Iraq, exploring the ancient city of Babylon !


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Middle East » Iraq » East » Babylon
April 14th 2012
Published: May 19th 2012
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The Ishtar GateThe Ishtar GateThe Ishtar Gate

Babylon, Iraq
After nearly one year and half in Iraq, mostly in Baghdad, this Saturday morning felt special. On the road for a 10 days trip across South Iraq visiting our different structures, this is the one day where I am actually about to go out, not to visit one of the projects, got a few of them already lined up during week days but to go and visit the one and only Babylon.



Never thought that this opportunity would come true and here I am pulling my hair up in a chignon style, fixing tightly a light color scarf over it & wrapping it up around the chignon. Outside, temperatures are approaching the forty degrees and wearing the full on abaya, it can quickly become hell for any women to stand under the heat, so short sleeves and light trouser is the way forward…anyhow, once wrapped up in the synthetic black robe no one would see the difference! Before going out of the house, I put the last touch to the outfit all woman wear in the holy city of Najaf, the black scarf, rolled around the head and fixed to leave a drape on the back above the
Smile!Smile!Smile!

Babylon, Iraq
chignon, not one of my blond hair pulling out (yet).

Fully dressed in black, a tiny band of the light color scarf showing above my forehead, and a very large smile on my face, I am walking out of the house, greeted by the now usual morning Sabah alreh, to which you would reply Sabah alnour or one of the numerous variance of the Arabic greetings.

From Najaf, to reach Babylon we are heading up North, for a two hours journey across the city and its suburbs and then the countryside. Along the road, tiny shops made of mud bricks contrast with more recent constructions, or should I say renovations, as quite often only the façade made of modern materials is new & simply fixed to an older construction.

The traffic is quite dense, mostly trucks & minivans, as for me, well it seems I am simply blending in or at least as long as I don’t look at other woman, then my blue eyes and European face would immediately give me up but I would normally get a smile in return & more ladies staring at me…

This three lane road would as soon as a check point is coming up and every vehicle slowed down, become quite chaotic, with additional lanes being created by impatient truck drivers by passing everyone else by driving on the dusty side walk, and others doing exactly the same one lane further on the right. By the time we reach the actual check point it is five lanes of vehicles that are pouring in, definitely not easing the traffic!

Approaching the Euphrates & the numerous irrigation canals coming out of it, the scenery would dramatically change, the dusty deserted land being replaced by luxurious vegetation, palm trees circling farmers’ habitation and buffalos cooling off in the river. On the side of the road, piles of 25 kg rice bags are lined up in a way that reminds me sand wall, a quite common sight in Baghdad, and kids or grandpas are hiding from the sun seated along one of these walls, selling this locally produced rice to the locals which would occasionally stop by.

We are now at about 90 kilometers South of Baghdad and going through one last small and colorful check point before driving through the gate that leads to Babylon. By that time, our
The throne areaThe throne areaThe throne area

Babylon, Iraq
guide arranged by one of our colleagues is already waiting for us along the road & great all of us with a smile before by passing us with his car and opening up the way to the Ishtar gate.


A tiny bit of history …



Babylon or should I actually say Babilli “Gate of Good” as it was named before the name took its Greek form is…

A city…


• One of the oldest as a matter of fact, dating back to 23rdcentury BC & in several length of time (before BC) the largest city in the world
• Founded by the Amorites tribe, at first nomadic and who then settled up creating their own independent city states in few places of Mesopotamia, Babylon being one of them.
• Was besieged, robbed and destroyed partially many times but at times the Babylonians regained their independence & turned once more Babylon into one of the wonder of the ancient world.
• Once the home of King Nebuchadnezzar II who built most of the jewels of architecture Babylon is known for



Tales & stories by the river of Babylon…


• The Hanging gardens whose name remains somehow poetic & magical
• The tower of Babel…a biblical narrative in which people had one common language and got together to build a tower with “its top in the heaven” to which god reacted by descending on earth and scattering these people all around the world and replacing their common language with a multitude of languages so that they won’t understand each other anymore…
• The famous Ishtar gate named so after the Ishtar goddess, god of love and war who share many similarities with Aphrodite & went according to the legend to the underworld and back…The lion which was her symbol appears on the Ishtar gate



From archeology to reconstruction … to further damages…

The first excavation took place in 1811 by a British scholar and was followed by a few more during the XIX and XX centuries, mostly European, until the last excavation in 1974…most artifacts can now be found in European museum…

In 1983, Saddam Hussein started to reconstruct the city on top of the actual ruins of Babylon…

Although he was planning to reconstruct the hanging garden, which would have leaved more ruins buried under the ground, out of reach for
Babylon Reconstructed Nabuchadnezzar’s palaceBabylon Reconstructed Nabuchadnezzar’s palaceBabylon Reconstructed Nabuchadnezzar’s palace

one can easily spot the ancient bricks (at the bottom) and the modern ones (on top) Babylon, Iraq
any further excavation to take place, the project was stopped with the embargo and the invasion in 2003.

