BABYLON, Iraq — 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 US 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 US State Department and carried out by the New York-based World Monuments 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.
"I'm optimistic because what is happening in Babylon is the proper and scientific step and, God willing, the work in Babylon will open up new horizons," said Qais Hussein Rashid, head of Iraq's impoverished antiquities department.
Founded in the 3rd millennium B.C., Babylon rose to prominence nearly 4,000 years ago under King Hammurabi, whose famous law tablet resides in Paris' Louvre Museum. In subsequent centuries the city was conquered, razed and rebuilt several times, becoming the largest city in the world with 250,000 inhabitants under King Nebuchadnezzar II in 600 B.C.
Nebuchadnezzar built the famed hanging gardens, one of the seven wonders of the world, for his homesick wife. He also exiled the Jewish people from Israel, gaining Babylon a bad rap in the Judeo-Christian tradition and the name of the city has since become synonymous with sin.
Given the state of the remains, the World Monuments Fund is expanding its project, seeking up $1 million from the US to restore two monuments in urgent need of rescue: the 2,500 year old Nabu-Sha-Khare temple and the remains of the monumental Ishtar Gate, once the main entrance to Nebuchadnezzar's city.
Of all the battered ruins, the temple has the most potential, with its arched rooms and courtyards holding altars to the gods.
"This had the most original fabric," explained Jeffrey Allen, a project coordinator. "It is a rare example of a fairly intact temple from the new Babylonian period."
But plaster smeared over the mud brick building in the 1980s is flaking away and in some places the weight of the modern materials has pulled down the ancient walls. Termite-infested wooden beams have also collapsed, bringing down parts of the ceiling, and the lower levels of the walls are being eaten away by rising water from nearby agriculture.
The 45-foot-tall (13.7 meters) foundations of the Ishtar Gate remain impressive, built of bricks decorated with exquisite reliefs of dragons and bullocks. Cement flooring laid down in the 1980s, however, has pushed ground water into the gates' walls, disintegrating the bricks and destroying the lower row of carved animals.
Babylon reopened to the public last year and receives a trickle of visitors, almost entirely locals. The site was a US and the Polish military base until 2005, and a UNESCO report in 2009 slammed the military for damaging it with their heavy equipment.
But for Allen and others studying the site, the damage from the Saddam years is far more serious.
Aiming to associate himself with the glorious kings of Iraq's past, Saddam ordered the country's ruins to be rebuilt. Nebuchadnezzar's southern palace now has towering walls of modern yellow bricks, many of them stamped with Saddam's name. The palace and a nearby rebuilt Greek amphitheater were used to host an annual music festival.
The work "was rushed through with many mistakes," said Ayeed Ghalib al-Taie, the deputy site inspector who has worked in Babylon for the last decade.
Now that the surrounding area is secure, provincial officials are eager to have visitors — with their cash — coming to the site again. The governor of Babil province, is pushing quick restoration and doesn't want to wait for further study.
"We are not satisfied with the pace of the work in the site, which is being totally neglected by the antiquities board," said Mansour al-Manae, a member of the provincial council and head of its archaeology and tourism committee.
Already the province has taken over part of the site, converted some modern buildings into facilities for visitors and has laid claim to the hilltop palace Saddam built overlooking the ruins in the 1990s.
"We are trying our best to attract investments in order to build
restaurants and other attractions," said al-Manae, calling the site "a
big source of money to the province and to the country."
The governor went so far as to contact UNESCO behind the back of the
antiquities department in January and sign a letter of intent to work on
Babylon together. But Baghdad pushed him to cancel the letter, said
Rashid, the government antiquities chief.
With stability gradually returning to the country after years of strife,
tourists interested in Iraq's rich history are trickling back to see
sights like the Ziggurat of Ur, birthplace of the biblical Patriarch
Abraham, further south.
Mohammed Taher, a tour guide at Babylon for decades, remembers Western
tourists in the 1970s and 1980s would come to the ruins of the Tower of
Babel at New Year's to hold ceremonies commemorating its Biblical
significance — even though all that's left is a square-shaped grassy
Allen of the WMF argues that going slow now to draw up careful plans
will pay off more later with international donors.
"New excavations can't go forward until we sort out these problems,"
said Allen. But once that happens "you are going to have a fabulous site
someday, it has great potential."