Babylon ruins reopen in Iraq

Ishtar's gate

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.



The Treasures of Genghis Khan

gold-alloy-bracelet-dates-from-the-14th-century-it-is-decorated-with-a-phoenix-flanked-by-demonsOf all the wonders in The Palace of the Great Khan, the silver fountain most captivated the visiting monk. It took the shape of “a great silver tree, and at its roots are four lions of silver, each with a conduit through it, and all belching forth white milk of mares,” wrote William of Rubruck, a Franciscan friar who toured the Mongol capital, Khara Khorum, in 1254. When a silver angel at the top of the tree trumpeted, still more beverages spouted out of the pipes: wine, clarified mare’s milk, a honey drink, rice mead – take your pick.

The Khans had come a long way in just a few decades. Like the rest of his fierce horsemen, Genghis Khan – whose cavalry pounded across the steppe to conquer much of Central Asia – was born a nomad. When Genghis took power in 1206, Mongolian tribes lived in tents, which they moved while migrating across the grasslands with their livestock. As the empire continued to expand, though, the Khans realized the need for a permanent administrative center. “They had to stop rampaging and start ruling,” says Morris Rossabi, who teaches Asian history at Columbia University. So in 1235, Genghis’s son, Ogodei, began building a city near the Orkhon River, on the wide-open plains.


“It was as if you put Venice in Kansas,” says Don Lessem, producer of a new Genghis Khan exhibit touring the country now.

The ruins now lie beneath sand and scrubby vegetation, but lately there’s been renewed interest in Khara Khorum. A book of new scholarship, “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire,” coming out in June details major finds that archeologists have made in recent years, which shed light on what life was like in the city as the Mongols transitioned from raiders to rulers. The traveling exhibit, at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas through September 7, 2009, and then at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science for three months starting October 10, 2009, will showcase some of those artifacts for the first time on American soil.

Now archaeologists who’ve worked on the site believe that they might have located The Palace of the Great Khan, home of the fabled silver fountain.

The name Khara Khorum means “black tent,” Rossabi says. Surrounded by tall mud walls, The Mongol capital rose up out of the blank plains.


“It wasn’t Cairo, but people compared it to European cities,” says William W. Fitzhugh, an archaeologist at the National Museum of Natural History and a co-editor of the new book.

People of many nationalities walked its warrens of narrow streets: Chinese, Muslims, even a lone Frenchman — Guillaume Boucher, the goldsmith who designed the fountain. Many of these foreigners lived in Khara Khorum involuntarily, conscripts from conquered cities. The city layout reflected their diversity: there were mosques, “idol temples” and even a Nestorian Christian church. Archaeologists have found Chinese-style tiles and turret decorations that probably adorned the roofs of buildings.

Khara Khorum was also a trade center and goods from far and wide have been recovered there: silver Muslim coins, pieces of Chinese pottery. The Texas show includes an obsidian mask that likely traveled to Khara Khorum all the way from Egypt, Lessem says.


The Mongols didn’t have strong artistic tradition of their own but loved beautiful objects and often spared vanquished craftsmen in order to put them to work. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of glass-working and bone-carving workshops. “We found relics of the craftsmen’s quarters and firing places and iron and metal artifacts,” says Ernst Pohl, a German archaeologist who spent years excavating the site. His team discovered a gold bracelet decorated with a phoenix flanked by demons that had apparently been made in the city.

Just as they were inspired by the cities that they conquered, the Mongols were influenced by the Chinese and Arab civilizations that they absorbed.

“Nomads are not dogmatic,” says Bill Honeychurch, a Yale University archaeologist. “They had the idea that you can learn from people you’ve brought into

the fold.”


From these pieces the Mongols forged a culture of their own. “They didn’t just adopt, they synthesized and acquired, and the end result was something unique and different.”

As it turned out, Khara Khorum was a less than ideal site for a city. “There wasn’t sufficient food or resources,” Rossabi says. Five hundred carts of supplies were brought in each day to feed a population that grew along with the empire, which by the mid-thirteenth century would stretch from Hungary to the shores of the Pacific. Genghis’s grandson, Kublai Khan, eventually moved the capital city to Beijing and built a summer palace at Shangdu — the “stately pleasure dome” of Samuel Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” poem.


“You can’t rule a population of 75 million from Mongolia,” Rossabi says. “Kublai was trying to ingratiate himself with the Chinese, playing down the foreignness of his dynasty to win over his subjects.”

Khara Khorum began to fade, although the Khans periodically returned to the city on the steppe. After the Mongols were expelled from China in the fourteenth century, they briefly made the city their center again; in 1388 the Chinese obliterated it. The site remained important to various Mongol clans and in 1586 Abtaj Khan built a large Buddhist monastery there.