Followed a period during which Babylon was occupied by American Forces who built the “camp Alpha” on Babylon’s ruins, greatly damaging the site & its archeological treasures. A report from the UNESCO dated 2009 listed the extent of the damages caused by the Americans and going through it I can only feel sadness… Digging over thousand years’ old artifacts to build a helipad or moving heavy weight trucks within the site can simply not be in anyway justified, especially when there is plenty of space outside of the site…


Exploring Babylon….



Back to our day exploring Babylon, still 40 degrees and still fully dressed head to toe in black…

A comment to start with, the place is simply huge even though at first going through the Ishtar gate you don’t realize it yet.

The Ishtar gate which can be found in Babylon is actually a reproduction built under Saddam time, which just like the reconstruction at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin out of material excavated, only partially shows the grandeur & splendor of the initial gate.
SirrushSirrushSirrush

dragon head, body covered with scales, eagle legs, lion’s paws and snake tongue… Babylon, Iraq


The gate & the wall of Babylon were previously considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World ; admiring the bright blue tiles & colorful bas relief while listening to ancient stories of Babylon, myths & legends, my mind could only start to travel back in times…

Three type of animals ornate the facade of the gate, the lion, the bull symbol of Adad, god of storms and my favorite the Sirrush, a servant of the pagan god Marduk: dragon head, body covered with scales, eagle legs, lion’s paws and snake tongue…

A small museum was constructed behind the gate, but was closed on that day so we went through the inner courtyard straight back along the inner part of the Babylon Wall.

Walking along the wall, very much trying to remain as much as possible under the shadowed area, I am admiring the bas relief of the Sirrush and lions, the bricks & numerous inscriptions on it. This part of Babylon has been reconstructed by Saddam, in a somehow hasty way and it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to differentiate the modern bricks from the ancient ones which luckily a few layers still remain visible at the bottom of the wall.

Saddam’s mark is visible here as well in a quite obvious way…his name appears on some of the modern bricks similar to the one from Nebuchadnezzar’s time with the following inscription in Arabic « this was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq »



Our next stop is at the processional way, the oldest street of Babylon, a massive avenue that used to lead to the Ishtar Gate. On the left, Babylon Reconstructed Nabuchadnezzar’s palace, with its gigantic entrance & walls, at the bottom of which the top part of the ancient temple can still be seen.

The more I am walking toward the heart of Babylon, the more I feel like visiting two very different places at the same time : on one side, the reconstructed Babylon, which except for the fact that it gives a feel of how Babylon might have look like, is somehow fake, and the « underworld » with the ancient Babylon ruins popping out from underneath the modern Babylon…



Reaching the lion of Babylon, beautifully carved in basalt my appetite for old ruins is finally satisfied… Right behind the lion, spreading over a huge area, a field of genuine Babylon ruins !

No more shadow here, only ruins, dusty/ sandy ground and occasional dried out bush, scorching sun & well….if it was not for our guide, would simply not know where to start !

The ground is covered with sandy stones, some of them with ancient inscriptions on it, truly feel like exploring an excavation site. At some stage, the guide point out to two pieces of rocks lying on the ground, putting these together like two pieces of puzzle, an inscription appears. A few meters later, keeping my eyes on the ground, I find a fragment of ancient terracotta, simply lying there…

In the background, on top of a small artificial hill lies one of Saddam Palace, overlooking the ruins of Babylon, the ruins of the main temple and what is believed by some to be the site of the hanging gardens. Hard to truly picture those as only spread out ruins are remaining but the exploration of this part of the site, without anyone else around, is somehow unreal…

Climbing a few stairs or small hills in abaya
Local kidsLocal kidsLocal kids

Babylon, Iraq
is another story, but at that stage dust or no dust on the black fabric was the least of my worries.



Back to the « reconstructed » Babylon, through a labyrinth standing right in front of one of the main temple. This labyrinth is believed to have been constructed as a defensive barrier, allowing to slow down invaders while according to our guide, the guards could remain on the top part of it and thus easily defend the entrance to Babylon.

Walking further in, we reach a slightly lower place, with a tall & narrow entrance, entering this pitch black cellar, we all go blind for a few seconds while our eyes are getting use to the small ray of light filtering in. The air is somehow fresh and if you can bare the smell, it is worth getting in a bit more to look at the brick structure from inside and yes....inscriptions which are clearly recent, some in English and some in Arabic. This room used to be a cellar where the food was kept, for sure the coolest place of the entire Babylon !



