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Saving Babylon

I first saw Babylon, or part of it, driving back and forth past it during the United States–led siege of Najaf, Iraq, in August 2004. On the way south from Baghdad, a part of the ancient city is briefly visible as a large mound between date-palm plantations. It comes soon after one passes through the so-called Death Triangle of Sunni towns south of Baghdad, and you pass it shortly after you feel you can stop lying down on the back seat of your car pretending to be ill or asleep. So Babylon marks a good feeling, like a sweet gasp of fresh air: safety, and the delightful freedom of being able to look out a moving window.

Immediately the irony dawns. Safety?Hardly. Freedom?Forget it—possibly the greatest destination on earth is just behind those trees and you can’t even pull off the road for a look. One of the tragedies for a foreigner in Iraq is to be where history began, to be surrounded as nowhere else by places so important in the evolution of human thought and the web of social existence, and to have so little freedom to explore it all. But where Iraq takes away, it also gives. Faith, folly, sacrifice, grandeur, blood, vanity, greed, memory: where else are the sinews of history as visible under the skin of a place?

The same circumstances—the chaos and the fear—that make Iraq’s treasures so inaccessible are exactly those that make the place so significant. Why can I not get inside the national museum in Baghdad?Because the director has fled to Damascus. He is a Christian and the hardcore Shias don’t like him or all his pre-Islamic idols and trinkets. What is inside the museum?Just objects, things that tell the story of a hundred states and dynasties and religions that warred and died and survived across the Mesopotamian plain. Yes, that is what those dusty objects are about: history and conflict, the birth pangs and death pangs of empires, epochs, and ideas.

Just to pass Babylon that first time was a thrill. The Pyramids, Angkor, Machu Picchu, and the Parthenon—none of them became ideas as well as places, or did as much as Babylon to shape so much of the subsequent world. Fifty miles south of Baghdad, in a province still called Babil, the ghosts of Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar are there today, waiting out their thousandth war where the latest round of empires, dynasties, and faiths inscribe their stories on the dusty floodplain of central Iraq.

Last summer, the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities & Heritage in Baghdad invited me to be among the first foreign reporters since Saddam’s day to visit the ruins. About 35 Iraqi archaeologists were at work, backed up by 180 Archaeological Police officers. Most of the site, about 2,000 acres, is surrounded by barbed wire. American forces were there for four months during and after the 2003 invasion, and the directorate is still angry about their alleged treatment of the site. The soldiers poured gravel for a parking lot over ground that might have valuable material beneath it, the director told me when I met him in Baghdad. They used rubble-rich earth for their sandbags and parked helicopters on top of a buried structure.

The Babylon of Hammurabi, a city that flourished around 1800 B.C., is still underground. On top of it is the city of Nebuchadnezzar II, from the sixth century B.C. The southern part is mostly an older version of what was left after about 20 years of meticulous excavation by the Germans between 1899 and 1917: a scruffy graveyard of trenches and crumbling brick walls. In a cool vault 15 feet underground there is a group of chambers believed by the Germans to have housed the waterworks for the city’s Hanging Gardens—the second wonder of the ancient world. The Iraqi archaeologists at Babylon no longer have the time, manpower, or funds for much new digging; their effort is mostly given to maintaining and protecting what has already been uncovered. On a wall underground, a Salvadoran soldier has written his name and the words ZAPATOR DE COMBATE. Nearby there are used packets from the Americans’ ready-to-eat meals, promising delights such as Menu No. 4: Country Captain Chicken. As I turned on my flashlight and moved deeper into the cool vault, one of the excavators cautioned me to go no farther. "Snakes," he said, "and scorpions." Indiana Jones, eat your heart out, I thought. But only a pair of doves flew out past me in a frightening flurry of beating wings.

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