A new dispatch from Iraq by our correspondent Abu Ray.
According to the ancient texts, the Tower of Babel was a seven level step pyramid 91.5 meters high with a temple to the god Marduk on the top. Now it is a square shaped grassy knoll bordered by a water-filled trench.
The mound is surrounded by lumpy, overgrown hills, date palm trees and some distant cows grazing in the fields hosting the ruins of Babylon, a city founded 4,000 years ago. We were cautioned against walking too far away from the site as there are still some trip flares planted in the undergrowth left over from the old military base.
It is hard to say which was more exciting, visiting the ruins of Babylon, something I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid… or just driving there.
A friend of mine has been working down in Babylon as part of an effort to assess some of the problems at the site and come up with a plan to save the ruins, which are threatened by, well, all the usual things that are threatening in Iraq, as well as a rising water table.
It was a measure of just how much Iraq had changed when the bureau chief barely batted an eye when I asked if I could make the hour and a half drive south.
Back in my day, 2005-2007, driving south of Baghdad through the area charmingly called the triangle of death was laughable. Even before it got really bad, journalists would drive through and full speed, maybe even slouching down in the seat in the vague hope no one would take too much notice of the foreigners passing through.
The whole trip down my head was spinning around as I read street signs and repeated to myself the names of towns I knew so well from the car bombs, massacres and death tolls that had so marked my year here.
Mahmoudiya, Lutifiya, Iskandiriya, Yousifiya, Mussayib, Hilla… was that the town where insurgents overran the outpost and kidnapped the US soldiers, only to leave their mutilated, booby trapped bodies for the military to find?
Was the that the place where the whole family was murdered? Was that the one where the car bomb killed all those people in the market? I think this was where those French journalists were kidnapped.
Like Baghdad and Diyala province just to the north, this rural area south of Baghdad had the misfortune of being religiously mixed, Shiite towns surrounded by Sunni tribes and when the time came, they went at it.
Years later, it was an uneventful drive, through a countryside that was alternately verdant and desolate, populated by ramshackle roadside homes, stands selling fruit, heavy trucks fighting cars for space with the kind of disregard for traffic rules that characterizes driving in rural Egypt.
It was all quite normal, save that every 500 meters, it seemed, was another checkpoint. Every bridge underpass seemed to have an army unit briefly scanning cars as they slowed to a stop. Parked along the verge were the armored shapes of humvees and the occasional hulking, trucklike MRAP.
The other revelation was that they were all Iraqi army. The U.S. was gone from here, at least along the route we took. The Iraqis were now handling the show, for better or worse.
The U.S. is leaving Iraq. The Iraqi foreign minister recently complained that the political situation was deadlocked, potentially falling apart, and all the U.S. forces wanted to do was leave.
The US military has told journalists that it would not like current events referred to as a withdrawal, rather it is a “drawdown” or a “consolidation.” As in “we’re consolidating our forces the hell out of here,” I guess. Call it what you will, by August 31, U.S. forces will be down by half.
And two months on, the Iraqis can’t even agree on the results of their election.
Driving through the south, we’d hit towns suddenly festooned with Shiite flags, soulful images of the martyrs and portraits of the Hakim family, the Iranian trained leaders of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq that came in after the invasion and took over much of the south.
Interestingly, they were dealt an election setback in March and received just a fraction of the seats they had in the last parliament as Iraqis opted for more homegrown options.
Their influence is still felt though, two of their number run a “de-Baathification” committee charged with rooting out those with connections to the old regime. The commission seems to be engaged in a witch hunt against the winners of the last election, disqualifying candidates left and right, and leaving the Sunnis pretty convinced that the deck is stacked against them no matter what they do.
I actually got pretty close to Babylon back in 2006 when I was taken down to see the excavations of a mass grave of Shiites killed by Saddam in the 1991.There I talked to an archaeologist employed in painstakingly extracting murdered skeletons from the desert and he ruefully admitted that his lifelong dream had been to work the ancient sites of the Babylonians just a few dozen kilometers away.
It’s not the most impressive place, actually. The Babylonians built out of mud brick, not the most durable material, while the Greeks and Egyptians used stone. And aside from the periodic ancient invasions and wholesale destructions of the city, Babylon is in the middle of a highly populated, agricultural region, so there’s plenty of water to damage the ruins, as well as farmers to steal the bricks.
Saddam Hussein, apparently, was quite unimpressed and ordered a massive rebuilding project in the 1980s, so that most of the site’s buildings now are tall imposing structures built of modern, yellow bricks, many stamped with his name.
It’s sort of a central dilemma on ruins and tourism, do you preserve the sad mounds of rubble, or rebuild it into
something cool for tourists to come visit and pay money?
The same dilemma is going on right now with the local governor desperately wanting some renovation work done on the site (and restaurants and gift shops) to attract more tourists and income, while the state antiquities people are more looking into a careful approach to preserve the 2,500 year old brickwork that won’t deliver the quick results and the tourism the local governor wants.
The most interesting building on the site is a Saddam-era palace – built after the 1991 Gulf War – that looms over the site on an man-made hill (which probably caused untold damage to the ruins to build).
It’s done in this retro ancient style he favors for his palaces and is actually quite cool looking, though apparently gutted inside. Renovating that and turning it into museum would probably bring the visitors to Babylon, but getting international money to restore a 1990s-era building would probably be a bit difficult.
Very little actual excavation has been done at Babylon, aside from some work the Germans did a hundred years ago and a few brief projects in the last few decades that were interrupted by circumstances. Probably 95 percent of the site remains untouched and if an agreement could be reached between the warring factions – local officials, the antiquities people, the farmers encroaching on the site – a lot more of Babylon could come to light.
Much the way the factions in Baghdad keep squabbling over election results with a zero-sum game mentality that only considers their gains and not the future stability of the country. It’s almost as though they’re all speaking a different languages.
The Arabist is published and edited by Issandr El Amrani, a writer and analyst based in Cairo, with contributions by friends.
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