The tunnel stank, yet I could scarcely keep from leaping into it after my guide said, “You are now standing on the ruins of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.”
We were in ancient Mesopotamia’s greatest city, on the grounds of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The gardens are long gone, and I was looking at a reconstruction of their foundation. Animals, and possibly their caretakers, had moved in, one example of the chaos visited upon Iraq’s archaeological treasures since the U.S.-led invasion.
Ancient Babylon, dating back to 2,300 B.C., lies about 50 miles south of Baghdad, near the town of Al-Hillah. It was one of many civilizations of Mesopotamia, which is Greek for “between the rivers,” the Tigris and Euphrates.
Babylon is best known for the Tower of Babel and King Nebuchadnezzar II, who destroyed Jerusalem. Reigning from about 605 to 562 B.C., he created the gardens for his wife, Amytis of Media, a mountainous region of modern-day Iran, to remind her of home. Shortly after his death, the empire fell to invading Persians.
Like most ruins, Babylon isn’t much more than piles of mud bricks. Imagination and a desire to connect with history make the site. Unless, of course, you’re a demented dictator who believed himself Nebuchadnezzar’s reincarnation.
Saddam Hussein, to the horror of archaeologists, rebuilt many of the ancient ruins, damaging the site in the process. My guide, Ghanum Duleme, took me through the most impressive reconstruction, Nebuchadnezzar’s palace. Modern brick walls soared overhead, but Duleme pointed to the ground, where the line of ancient bricks still visible two to three feet above the ground sagged under the weight of the modern walls built over them. The rebuilt palace was a barren, monochromatic fantasy, devoid of detail and spirit.
Hussein is inescapable. He emulated the practice in Nebuchadnezzar’s time of stamping bricks with the king’s name, and virtually every other brick in the reconstruction is inscribed in Arabic with, “In the time of President Saddam, 1988.” One of his palaces looms above the ruins, visible from every point, even from the Lion of Babylon, an enormous basalt carving of a lion vanquishing an enemy.
It is the perfect spot for a photo but one you could never take during Hussein’s rule, because of security concerns about the palace.
“If you took a picture here, the guards would come down from the hill and beat you, smash your camera, and sometimes take you away,” Duleme said.
Authorities no longer beat up tourists visiting Babylon. In fact, having them around is a key goal of the Iraqi State Ministry for Tourism and Antiquities Affairs, which is working with the U.S. government.
I met Diane Siebrandt, an archaeologist and cultural- heritage liaison for the U.S. State Department at the new U.S. Embassy complex in Baghdad. As we spoke, a window gave a view to the ancient Tigris and its swaying palms. Her delight in working here is obvious.
“I just really do enjoy being in this country,” Siebrandt said, adding that archaeology “reconnects this country with the rest of the world.”
She said there are more than 12,000 documented archaeological sites in Iraq, but Babylon is a priority. The State Department has invested $700,000 in the Future of Babylon Project, a joint project of the World Monuments Fund and Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities to work on a site management plan for Babylon.
The two-year project includes areas such as stabilization of Babylon’s ruins, crowd management, English training for guides, and toilets. Siebrandt acknowledged that historic preservation aside, the goal was getting visitors into the ruins.
“Tourism at the end is going to be one of the big economic boosts for this country, because it is the cradle of civilization,” Siebrandt said.
The country already has 4,500 employees at museums and archaeological sites, according to Abdul Zahra al-Talaqani, the spokesman for the Iraqi State Ministry for Tourism and Antiquities Affairs.
He and I met in the lobby of the Al-Rasheed Hotel, located in Baghdad’s Green Zone, among local politicians in badly tailored suits, sheiks in traditional outfits, voluptuous newscasters in tight skirts, fair-haired Americans in polo shirts and khakis, and soldiers in fatigues. Observing this scene out of a cliched war movie are mysterious, cigar-puffing men.
Al Talaqani mostly discussed Shia Muslim religious pilgrimages, the country’s most important tourism, which in 2008 drew one million Iranians into the country. He also mentioned the British agency Hinterland Travel bringing European groups to Babylon, stressing that they “visited all this area, and they went back to their homes and to Europe safe.”
Al Talaqani also felt that the war has made Americans curious.
“In the future an American might come to visit a religious shrine, or an ancient civilization. Many American people want to come see the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers,” he said.
Without question, communing with antiquity is what makes Iraq’s tourism potential so compelling. I had seen Babylon exhibits in museums the world over, from Baghdad’s own reopened National Museum to Berlin’s Pergamon, with its rebuilt Ishtar Gate.
Yet nothing compares to the real thing — pacing in the hot desert sun along the stones of Nebuchadnezzar’s imperial procession route and approaching the portions of the Ishtar Gates extant. Weather-beaten, their blue glazing long gone, the mythical bulls, lions and dragons still stare down from overhead. To touch the 2,600-year-old crumbling surface is to connect with ancient Babylon in the most visceral way.
And Babylon brings alive empires and invading armies past and present. On the return to Baghdad, I came across a monument to Hussein, several stories high, his face etched in stone. Though strafed by bullets, it still stands. Thousands once existed, but since the invasion, the U.S. and the new Iraqi government dismantled all they could.
Like the bricks of Babylon, I felt the need to touch it, to run my hands across its rough surface, to make this part of history real. One day, the sands will swallow this monument. Saddam Hussein, the U.S. invasion, the chaos Iraq finds itself in now — all of it will be one more lost legend in the sands of Mesopotamia.