready for tourism as most of the world knows it. One visitor, Esma Ali, a university student from Hilla, said she had grown up in the shadow of Babylon, but had never visited it before, and she did so with a sense of awe.
“I feel our history is coming back,” she said.