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Iraq's damaged Babylon hopes for revival

By Andrew North
BBC News, Babylon, Iraq

Babylon entrance gate, Iraq (Photo: Andrew North)
A replica of the Ishtar Gate dominates the entrance to Babylon's ruins

Beneath a patch of stony, desert ground on the River Euphrates, surrounded by date palms, many of the secrets of the cradle of civilisation are still waiting to be uncovered.

But the site of ancient Babylon in Iraq - with its legendary hanging gardens and the Tower of Babel reaching to the sky - has suffered under Saddam Hussein's rule and years of conflict.

Parts have been looted, altered or built on, and some of the historic soil has even been used by US coalition soldiers to fill sandbags.

Iraq's former ruler left the biggest mark, recreating his own version of Babylon on top of some of the original ruins, parts of which date back more than 4,000 years.

Today, the site itself is peaceful, almost forgotten, with only a few sleepy guards and the manager there to greet us when we arrive.

It is 85km (55 miles) south of Baghdad. But getting there means passing through one of the most dangerous parts of Iraq - the so-called "triangle of death" just beyond the capital.

It is a bit quieter now, with Iraqi army and police checkpoints every mile in places.

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Andrew North takes a tour of the ruins.

'Substantial damage'

In the UK, an exhibition just opened at the British Museum in London on Babylon and the myths that surround it.

Many experts question, for example, whether the hanging gardens really existed.

But the exhibition has put the city's story back in the limelight.

The museum has also focused attention on what it says is "substantial damage" caused by US and Polish troops who had a base here until 2005.

Maythem Shadid
We have many important historical sites here, but still only a quarter of the area has been excavated
Maythem Shahid

One patch of flat ground we saw had been concreted over to serve as a helicopter landing pad.

A fuel store was carved out of the soil nearby - disturbing key evidence of the past before it could be explored, archaeologists complain.

The Americans say their presence helped to deter looters.

But manager Maythem Shahid, working with the UN's heritage organisation Unesco, says he is pressing for compensation.

What you first see when you arrive is a large replica of the city's Ishtar Gate, commissioned by Saddam Hussein.

Beyond are a series of courtyards and arches, surrounded by high walls and ramparts - his version of the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled Babylon in the 6th century BC.

It is built along the outline of the original ruins, and at the base you can still see some of the old bricks.

But Saddam Hussein went further, inscribing his name on many of the bricks.

"This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq," they read.

But he did also protect some parts of the site, such as the main avenue known as the Procession Street.

Rebellion

I first visited Babylon while Saddam Hussein was still in power, in 2000.

At the time, there was a huge portrait of him and Nebuchadnezzar at the entrance to the ruins.

That has gone now, but the huge palace Saddam Hussein had constructed on another part of the ruins still looks down on the site.

Map of Iraq

"Don't photograph that building," the minder with me at the time instructed, without saying what it was. He was terrified even to look at it.

Eventually, when we were alone, he whispered that he did not agree with what had been done here - a fleeting moment of rebellion against his then ruler's megalomania.

Today, site manager Mr Shahid can be more open, condemning the desecration.

The main ruins you can see now are of Nebuchadnezzar's northern palace, some 2,600 years old, and parts of the old city walls.

Saddam Hussein had a statue of a lion killing a man, which was found there, set up on a plinth nearby.

It was Nebuchadnezzar who is supposed to have built the hanging gardens for his wife. The story goes that she was from the mountains, but living in this desert city, she missed the sight of greenery.

Procession street in Babylon, Iraq (Photo: Andrew North)
Saddam Hussein's new palace walls line what remains of Procession Street

Perhaps the real story is still there underground.

Mr Shahid hopes that one day, proper archaeological exploration will resume.

"We have many important historical sites here," he says, "but still only a quarter of the area has been excavated."

Its importance, and that of the many other ancient sites in Iraq, cannot be overestimated.

Long before there were any towns or cities in Europe, Babylon was thriving.

Modern civilisation as we know it now - built around organised, planned cities - first emerged in what is now Iraq.

Before that, humans had only lived as nomads.

Mr Shahid says he hopes Babylon can regain its World Heritage status - removed because of Saddam Hussein's alterations - and eventually re-open to visitors.

But at the moment, the shutters on the old souvenir shop I remember from 2000 are still down.

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