Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rebuilding Babylon




If you ever happen to find yourself in Iraq you should pay a visit to Babylon, not because of its beautiful scenery but because it once was the largest, and some say grandest, city in the world.


In 7th century B.C., Babylon was about the size of the part of Moscow inside the Garden Ring, with palaces, temples, fortified walls and the legendary Hanging Gardens.


Today, the ancient capital of Mesopotamia, called Babel by Iraqis, is uninhabited. Amid sprawling dusty ruins, most of the walls and buildings of central Babylon have been rebuilt with modern bricks.


The Iraqi government had an ambitious plan to fully restore the city but ran into money troubles due to United Nations sanctions imposed after the Gulf War in 1991.


The plan included building a cable car to run in a triangle pattern above the ruins. Three hills, on which the towers were to be constructed, are the only sign of the project so far.


I set out for Babylon from Baghdad by taxi, paying 25,000 Iraqi dinars ($20) for the hour drive.


When I approached the blue Ishtar Gate, adorned with bulls and dragons, I came across three bored Iraqi guys sitting next to a CB, or citizens band, radio transmitter.


"We are ham radio operators," one of them explained. "We are talking to the world CB partners about the Babylon festival."


Since 1987, the Iraqi government has been holding annual folk festivals in Babylon, bringing in performers from Europe and Asia. A group of Cossacks represented Russia at this year's 10-day festival, which is held in a Greek theater next to the Babylon ruins.


"Sixty percent of the people we talk to are from Russia" the ham-radio guy said when he learned that I was from Moscow.


At the Ishtar Gate I also met Heirdar, a local guide. I was the only visitor to Babylon that day, so we had the place to ourselves.


My personal tour started at the Ishtar Gate, the main entrance into inner Babylon. It was likely through the Ishtar Gate that Alexander the Great made his triumphant entrance when the city surrendered to him in 331 B.C.


The problem, according to Heirdar, was that when the Iraqi government rebuilt the gate they put it in the wrong place.


Babylon was first mentioned in the 23rd century B.C., but it was under King Nebuchadnezzar II in 7th century B.C. that it hit its glory and became a major imperial power. The writings of the 5th century Greek historian Herodotus provide much of what is known about the ancient city and they relate largely to the Babylon built by Nebuchadnezzar.


After falling to the Persians in 539 B.C., Babylon fell to Alexander the Great two centuries later. He had planned to make the city along the Euphrates River his imperial capital, but he died here in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar in 323 B.C. and Babylon soon lost its importance.


Few valuable artifacts remain in the ancient sites of Babylon, that Heirdar blamed on theGerman expeditions excavating on the site throughout the 1970s and 1980s.


The only monument left among the ruins is a sculpture of a lion and a warrior, which was not completely finished by its ancient master. "The Germans thought that is does not represent any value and left it behind," Heirdar said.


Most of the original walls were demolished over the years by peasants living in the surrounding area. They even used dynamite to blow up buildings to get the bricks for use in building their own houses.


Some of the few remaining old walls, with reliefs of animals among the irregular stones, are near the site of where the first Ishtar Gate stood.


Throughout the ancient ruins, Heirdar showed me only two original bricks with carvings, decorated to honor the ancient builders and royal dynasties of Babylon.


Modern builders implanted the occasional new brick in the wall in honor of the "great leader and nation's father Saddam Hussein."


Proof of Iraq's vast oil reserves is easily seen in the Babylon ruins. Back in 9th century B.C., workers used bitumen, which is made of crude oil, in construction works and road pavement.


Original bricks affixed with bitumen can be seen in the basement of the newly reconstructed walls, but they have no markings.


The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were known in Hellenic times as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. They were planted by Nebuchadnezzar II who built them to console his Median wife, Amytis, because she missed the mountains and greenery of her homeland.


German archaeologists believe the Hanging Gardens were built next to the Southern Citadel above an ice storage within the inner walls. Heirdar disagreed, saying the queen surely would have wanted her gardens away from the noise and dust of the city, and said they were most likely at the remote Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II at the northern end of the outer city walls.


Babylon, of course, is also the site of the biblical Tower of Babel, signifying man's attempt to defy God and reach the heavens through his own skills. God is said to have undermined their efforts by creating a multitude of languages so humans could no longer work together.


Babylon's ziggurat, a stepped pyramid, is sometimes identified with the biblical tower.


Today, a square pit covered with palms next to the city walls is described as the site of the Tower of Babylon.


At the end of my tour of Babylon, I popped into a souvenir kiosk next to the new Ishtar Gate. I found it the best place to buy gifts for friends, after coming up empty after several hours of hunting in Baghdad. In near-deserted Babylon, I bought T-shirts, paintings and ceramic tiles.