Is Babylon once again rising from the ashes?

First-person: There is growing evidence the Iraqi government is serious about rebuilding this ancient wonder of the world.

Iraqis celebrate after UNESCO designated ancient city of Babylon as World Heritage Site in July of 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/THAIER AL-SUDANI)
Iraqis celebrate after UNESCO designated ancient city of Babylon as World Heritage Site in July of 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/THAIER AL-SUDANI)

A fascinating story is being written in the shifting sands of Arabia.

A story that will confound atheists and agnostics.

And should thrill Jews and Christians.

Yet few are paying attention.

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In 2006, I wrote my first non-fiction book, “Epicenter,” in which I explained that according to Bible prophecy, the ancient and long-forgotten city of Babylon will one day be literally rebuilt.

I also explained that the once-so-powerful nation of Babylon — the country which we now call Iraq — will one day rise to become the most wealthy and powerful nation in the world, according to Old and New Testament prophets and apostles.

Few believed me at the time. Fewer still cared.

But things are changing and it’s time for an update.

SKEPTICS AND CYNICS ABOUND

I should acknowledge up front that those who reject the teachings of the Bible understandably have a difficult time imagining a season of peace and prosperity emerging in Iraq.

They certainly have long had a difficult time imagining the rebuilding of the ancient Iraqi city of Babylon, at least on the scale described in the Left Behind novels about the end times written by Evangelicals Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, which sold more than 60 million books in the 1990s - or any of my novels or non-fiction books.

Kevin Phillips, the best-selling author and former Republican strategist, was one such skeptic.

“Evil Babylon, the antithesis of Jerusalem, the good city, prompted its own literature in the 1990s, and [Tim] LaHaye’s tens of millions of readers praised his series as making the Bible and its supposed predictions ‘come alive,’” sniped Phillips in his own 2006 book, American Theocracy, in which he mocked “prophecy believers” who accept the biblical view that Babylon will one day actually be rebuilt “on its ancient ruins.”

Slowly but surely, we are seeing the Bible prophecies regarding Babylon come to pass.

True, neither the city nor the country is what they will one day be.

Nevertheless, top Iraqi officials are determined to rebuild both, even though as Muslims they don’t believe in the Bible, or know much about the prophecies it contains.

Indeed, as I was doing research for “Epicenter,” I interviewed then-Iraqi Finance Minister Ali Abdul-Amir Allawi.

He told me he absolutely loved the idea of rebuilding Babylon.

“Cultural, religious, archeological, and biblical tourism is a big opportunity for Iraq,” Allawi told me.

“I think rebuilding Babylon is a wonderful idea, as long as it is not done at the expense of the antiquities themselves.”

He even added that “a theme park” built near Babylon to draw more tourists would be a good idea, “as long as it’s done outside of Babylon, away from the archeological sites.”

Still, since the publication of “Epicenter” 16 years ago, the skeptics and cynics certainly seem to have had the upper hand.

Iraq has been a basket case.

War. Terrorist insurgencies. ISIS-led genocide. Crumbling infrastructure. High poverty. And these are just a few of the nation’s myriad of troubles.

No wonder so many Iraqis fled to other Arab countries, to Europe, and even to the United States, if they could.

If this weren’t bad enough, record low oil prices in recent years – as low as $20 a barrel in 2020 — severely hampered any chance at a true and lasting recovery.

“Over the last decade, oil revenues have accounted for more than 99% of [Iraq’s] exports, 85% of the government’s budget, and 42% of GDP,” according to the World Bank.

So, terribly low oil revenues – along with COVID-related lockdowns and travel restrictions – flatlined economic growth and caused unemployment to spike.

General view of the ancient city of Babylon near Hilla (Credit: REUTERS/THAIER AL-SUDANI)General view of the ancient city of Babylon near Hilla (Credit: REUTERS/THAIER AL-SUDANI)

A CHANGE IN THE WIND

Suddenly, however, we are seeing a change in the wind.

With the war and insurgencies finally finished, and the ISIS caliphate destroyed, Iraq is finally turning itself around.

With 148 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, Iraq is now the fifth largest producer of oil in the world.

And oil prices are now skyrocketing, hitting $90 a barrel this month for the first time since 2014.

Should the trend continue, and security continue to improve, Iraq will be awash with petrodollars. Growth will surge. Unemployment will plummet. And Iraq will become vastly more attractive for investors and even for tourists.

Now Iraqi officials are hoping to get back to the ambitious construction and investment plans they were hoping to pursue soon after the country was liberated from Saddam Hussein in the spring of 2003, and rebuilding Babylon is one of their most intriguing priorities.

