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Saving Babylon

Babylon’s adjacent Southern Palace, infamously reconstructed by Saddam in the 1980’s, looks very different. A maze of chest-high walls has been constructed over the fragmentary lines of mud brick that the Germans so carefully exposed. On the far side of these, in the great spaces of Nebuchadnezzar’s court, Saddam’s walls rise 40 feet in the air. Archaeologists are furious about the reconstructions, which trampled much of value in the soil and sealed it all up under Saddam’s clumsy grandiosities. The new bricks all bear Saddam’s name—stamped on them like the old kings stamped some of their bricks, stamped on them like brutality is stamped into this aching nation.

Over a cup of tea, two of the resident archaeologists talked with me about the site’s meaning, its permanence. "The thought, the ideas, the civilization has been transferred from the Babylonians to the Greeks to the Romans to the Arabs to Islam and all the way to today," one of them said. They insisted that Saddam would be forgotten in a thousand years, but not Hammurabi. Then they said they would like to invite me home for tea or supper, but they did not want to get us all killed.

Whenever it is that Saddam will be forgotten, his grotesque walls are there now, like the gravel parking lot of the U.S. troops, and some traces will remain many centuries from now: just more detritus from the latest waves of empire and violence to crash upon the shores of this hard, inspiring, essential country.

No doubt the huge walls at Babylon are a crime against posterity, but inwardly I confess I’m grateful for them. The towering walls make the palace’s huge spaces seem even larger and give the courts and the throne rooms contours that I can understand. When a hot wind swirls around the vast empty courtyards, it is easy to imagine the same wind plucking at the hem of the gown of some great king. Did this wind whistle for Hammurabi?I ask myself. Hearing the sound of footsteps in a passage behind me, I think of Belshazzar: was there anything of that spookiness, loneliness, and vulnerability when he sat down here for his last feast, in 539 B.C.?That was the night of the handwriting on the wall: "You have been weighed in the balances," it said, according to Daniel, "and found wanting." Belshazzar did not know it then, but Persian invaders had already breached Babylon’s walls, as they had done before the time of Hammurabi—and have done since. Members of the local SWAT team, five miles away in the provincial capital of Hilla, say they fight Iranian intruders in the surrounding towns and villages every week or so.

The Ishtar Gate—minus hundreds of yards of its colored tile that have been in Berlin since the early 20th century—runs along the east side of the palaces. The Lion of Babylon, its nose reputedly broken off by Turkish soldiers looking for treasure during the 1920’s, sits on the other side. And a few hundred yards away from the tidy digs and reconstructions, in the middle of boggy, broken land, there is a mound so low that one sees it only after closing to within 20 or 30 yards: the tiny remains of the great ziggurat of Babylon. The murky and overgrown ditch that surrounds its four sides like a moat shows why the tower cannot be excavated: Iraq’s high water table would erode any foundations the excavators uncovered. If you push through the head-high reeds at its base, leap across a narrow part of the moat, and scramble up 10 feet of dark, chunky, weedy earth, you end up on top of what remains of the Tower of Babel. You are where man aspired to something greater by building his tower that "reaches to the heavens" and where God made diversity and incomprehension—where he "confused the languages"—the eternal punishment for this presumption.

Looking down on the Tower and the Hanging Gardens and the throne rooms from a huge man-made mound about half a mile away is a giant palace built by Saddam in the 1990’s. Inside, every light switch and doorknob has been stripped away, and the walls in the big empty rooms bear graffiti in Arabic, English, Spanish, Polish, and Mongolian: I LOVE KIRSTY, CHICOS MALOS CHILE, and so on. Someone has written REJOICE, O YOUNG MAN, IN THY YOUTH. I see this piece of graffiti all over Iraq. It often looks like it has been written by someone who does not write frequently in Latin script. The words come from Ecclesiastes, by way of Platoon, and I find them haunting. What young man?Me?Rejoice?How?

Saddam built the hill and the palace where he could look down on the ghosts of Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar, and Alexander, and now the palace’s windows have been blasted open and a basketball net droops cockeyed above marble floors dirty with dust and the excrement of birds. It was there, not atop the little muddy mound off in a boggy field far below, that at last I felt as if I had seen the Tower of Babel; high up above the plain, where the hubris of man had held sway, there was now only silence and echoes of the babble of many tongues.

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