Rightful status bestowed | Michael Jansen - GulfToday

Rightful status bestowed

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


In the past years, the ancient city of Babylon suffered massive damage and neglect at the hands of Saddam Hussein and US troops. File

Babylon has belatedly been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the international cultural organisation, 36 years after Baghdad applied for the designation. Successive Iraqi governments have pressed for recognition and, for the past 12 years, the New York-based World Monuments Fund has been lobbying along with Baghdad to include Babylon to the World Heritage List.

The first Iraqi site to succeed was Hatra in 1985, a second century trading city in Ninevah province. This was followed by the ancient Assyrian city of Assur in Salaheddin province in 2003; the Abbasid capital of Samarra also in Sahaheddin in 2007; the ancient Citadel of Erbil in the Kurdish region in 2014; and the Marshes of southern Iraq in 2016. Babylon should have been first.

Located on the Euphrates River, Babylon, 89 kilometres south of Baghdad, was the largest city in the world and the capital of a vast empire 4,300 years ago when Mesopotamia was the Cradle of Civilisation. Babylon’s hanging gardens were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world while its pink mud-brick palaces and tall ziggurat dedicated to the Mesopotamian god Marduk were marvels of engineering. Babylonians developed geometry around 350 BC and used it in astronomy to track the movements of planets.

UNESCO has at long last recognised Babylon’s “outstanding value to humanity” but warned that the site is in an “extremely vulnerable condition” and requires urgent consolidation. The listing gives Babylon protected status under international law. This is long overdue and was extended only after the ancient city of Nimrud near Mosul, a previously protected site, was destroyed by Daesh before its liberation in November 2016 by Iraqi army. Babylon becomes the sixth World Cultural Heritage site in Iraq.

Built on both banks of the Euphrates in 2300 BC, Babylon grew from a tiny town into an independent city state and, during the 18th century BC, an empire called Babylonia under Hammurabi. While he seized territory, he also imposed peace, raised the walls of Babylon, curbed floods, and improved the calendar. He was known as a law giver for formulating a detailed code for dealing with crime and punishment. He even regulated the consumption of beer, widely drunk during his time. His code, inscribed on a dozen tablets, was discovered in 1901 in Iran and is now displayed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Nebuchadnezzar II, the second most famous ruler of Babylon, conquered Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and south-western Anatolia. During his reign (605-562 BC) Babylon became a metropolis, the ruins of which extend over 2,000 acres. He enlarged the royal palace and built a public museum, a bridge over the Euphrates, a wide boulevard for royal processions, and the famous Ishtar Gate, decorated with glazed blue bricks and raised golden images of animals and deities. Remnants of the gate were excavated by a German team of archaeologists during the early 20th century, reconstructed and have been displayed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin since 1930. Iraq has been unable to reclaim this national treasure.

The Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great entered Babylon in 323 BC, planning to make the city the capital of his empire but died there of typhoid fever before he attained his goal.

In 1970s, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered the walls of the palace in Babylon to be rebuilt on existing but crumbling foundations, with each new brick stamped with his name, following the example of ancient rulers. This work damaged the ruins as did his construction of a palace for himself overlooking the site.

Greater damage was inflicted after the US occupation of Iraq by US and allied Polish troops who set a sprawling military base on the site. Their tanks and armoured vehicles crushed 2,600 year old pavements. Troops dug trenches across the site and used archaeological fragments to fill wire mesh baskets used by the military to erect barriers. Fuel leaked into the fragile surface of the desert. Soldiers scratched graffiti on walls and attempted to prise decorated bricks from the replica of the Ishtar Gate at the entrance to the reconstructed area of the vast site. No thought was given to the historical and cultural importance of Babylon or for any of the thousands of major archaeological sites in Iraq.

The US and its allies had no excuse for ravaging Babylon. Before the onslaught, their leaders had been warned repeatedly by archaeologists and historians specialising in this region not to wage war on the world’s cultural heritage found in Iraq. The leaders ignored the warnings. While a US tank squatted on the street nearby, looters entered the Iraqi National Museum on April 9th, 2003, the day Baghdad fell to US invaders. An international outcry prompted US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to reply with a shrug, “Stuff happens.”

Rumsfeld was not the first official of a colonial power to dismiss the loss to Iraq of its heritage. British, French and German adventurers and archaeologists who began excavating in Iraq and elsewhere in this region in the early 19th century not only did a great deal of damage to major sites but also stole key items and entire structures, including the tablets inscribed with the Code of Hammurabi and the Ishtar Gate. Western museums are filled with the treasures of Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Palestine, Lebanon and Cyprus. The founding collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum was systematically looted from Cyprus by Luigi Palma di Cesnola who became the museum’s first director. Three of the island’s cultural sites have been included on the modern World Heritage List.

UNESCO adopted a convention for the protection of the world’s cultural and natural heritage in 1972 and since then some 1,100 sites in 167 countries have been adopted. Western European countries lobbied for and secured recognition of the largest number. Sites in China, India and Mexico are well represented. The countries known as the Cradle of Civilisation, Iraq and Syria, where there are tens of thousands of archaeological sites, have only six each. Egypt also has six cultural sites and one natural location listed. The US, which withdrew from UNESCO under the Trump administration, has more than 20, the majority parks and natural features which have nothing to do with cultural heritage. UNESCO listings are important as they attract financial investment and tourism.

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