Saturday 26 May 2012
Source: Christian Science Monitor.
After two failed bids, archaeologists seek to establish Babylon as a UNESCO world heritage site despite damage from Saddam Hussein and US troops. Those are just its latest encounters with conquerors, they argue.
The capitol of the Babylonian empire, one of the wonders of the ancient world, has fallen on hard times. However, only a fraction of the 4,000-year-old site has been excavated. Furthermore, the ruins above ground have been eroded by wind and salt water, and damaged both by sweeping reconstruction ordered by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and the more recent US military occupation.
Within the boundaries of the ancient city, on a hill above the excavated ruins, Saddam Hussein built a modern palace overlooking the ancient one. Bricks inscribed in the era of Saddam Hussein echoed those marking the reign of the biblical King Nebuchadnezzar. Empty spaces in the walls mark where some of the bricks where pried out while US soldiers controlled the area, say Iraqi antiquities officials.
The fragile walls of the old city are now sandwiched between heavier modern bricks pressing down on the original mud brick and a rising water table that has sent salt water seeping into the foundations of the ancient walls. In the 1980s, concrete was poured directly against the original brick. The conversation project is mapping the damage with a three-dimensional scan — brick by brick — to see how to stabilize the site and change the drainage pattern.
In constructing his own palace in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein built a helicopter landing pad and infrastructure that made Babylon an appealing site to US military leaders looking for a military base after the Iraqi leader was toppled. American forces stayed for six months before handing over to Polish troops in charge of the sector. A British Museum report details what it calls significant damage to the site during the military occupation — including levelling parts of the ancient city that had yet to be excavated.
Not far from the ancient walled city, a military guard post still stands amid coils of barbed wire and piles of sandbags. Dubbed “Warsaw gate”, it’s now eerily deserted. Reeds have overgrown the road used by military vehicles and rare birds on the migration path are now returning to area.
Allen says the next proposal to UNESCO to list Babylon as a protected world heritage site will include the Saddam-era reconstruction and even the US military occupation. He says along with the overall conservation plan, the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities has asked for help in maintaining what’s left of the one-time US and Polish military presence. The new proposal will argue that Babylon should not be considered as the pristine remnants of an ancient city, but as something wider — a city that from the earliest days of civilization was adapted to the whims and desires of its conquerors.
Babylon: the administrative capital of the Persian Empire
In 539 BC, the Neo-Babylonian Empire fell to Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, with an unprecedented military engagement known as the Battle of Opis. The famed walls of Babylon were indeed impenetrable, with the only way into the city through one of its many gates or through the Euphrates, which ebbed beneath its thick walls. Metal gates at the river’s in-flow and out-flow prevented underwater intruders, if one could hold one’s breath to reach them. Cyrus and his generals devised a plan to use the Euphrates as the mode of entry to the city, ordering large camps of troops at each point and instructed them to wait for the signal. Awaiting an evening of a national feast among Babylonians (generally thought to refer to the feast of Belshazzar mentioned in Daniel V), Cyrus’ troops diverted the Euphrates river upstream, causing the Euphrates to drop to about “mid thigh level on a man” or to dry up altogether. The soldiers marched under the walls through the lowered water. The Persian Army conquered the outlying areas of the city’s interior while a majority of Babylonians at the city centre were oblivious to the breach. The account was elaborated upon by Herodotus, and is also mentioned by passages in the Hebrew Bible.
Cyrus later issued a decree permitting captive people, including the Jews, to return to their own land, to allow their temple to be rebuilt back in Jerusalem.
Under Cyrus and the subsequent Persian king Darius the Great, Babylon became the capital city of the 9th Satrapy (Babylonia in the south and Athura in the north), as well as a centre of learning and scientific advancement. In Achaemenid Persia, the ancient Babylonian arts of astronomy and mathematics were revitalised and flourished, and Babylonian scholars completed maps of constellations. The city was the administrative capital of the Persian Empire, the preeminent power of the then known world, and it played a vital part in the history of that region for over two centuries. Many important archaeological discoveries have been made that can provide a better understanding of that era.