Remember Babylon?

From CNN:

Babylon was one of the glories of the ancient world, its walls and mythic hanging gardens listed among the Seven Wonders.

Founded about 4,000 years ago, the ancient city was the capital of 10 dynasties in Mesopotamia, considered one of the earliest cradles of civilization and the birthplace of writing and literature.

But following years of plunder, neglect and conflict, the Babylon of today scarcely conjures that illustrious history.

In recent years, the Iraqi authorities have reopened Babylon to tourists, hoping that one day the site will draw visitors from all over the globe. But despite the site’s remarkable archaeological value and impressive views, it is drawing only a smattering of tourists, drawn by a curious mix of ancient and more recent history.

The city — just 85km (52 miles) south of Baghdad, about a two hour drive, dependent on checkpoints — still bears the marks of ham-fisted attempts at restoration by former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and a subsequent occupation by U.S. forces in 2003.

“They occupied Babylon. They wouldn’t let anyone in,” says Hussein Saheb, a guard at the historical sites at Babylon, recalling the day U.S. tanks rolled into view, before forces set up camp.

Following excavations in the early 20th century, European archaeologists claimed key features such as the remains of the famous Ishtar Gate — the glazed brick gate decorated with images of dragons and aurochs, built in about 575 BC by order of King Nebuchadnezzar II as the eighth gate to the inner city.

The original now stands as part of a reconstruction of the gate in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, whereas in Babylon itself, visitors enter through a replica. Yet remnants of Babylon’s former glory remain, with sections of the city’s walls still intact.

Later excavations and conservation work carried out under Saddam’s rule greatly despoiled the site, say archaeologists.

Iraqi archaeologist Hai Katth Moussa said that during a massive reconstruction project in the early 1980s, Saddam began building a replica of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II on top of the ruins of the ancient palace.

Like Nebuchadnezzar, he wrote his name on many of the bricks, with inscriptions such as: “This was built by Saddam, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq.”

After the Gulf War, Saddam began building a modern palace for himself on top of ruins in the style of a Sumerian ziggurat.

When U.S. forces arrived in 2003, they occupied the palace, which lies adjacent to Nebuchadnezzar’s palace and overlooks the Euphrates River, and left their own mark. Today, a basketball hoop remains in Babylon, while concertina wire left behind by the military is used to prevent visitors from climbing over a 2,500-year-old lion statue — an ancient symbol of the city.

Even in the new Iraq, Babylon faces ongoing threats. Only 2% of the ancient city has been excavated, but those buried historical treasures are threatened by encroaching development.

Tour guide Hussein Al-Ammari says an oil pipeline runs through the eastern part of the ancient city. “It goes through the outer wall of Babylon,” he says.

Yet despite the shortcomings in its preservation, Babylon holds a draw for small numbers of Iraqi visitors — even if only to enter Saddam’s marble-lined palaces, still a novelty 10 years after the dictator’s downfall.

Zained Mohammed, visiting with her family for the first time from Karbala, told CNN: “We were just looking for a change of atmosphere, to have the kids see something different.”

Babylon is certainly that.

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Babylon ruins torn between preservation and profit

From Associated Press:

A US-funded program to restore the ruins of Iraq’s ancient city of Babylon is threatened by a dispute among Iraqi officials over whether the priority should be preserving the site or making money off it.

Local officials want swift work done to restore the crumbling ruins and start building restaurants and gift shops to draw in tourists, while antiquities officials in Baghdad favor a more painstaking approach to avoid the gaudy restoration mistakes of the past.

The ruins of the millennia-old city, famed for its Hanging Gardens and the Tower of Babel, have suffered heavily over the past decades. Deep in Iraq’s verdant south, the cluster of excavated temples and palaces were mostly rebuilt by former ruler Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, using modern yellow brick to erect towering structures that marred the fragile remains of the original mud brick ruins. After Saddam’s fall in 2003, a U.S. military base on the site did further damage.

The site is filled with overgrown hillocks hiding the estimated 95 percent of the city that remains unexcavated — which archaeologists hope could eventually be uncovered.

But for that to happen, they argue, the slow and meticulous work needs to be done to train Iraqis in conservation and draw up a preservation plan that can be used to drum up international funds and get the site UNESCO World Heritage status.

A $700,000, two-year project to do that, funded by the U.S. State Department and carried out by the New York-based World Monument Fund, began last year and if it succeeds, the Babylon project could be a model for saving other ancient sites in this country that witnessed the birth of urban civilization…

Read the rest of the article here.

Marriage, Divorce and the Prostitute in Ancient Mesopotamia

The most shameful custom,” Herodotus called it. He was writing, in his account of the events leading up to the war between Greece and Persia, about the goings-on at the temple of Ishtar in Babylon, in which, he claimed, once in her life every woman had to accept the sexual advances of a stranger in exchange for a silver coin in order to fulfill a duty to the goddess.

The most shameful custom the Babylonians have is this: every native woman must go sit in the temple of Aphrodite, once in her life, and have sex with an adult male stranger. Many of them disdain to mix with the rest, on the high horse of wealth, and so drive to the temple on covered carriages, taking their stand with a large retinue following behind them. But many more do as follows: they sit in the sanctuary of Aphrodite, these many women, their heads crowned with a band of bowstring. Some arrive while others depart. Roped-off thoroughfares give all manner of routes through the women and the strangers pass along them as they make their choice. Once a woman sits down there, she does not go home until a stranger drops money in her lap and has sex with her outside the temple. When he drops it he has to say “I call on the goddess Mylitta.” Assyrians call Aphrodite Mylitta. The money can be any value at all—it is not to be refused, for that is forbidden, for this money becomes sacred. She follows the first one who drops money and rejects none. When she has had sex, she has performed her religious dues to the goddess and goes home; and from that time on you will never make her a big enough gift to have her. All those who have looks and presence quickly get it over with, all those of them who have no looks wait for a long time unable to fulfill the law—some of them wait for a three- or four-year spell.

This is the fifth and last of the Babylonian customs Herodotus found especially worthy of mention. The first and second, which Herodotus deemed the wisest and second wisest customs, involved a bride market with two auctions (one a straightforward bidding for the most beautiful, the other a Dutch auction for the ugliest [1.196]) and a method of medical diagnosis and treatment by which the Babylonians (whom he claimed had no physicians) laid out their sick in the public square to solicit and take the advice of all passersby who had ever suffered from similar ailments (1.197). The third custom noted by Herodotus is that the Babylonians bury their dead in honey (1.198). And the fourth custom of the five described is a post-coital ritual purification involving incense and washing (1.198).

It is certainly no accident that two of the five “customs” involve illness and death and the other three sex and marriage. These are the hot topics, those that attract and hold the attention of an audience. But, as is now generally accepted among scholars, Herodotus was not talking about a historical Babylon at all, but about the non-Greek “other,” about the “anti-type of the Greek polis” by which the Greek population could define itself (Beard and Henderson 1998, 56–79; Kurke 1999). Nonetheless, his fantasies or musings found a receptive audience in antiquity, were echoed in Strabo (16.1.20) and in the apocryphal Letter of Jeremiah (= Baruch) 6:43, and retain their prurient appeal even to a modern audience. Although there is not a single modern piece of scholarship that gives any credence at all to any of Herodotus’s other “Babylonian customs”—whether wise or shameful—his story about the ritual defloration and sexual accessibility of common women in the sacred realm (“Babylonian sacred prostitution”) remains stubbornly embedded as an accepted fact in the literature…

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This essay is an excerpt from the BOOK

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.

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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.”

babylon-2

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.

saddams-palace

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.

babylon

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.

babylongate

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.

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