The Palace of the Great Khan, archaeologists now think, lies beneath the remains of this complex, much of which was destroyed by Mongolia’s Communist leadership in the 1930s. Its silver fountain may never be recovered, but to historians the real fascination of the Mongols’ city is that it existed at all.

“It is kind of amazing that they conceived of, or accepted, the idea of setting up a permanent structure,” Rossabi says. If the Khans hadn’t “moved toward having an administrative capital, the empire wouldn’t have succeeded so readily.”


Holzminden camp – The Great Escape of 1918

It was certainly a Great Escape, even if it did not get the Hollywood treatment of Steve McQueen on his motorbike. The little known story of the prisoners of war who tunnelled out of a German camp in 1918 is to be told in a major exhibition that will show how they pioneered the subterfuge before their celebrated Second World War counterparts.

The story of the attempt by 60 officers to break out of Holzminden camp during the First World War has long been eclipsed by films about PoWs set in the Nazi era, such as The Colditz Story and The Great Escape, starring McQueen, James Garner and Richard Attenborough as captives at Stalag Luft III. From this week, however, the audacious bid for freedom will be featured in the Imperial War Museum London’s show ‘In Memoriam: Remembering the Great War’, marking the 90th anniversary of the armistice on 11 November.

‘Everybody’s heard of The Great Escape, but it will surprise our visitors to see that similar escape attempts took place in the First World War,’ said Terry Charman, senior historian at the museum. ‘Holzminden was the worst prisoner of war camp in Germany and had a reputation like Colditz for being inescapable. Its commandant, Karl Niemeyer, was particularly brutal.’

Holzminden, near Hanover, held 550 officers and 100 orderlies, and after it opened in September 1917 there were 17 escape attempts in the first month alone. All were unsuccessful. In November that year the prisoners began digging a tunnel that would run under the camp’s perimeter wall. They were assisted by three German administrators at the camp: a mailman who became known to the soldiers as ‘the letter boy’, a man who supplied torches and was dubbed ‘the electric light boy’, and a female typist who passed on information because she was infatuated with an airman.

The captives had a room at the barracks in which they made imitation German army uniforms and used a basic camera to forge identity documents. They also created an air pump out of wood and tin tubes from biscuit tins. The tunnellers worked in three-hour shifts, in teams of three, using trowels, chisels and a ‘mumptee’, an instrument with a spike on one end and an excavating blade on the other. The earth was moved in basins by a pulley system then hidden in the cellar roof.

One of the biggest threats came from the Allies’ own side, when new PoWs arrived and asked, within earshot of the Germans: ‘Are you building a tunnel?’ But it remained undiscovered and nine months later was 60 yards long and six feet deep. In July 1918, 60 officers began the escape attempt, getting away through a nearby field of rye. But the tunnel collapsed on the 30th man, blocking the escape route.

It meant that the next one, Major Jack Shaw, had to turn back. Of the 29 escapers from Holzminden, 19 were rounded up and taken back to the camp, partly because the alarm had been raised by a farmer whose rye field had been trampled. But the remaining 10 made a successful run to neutral territory, led by Wing Commander Charles Rathborne, who hid on board a train and reached the Dutch frontier after three days. The 10 great escapers were awarded medals at Buckingham Palace by George V.

Terry Charman said he hoped the exhibition would help to preserve the memory of the first great escape.

‘In Memoriam’ will also feature the Military Cross awarded to Wilfred Owen that was worn by the poet’s mother until her death.

The ‘In Memoriam’ exhibition runs from 30 September.


50 000 exhibits “missing” from Russian museums

CNN article

A sweeping government audit has revealed that up to 50,000 pieces are missing from Russia’s museums — everything from Pre-Revolutionary medals and weapons to precious works of art — a member of the survey team said Thursday.

Former Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered the survey after his government was deeply embarrassed in 2006 by hundreds of thefts from the crown jewel of Russia’s art world, St. Petersburg’s Hermitage gallery.

Over 1,600 museums have been inspected since then, and most of them have items missing, Interior Ministry Col. Ilya Ryasnoi told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

The lost items were worth a total of “several million dollars,” he said, adding most of the disappeared inventory was pre-Revolutionary and Soviet-era medals, weapons and clothes.

Precious works of art were among the missing items but separate investigations were being conducted for those, Ryasnoi said.

“Yes, there have been thefts. Museum staff have used their contacts to steal some of the artifacts without a trace,” he said. “But most has simply been lost during transportation.”

Citing specific cases, Ryasnoi said 88 World War II medals had vanished from a museum in the Altai region, and weaponry had disappeared from a museum in the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk. Almost 300 artifacts were missing from the Russian Museum of Ethnography in St. Petersburg, he said.

