Publication date: 4 May 2023
On 31 December 2004, while the world celebrated New Year’s Eve, I travelled to the Baghdad Green Zone’s convention centre for a different kind of celebration, albeit a bittersweet one: the return of the ancient heritage site of Babylon to Iraqi control, in a handover from the US-led coalition forces.
No public celebrations took place in Baghdad to mark the end of what had been a long and hard year. Car bombings, missile attacks and kidnappings were an everyday reality in the period after the invasion, and a lengthy curfew was imposed in an attempt to thwart further terror. Many lives were being lost every day – and Iraq’s cultural heritage was also being damaged or destroyed.
From the moment of the invasion in March 2003, it had been apparent that the country’s rich cultural heritage would be among the many casualties of the resulting chaos. The world witnessed the looting and destruction of museums, libraries, national archives and other state institutions. The power vacuum made it easy for looters to search for treasure, and for the illicit trade of antiquities and cultural heritage to prosper. The decision by coalition forces to establish a military base at the heart of Babylon added insult to injury, and fuelled conspiracy theories. As the senior deputy minister of culture, I led the Iraqi delegation that would receive the damaged site – named Camp Alpha by the invading forces – from the US and Polish armies at the end of 2004.
Ancient Babylon symbolizes the ongoing struggle over Iraq’s cultural heritage, which has faced a plethora of threats over the past 20 years. These include the lawlessness that accompanied the US invasion, the corruption and mismanagement that followed, the destruction by Islamic State (ISIS), and the ongoing debate between civil society and religious endowments and developers over the importance of preserving cultural heritage. To promote social cohesion after years of instability, it is essential for Iraq to preserve sites such as Babylon. Through their ancient heritage, Iraqis can find the common history that binds them together.
On that long-ago New Year’s Eve, the delegation, consisting of Dr Abdulaziz Hamid, the director of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH), and Dr Donny George, the director general of museums, entered a circular room within the convention centre, where they were met by representatives from the multinational forces. The meeting was in response to a joint statement on 11 June 2004, by Ambassador Paul Bremer and Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez, which had demanded a halt to all construction at the Babylonian site and the relocation of all coalition troops. Despite the statement, it took more than six months for the troops to comply.
During the meeting, both parties signed a document acknowledging the return of the site, although the Iraqi delegation was disappointed that the document failed to catalogue the damage to it. The carelessness of the armed forces, mostly from the US and Poland, had led to the excavation of mounds full of undiscovered artefacts, the transformation of flat areas into helicopter pads (which caused the ancient walls to shake during take-off and landing), and some attempts to remove decorative bricks from the walls.
Sadly, the damage to Babylon was not limited to the recent invasion. In the 1980s, Saddam Hussein had built a palace on top of a large archaeological mound at the ancient city to project himself as an heir to the legacy of the Babylonian kings, showcasing his conquests and victories. He had also modified some of the original walls of the city to include his initials, which led to UNESCO’s exclusion of Babylon from the tentative list of World Heritage Sites in the mid-1980s.
The Bremer/Sanchez statement had also called for an investigation into the extent of the damage and suggested that the remedial costs should be borne by the US armed forces. However, Iraq only took limited steps towards conducting a comprehensive investigation. A change in government in March 2005 resulted in a revision of all plans made by the previous administration.
Babylon back in Iraqi hands
Despite the transfer of control of Babylon to the Iraqi state, the site was far from fully operational. The fate of Saddam’s palace became a point of contention, with the Babylon governorate seeking to turn it into a hotel or holiday resort, while the SBAH insisted it should be a museum. Eventually, the SBAH, with the support of UNESCO, was able to officially designate the palace as a museum and it was restored, preserving all symbols and references to Saddam.
The site was reopened to the public, and in 2019 it was finally designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, much to the delight of many delegates at the UNESCO forum in Baku. One head delegate brought tears to the eyes of many (including myself) when he described the pride he felt at inducting Babylon, with all its deep history and influence on human civilization, into UNESCO.
The religious endowment challenged the use of the Babylon ruins and tried to expand a shrine located within the site. However, this initiative was met with objections from the SBAH and UNESCO. Despite the efforts to turn Babylon into a religious site, public pressure resulted in the preservation of its status as a symbol of pre-Islamic Mesopotamian heritage.
In 2022, a local non-governmental organization revived the annual Festival of Babylon, omitting the original slogan ‘From Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam Hussein’. Artists and scholars from Iraq and the Arab world gathered at the site’s Greek amphitheatre – defying protests from conservative segments of society – to celebrate the coming of spring from 21 March to 1 April. The festival included concerts, performances and cultural activities.
Despite the inherent magnificence of the site, Babylon continues to face major challenges and neglect. The same is true of many of Iraq’s other archaeological sites. The Babylon site still lacks basic services such as an information centre or adequate explanatory plaques. In 2018, the Iraqi parliament declared Babylon to be the ‘capital of Iraqi civilization’ and allocated IQD250 billion (around US$170 million at today’s exchange rate) over five years for preservation and development. However, a number of factors – fluctuations in oil prices, the COVID-19 pandemic, political rivalries, frequent changes in government, the absence of a city council due to the difficulty of holding elections, and a lack of trust between all parties – have meant that at the time of writing none of the allocated amount has been released.
Furthermore, climate change and decreasing water resources have led some archaeologists to warn of the risk of collapse in the foundations, structures and ornamental façades. While international funding continues to trickle in, the Future of Babylon project – led by the US government, World Monuments Fund and the SBAH – aims to preserve and manage the site. This effort should be part of a broader initiative to turn Babylon and other Iraqi ruins into educational, economic and social hubs.
The SBAH and UNESCO have a plan for Saddam’s palace to become a museum for research, training and restoration. Once funding is secured and conversion work begins, the struggle will be to obtain objects for the exhibit. Valuable artefacts have historically been stored and displayed in Baghdad, where decentralization is viewed with scepticism. Those familiar with the creation of the Basrah Museum, another conversion of a Saddam palace, understand this challenge. Unfortunately, some of the most valuable treasures of the Babylonian empire, such as the Gate of Ishtar and the Code of Hammurabi, will likely remain elsewhere.
Babylon’s everlasting legacy
As a politician and Iraqi nationalist, I view Babylon and other pre-Islamic Mesopotamian history as a means to revive a modern Iraqi national identity in a society that has been torn apart by conflict for many years. While some argue that modern Iraqis have no connection to their ancestors, there is evidence to suggest that ancient Mesopotamian theories, concepts, legends and social attitudes continue to influence society.
Preserving and developing the site, in parallel with efforts to study and excavate it, should be part of a national and civic campaign to educate the public about their common history and promote social cohesion among various communities. The new museum of Babylon should serve as a reminder of all the city has endured, from its days as a glorious imperial capital on the banks of the Euphrates over 4,000 years ago to the events that have led to its ruins witnessed in our lifetime.