Babylon Sees Scenes of Brutality

The seat of ancient civilisation has hit the headlines as a target of insurgents.

Babylon Sees Scenes of Brutality

The seat of ancient civilisation has hit the headlines as a target of insurgents.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

It was one of the seven wonders of the world, but ancient Babylon attracts more insurgents than tourists these days, with the nearby modern city of Hillah achieving notoriety as the scene of the recent bombing in which 127 people died.


Last month, relatives wailed and beat their chests as they read the lists of dead and injured posted up on hospital walls. Corpses were loaded into trucks by relatives to be taken away for burial, and pools of blood congealed in the marketplace where a car bomb exploded on February 28.


“I wonder how a city like Babylon could have become a den of terror, when it used to be visited by scientists and educated people from all over the world,” said Fayyadh Weleed, 22, from the village of Jumjuma near the archeological site of Babylon.


Hillah is the heir to Babylon, with many of its buildings made out of bricks taken from the great palace of Nebuchadnezzar.


The ancient city, famed for its immense, fortified walls and the magnificence of its buildings, was at the centre of Mesopotamia, the land regarded as the cradle of Middle Eastern and European civilisation. But as it lay deserted for two millennia, many believed it was no more than a Biblical myth, a metaphor for wealth and power until its extensive remains were discovered in the 19th century.


The lawlessness seen in Babil – or Babylon – province in recent days contrasts with the reign of King Hammurabi, living in the 18th century BC, who introduced the world's first code of law.


By the time Nebuchadnezzar II ruled around 600 BC, the city had become "the glory of kingdoms". It was he who is thought to have built the famous Hanging Gardens, one of the seven wonders of the world, as a gift for his wife Amyitis.


But within half a century, Babylon was to lose much of its political power, after a two-year siege and an invasion by the Persians. In subsequent centuries, it was plundered and eventually became derelict.


The ruins cover about 30 square kilometres on the east bank of the river Euphrates, about 90 kilometres south of Baghdad.


As well as devastating the lives of present-day Iraqis, the insurgent attacks are hampering archaeological efforts at the site.


“It's close to Latifiyah and its Sunni majority, so Babylon has witnessed many sabotage operations,” said Babil province governor Waleed Omran al-Janabi, referring to the Sunni-dominated area in the north of the province that has proved a hotbed for insurgent attacks. “The poor security situation has stopped the rebuilding of the city. Many contractors have been killed and kidnapped, and many workers have been shot dead.”


Weleed thinks everyone should stand up to the insurgents to stop attacks harming an area of such immense value, “It is our duty to protect the city [Babylon] against a conspiracy whose aim is to efface the historical identity both of this site and of Iraq as a whole. It is organised crime, which we should oppose vigorously.”


The presence of United States-led international forces, who have set up a military base called Camp Babylon in the area, has been blamed for further jeopardising the archaeological site.


“Turning Babylon into a military site was a fatal mistake,” said Iraqi culture minister Mufeed al-Jazairi. “It has witnessed much destruction and many terrorist attacks since it was occupied by Coalition forces.


“We cannot determine the scale of the destruction now. As a first step, we have completely closed the sites, before calling in international experts to evaluate the damage done to the [ancient] city and the compensation the ministry should ask Coalition forces to pay. We will run a campaign to save the city.”


Once a powerhouse of culture, science and urban civilised life, Babylon is now in a sorry state, witnessing attacks that reflect the troubled state of modern Iraq.


Yaseen Madhloom al-Rubai is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.


Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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