As we reach the throne area, a few teenagers boys pass by us and in the background... well it seems that private security companies are testing just how efficient guarding a group of foreign tourist by standing on top of the labyrinth is...Fully geared up they are escorting a small group of foreigners in shorts and tee-shirts ; sometime I really wonder whether any of them actually gave some thoughts about the place they are visiting & the minimum of respect to be shown outfit wise...

As for us, no escort or guards, simply a good tour guide & the place « nearly » to ourselves...



We finish our visit by a stop at the amphitheatre built at the time of Alexander the great who had turned Babylon into the capital of his empire for a few years. Here again, renovations & added elements including a steal and wood stage have altered the site.



As for the tower of Babel, slightly outside of the main area, nothing is left to be seen, mystery is kept...



Time for us to head back to Najaf. As we leave the site, we pass by once more the group of foreign
Inner courtyardInner courtyardInner courtyard

Babylon, Iraq
tourist, they are leaving too, in a minibus escorted by a light armored vehicle. As for us, well we simply go back to our car parked right outside, thanking again our guide for this memorable day spent by the river of Babylon...


Additional photos below
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Babylon, Iraq


19th May 2012

You are one of the most fascinating bloggers on this website! Thanks so much for posting about your life in places I would love to visit someday.
19th May 2012
Smile!

Magnifique
J aime beaucoup
20th May 2012
Smile!

Hope you are are not too warm, in the Abaya. :)
I took your advice and waited to see how it goes in Syria, before making my decision to go there or not. As you likely guessed, I didn't go there. I stayed in Istanbul instead, which is a beautiful city, georgous in fact. I even met somebody there who suggested I go to Syria with her, as she was going there soon, but I decided to stay in peaceful Istanbul instead. :)
21st May 2012

Someone you know but doesn't want to be known ;)
Excellent blog as usual! You encourage me so much. Not in travellings, but how you think and how you live your life. You must me a strong woman who goes ahead and never looks back! Thank you for shearing your life with us here! You are one of the best bloger! I always enjoy reading your adventures! I can't wait for the next one.
21st May 2012

Thanks !!
Many thanks Andrea, Mell, Fabienne (my dear sister) and the "unknown" blogger for your comments, glad to know you enjoyed this small contribution to my favorite site :-) Mell, glad you are safe & had an amazing time in Istanbul, always better safe than sorry :-) as for the abaya, well it is now 45 degrees in Baghdad, truly glad I don't need to wear it here !
3rd July 2012

Formidable blog!
Salut Laetitia, c'est incroyable lire un blog sur Babylon! Les photos sont magnifiques, Iraq me paraît une destination fascinante. On doit éspérer que le pays se stabilise très bientôt et que la vie des iraquiens s'améliore. Bon courage, Jens
15th July 2012

Preservation of ancient sites
So much to comment on here about this truly remarkable blog - the appropriateness of reconstructing ancient sites (there are arguments for and against the practice), but there is no justification at all for planting a modern military settlement over the ruins. Unfortunately, military forces have a poor history in their treatment of sites identified as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (the Hanging Gardens of Babylon being one), with another site, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, being plundered for stonework by the Knights of St John of Rhodes in the 15th and 16th centuries in order to fortify their castle. The impact of warfare on important historical sites is often overlooked.
24th July 2012

Re: Preservation of ancient sites
Hello Shane, Indeed, cannot agree more with you...protection of historical sites often comes last during conflict times, with cultural heritage stollen or destroyed leaving future generations with little to look back at...A real pitty and even though, afterwards evaluations and sometime reconstructions are taking place, it is very little compared to what has been lost forever.
13th September 2012

great insights!
Thanks for sharing this amazing city so many have read about but so few will visit. Such contrasts--the wonder of seeing ceramics touched by the hands of those living thousand of years ago, the sturdiness of architecture lasting so long, beautiful reconstructions and then the inappropriate attire of the tourists and the destruction of the American military. The best of travel seems made of paradox.
27th September 2012

Re:
Thanks for your comment Tara, indeed, Babylon is a stunning site and hopefully peace will come to Iraq too and this site will be made accessible to more travelers. Keep up with the blogging too! Safe travel
22nd September 2012

...
Awesome blog Laetita!! Found it by mistake through Facebook! I was particularly curious about this trip ;) So you liked your Babylon trip after all?! Did you get to see Saddam palace just next to the ruins?!
22nd September 2012

Re: Jihad
Hello there ! Eh eh, glad you enjoyed this blog :-) and indeed, babylon was a really interesting place to visit! Went to Saddam Palace too but a few days before the Babylon visit (thanks to your local colleagues! ahhh can always count on the WatHab !) Best wishes for your end of mission,

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