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
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
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 23rd
century 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 palace
one can easily spot the ancient bricks (at the bottom) and the modern ones (on top)
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…
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.
dragon head, body covered with scales, eagle legs, lion’s paws and snake tongue…
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
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
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...
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