So far authorities have opened 15 criminal cases of large-scale theft, which carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years, Ryasnoi said. More than 100 museum employees — including security guards and storage workers — have been charged with minor infractions.

However, Ryasnoi said the majority of the missing items had been mislaid or stolen during Soviet times, meaning many of those responsible may not face prosecution due to statutes of limitation.

A government spokeswoman refused immediate comment on Ryasnoi’s statements.

The commission is to present its findings early next year. In the meantime it will continue auditing more 400 museums, including the State Historical Museum on Moscow’s Red Square, he said.

A spokeswoman for the State Historical Museum would not comment on the audit while it was being conducted.

The commission, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov, has a mandate to check around 80 million items in total, a difficult task given the state of Russian museum catalogues.

“Only two million of the artifacts are even photographed,” Ryasnoi noted.

Furthermore, most Russian museums do not have computerized records, he said. Some items have handwritten descriptions logged in Soviet-era log books, but most just carry a single-line description, he said, making tracking them all but impossible.

Ryasnoi’s remarks came the same day that President Dmitry Medvedev visited an art museum in Petrozavodsk, in northwestern Russia, which had recently computerized its inventory.

In July 2006, the Hermitage Museum, which includes the grandiose former Winter Palace of the czars, announced that 221 items — including jewelry, religious icons, silverware and richly enameled objects worth about $5 million — had been stolen.

Two paintings stolen from the Hermitage have been found recently in Moldova and are scheduled to be returned

ROME and the Barbarians – Palazzo Grassi Exhibition

Got back from a rather anticipated exhibition of the century in Venezia and here are some impressions for all of you who still haven’t seen it or plan to visit it any time soon (there’s still 1 month left until the exhibition closes).

Practical tips for Venice newbies:

– do NOT drink coffee in Piazza San Marco or its vicinity unless willing to pay approx.10€. Honestly, once you cross over Canal Grande into the heart of the city most of the prices go up as to 50%

– take your time around the centre when searching for a lunch spot because there are numerous of mini squares with good-and-not-so-pricey restaurants and pasticceria’s

– have you ever been to Rome? If not then know this – almost every cultural/historical monument/building/site has an entry fee, so make sure you have deep pockets, especially patience because people queue in kilometers to visit places such as the interior of Basilica San Marco

– if arriving by bus, your driver’s probably going to dump you at Tronchetto parking spot, don’t be lazy and immediately go for a vaporetto – it’s only 20 minutes walk to the centre and you won’t regret it (no chance for getting lost ‘cos of the large and visible street name signs and directions towards desired locations)

The exhibition

– Info about opening hours and ticket prices can be found here

– be prepared for crowded rooms with exhibits and definitely make sure you arrive to the Palazzo as early as possible, most of your valuable time will be spent on waiting for a clear spot in front of any exhibit

– first step in the Palazzo should definitely be a bookstore on the ground floor and the CATALOGUE (fairly cheap for its size and contents, 48€) and this for a very simple reason – catalogues are available in 3 languages only (Italian, French and English), of which the English version gets sold out on a daily basis and there are no stashes waiting only for you somewhere in a storage room (this especially goes for you 1-day visitors where you have no chance to visit again tomorrow and check for re-filled bookshelves). The rest of the souvenirs connected with the Roma e i barbari exhibition are just, plainly said, BAD

– the purpose of my visit to the exhibition were specific finds from specific sites made by specific Germanic tribes – having said that, my purpose was fulfilled and I was very satisfied by the fact that I managed to see LIVE in one place all of the archeomaterial of my interest without having to travel all around the Europe. On the other hand, even as an educated professional in the field I wasn’t satisfied with how the exhibition and artifacts themselves were handled and presented. I’ve observed that many of the visitors had the same problem, especially those who actually came to see and learn something new. If you fit in this category you may find it hard with certain exhibits to even grasp what you are looking at and why is it important. Namely, if you stand in front of a few meters long showcase with artifacts from several different countries and sites, dating from different periods, you might have a problem with tags – artifacts presented have no corresponding numbers to be related to when looking at description tags and you end up pretty confused.

– if you read the pompous introduction about finds to be seen at the exhibition on the Palazzo’s website, you might end up disappointed like me, for example – the magnificent Sutton Hoo was represented with only 3 silver bowls that I almost skipped amidst the overcrowded rooms. Same goes for the finds from Childeric and Arnegunda’s graves. Other finds were thematically somehow mixed (Scandinavian for example), but all in all, you don’t want to miss this one, if nothing, then because of an enormous quantity of finds gathered all in one place, of which some never left their homelands and the question is if they ever again will.

– Thumbs up for Germanic princely graves!!!