Saving Iraq's Treasures

As archaeologists worldwide help recover looted artifacts, they worry for the safety of the great sites of early civilization.

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GATE OF THE GODS 1800 B.C. - A.D. 75

Few words evoke as many images of ancient decadence, glory and prophetic doom as does “Babylon.” Yet the actual place—50 miles south of Baghdad—is flat, hot, deserted and dusty. Next to a crumbling small-scale reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate, its once-vivid blue tiles faded and its parade of animal reliefs scarred and broken, a forlorn gift shop offers miniature plastic statues of the famous Lion of Babylon and T-shirts bearing faux cuneiform. The real Ishtar Gate, built by Nebuchadnezzar II around 600 B.C., was hauled off to Berlin by archaeologists a century ago. Visitors must visualize among the low mounds of rubble a vast and cosmopolitan city, holy as Mecca, wealthy as Zurich, as magnificently planned as Washington. The Tower of Babel is now a swampy pit. Looming above the sad heaps of brick is an imperious palace built in 1987 by Saddam Hussein, who often expressed a kinship with Nebuchadnezzar.


By that king’s time (604-562 B.C.), Babylon already had a complex history stretching 1,150 years to King Hammurabi, who posted a legal code with 282 laws around 1750 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar inherited a city free of Assyrian domination—Nineveh and Ashur lay in ruins to the north—and not as yet threatened by the growing powers of Persia on the Iranian plateau to the east. Babylon’s rule stretched from the foot of that plateau across Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean Sea.


“Babylon was a city where living was beautiful, so the cuneiform tablets tell us,” says Giovanni Bergamini, an archaeologist at Italy’s University of Turin who excavated the site before the first Gulf War. “It was a free city for refugees, a holy city, a kind of Jerusalem.” The word “Babylon” itself means “gate of the gods.” Scores of temples served by a caste of priests catered to the Mesopotamian deities and their followers. Stone slabs paved wide streets; high gates and walls defined the 1.6-square-mile rectangle of the city; and a massive bridge spanned the Euphrates, which flowed through the heart of the city.


The most elaborate temple, in the city center, was dedicated to Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, whose name was too holy to speak. Nearby, rising 300 feet, was the sevenstepped and brightly painted ziggurat called Etemenanki—“the foundation of heaven and earth”—which the Jews dubbed the Tower of Babel. During the spring festival—a sort of Mardi Gras and Holy Week rolled into one—the king lay aside his crown and prostrated himself before Marduk’s statue. Then the high priest slapped the king to expunge his sins. Pilgrims thronged the streets, and statues of gods brought by people from all over Mesopotamia were carried by singing crowds, taken to the river and placed on boats, then ceremoniously carried in chariots to a special temple in the north part of the city.


Amid all this celebration was the unrelenting clatter of business. Bergamini has excavated areas that may have served as banks. “This was a trading city,” he says. “Caravans and ships brought cargoes of imported woods, silver, gold, bronze, ivory, frankincense, marble, wine and grains, vegetables and fruits of all kinds.”


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