A view of a dragon on the wall of the ancient city of Babylon near Hilla (Credit: REUTERS/THAIER AL-SUDANI)A view of a dragon on the wall of the ancient city of Babylon near Hilla (Credit: REUTERS/THAIER AL-SUDANI)

WILL BABYLON REALLY RISE AGAIN?

Once the wealthiest and most powerful cities in the world — indeed, a wonder of the ancient world – Babylon’s empire was defeated by the Persian monarch, Cyrus the Great, in 539 B.C.

Later, the Persian empire was defeated by Alexander the Great and the Greeks ruled the earth. Then came the Romans.

Along the way, Middle East trade routes shifted, and Babylon and its glorious history was abandoned and forgotten.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, Saddam Hussein ordered his archaeologists and engineers to begin excavating and rebuilding the city once home to the much-feared King Nebuchadnezzar, who took over most of the known world in his day, conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the nation of Judah, and enslaved the vast majority of Jews in the world at that time.

Indeed, they began rebuilding the famed Ishtar Gates and the city’s walls, as well as restore the city walls and some of its buildings.

During the eight-year-long war between Iraq and Iran, however, all such work ground to a halt.

MAKING THE NEW BABYLON “A SHOWCASE” OF THE NEW IRAQ

Since the liberation of Iraq in 2003, however, a great deal has happened.

On April 18, 2006, the New York Times reported in a front-page story that “Babylon, the mud-brick city with the million-dollar name, has paid the price of war. It has been ransacked, looted, torn up, paved over, neglected and roughly occupied... But Iraqi leaders and United Nations officials are not giving up on it. They are working assiduously to restore Babylon, home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and turn it into a cultural center and possibly even an Iraqi theme park.”

“The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organiza­tion is pumping millions of dollars into protecting and restoring ­Babylon and a handful of other ancient ruins in Iraq,” noted correspondent ­Jeffrey Gettleman. “UNESCO has even printed up a snazzy brochure, with Bab­ylon listed as the premier destination, to hand out to wealthy donors.”

“Cultural tourism could become Iraq’s second biggest industry, after oil,” said Philippe Delanghe, a United Nations official helping with the project.

“One day millions of people will visit Babylon,” said Donny George, head of Iraq’s Board of Antiquities. “I’m just not sure ­anybody knows when.”

In April 2009, I reported that “the government of Iraq is moving forward with plans to protect the archaeological remains of the ancient City of Babylon, in preparation for building a modern city of Babylon. The project, originally started by the late Saddam Hussein, is aimed eventually at attracting scores of ‘cultural tourists’ from all over the world to see the glories of Mesopotamia’s most famous city. What’s more, the Obama Administration is contributing $700,000 towards ‘The Future of Babylon Project,’ through the State Department’s budget.”

In January 2011, I shared with my readers an intriguing article published by the New York Times “about Iraq’s latest efforts to preserve, protect, restore and then rebuild the ancient city of Babylon and make it a draw for tourists, with U.S. taxpayer assistance.”

“The Babylon project is Iraq’s biggest and most ambitious by far, a reflection of the ancient city’s fame and its resonance in Iraq’s modern political and cultural heritage,”  the Times reported, noting that the State Department had announced “a new $2 million grant to begin work to preserve the site’s most impressive surviving ruins. They include the foundation of the Ishtar Gate, built in the sixth century B.C. by Nebuchadnezzar’s father, Nabopolassar, and adorned with brick reliefs of the Babylonian gods Marduk and Adad.”

By July 2019, so much progress had been made that Babylon was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Last fall, the “Babylon International Festival” was held again for the first time in two decades.

The goal: To “relaunch art, culture and even the economy of Iraq” by making Babylon “a showcase” of a new Iraq, a must-see tourist attraction for visitors from all over the world, said one participant.

In February 2021, National Public Radio reported on the state of tourism in Babylon.

“Since Babylon reopened in 2009, tourist numbers have fluctuated,” said Alice Fordham. “The local tourist board says the best recent year for Iraqi tourists was 2017, when more than 35,000 visited. This winter — normally peak season because of the cool weather — the pandemic affected the numbers and about 10,000 came. The year before, many stayed away for fear of being caught up in violence at demonstrations in nearby cities.”

“But some local investors believe in the promise of domestic tourism in places like this that have long been under-visited,” she added. “Several tours now run from Baghdad to the scenic marshlands of the south — which some scholars say may have been the biblical Garden of Eden — where sleek buffalo swim through grasses and people live on islands. Tourism has been growing there gradually, as security has improved and hotels have opened.”

Just this month, an Arab newspaper reported that the Iraqi government is going to convert “a palace overlooking the UNESCO World Heritage site [in Babylon] into a museum.”

WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE ABOUT THE FUTURE OF BABYLON?

So, should we believe the Hebrew prophets such as Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel that Babylon will really rise again in the last days?

I say yes.

How about you?