Babylon is home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, so why has it only just got a Unesco listing?
The ancient city's recognition feels long overdue – after all, it was first mentioned circa 2300 BC and ruled over by the legendary King Nebuchadnezzar II
An early 20th-century railway ran through it. A presidential palace was erected on it. American military helicopters often landed on it. Babylon, the 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian city once renowned for its Hanging Gardens and opulent temples, has been through a lot in recent decades. It has even had to contend with the indignity of oil and gas pipelines as other forms of modernity have sought to bury the ghosts of its glorious past.
Today, however, this seat of the ancient world, located in modern-day Iraq, is a Unesco World Heritage Site after its application for inclusion on the illustrious list finally found success earlier this month, after 36 years of lobbying by the Iraqi authorities. In truth, with more than 1,000 international locations already on its books, Unesco’s endorsement of Babylon, which now gives it protected classification, has been a long time coming.
Five other sites in Iraq already had Unesco status, so why not Babylon?
Unesco honoured 28 other sites at the same time, including Bahrain’s Dilmun Burial Mounds. But it was Babylon, lying 80 kilometres south of Baghdad and straddling Iraq’s Euphrates river, that took centre stage as it finally came in from the cold. “We are almost going crazy celebrating the Unesco listing because we’ve been waiting for this for years,” says Adam Jebrin, who was born in Najaf and owns the UK’s Alwaseilah Tours, which organises tourist trips to Iraq.
With five other Iraqi sites, including the ancient city of Ashur and the marshlands of southern Iraq, having already achieved Unesco World Heritage status, Babylon’s induction, says Jebrin, has arrived not a moment too soon.
Other interested observers agree. John Curtis, former keeper of the Middle East Department at the British Museum, says that as “one of the most important archaeological sites of the ancient world”, Babylon’s historical worth, as an ancient metropolis within the boundaries of the fabled cradle of civilisation, necessitated Unesco’s recognition. But why did it take so long?
For most, it was perhaps surprising – shocking even – that Babylon was not already on Unesco’s list. After all, the city was not only founded in the 23rd century BC, but was ruled over by King Nebuchadnezzar II, one of the greatest monarchs of the ancient Babylonian Empire. His Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, will likely forever be associated with Babylon, despite an Oxford historian arguing in 2013 that they were, in fact, built by the Assyrians elsewhere in Iraq.
The site has been mistreated over the years
Popular opinion has it that Babylon’s contemporary constructions were the overriding impediment to its destiny as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, played fast and loose with this ancient citadel by constructing an ostentatious palace on top of its ruins. While he was overthrown by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Babylon continued to suffer the wears and tears of modern mistreatment. During the occupation, for example, American and Polish soldiers set up base there complete with helipad and earth-shuddering military vehicles.
However, Qahtan Al Abeed, director of Iraq’s Basra Antiquities Department, says it would be wrong to place sole blame on Babylon’s modern constructions, misguided and ill-judged as they were, for the country’s past failures with Unesco.
“The nomination file became ready this time,” says Abeed, who led Iraq’s efforts to have the site listed. “The four times that the Iraqi government submitted the nomination file [in the past], it had missing information – and did not fulfil the guidelines for World Heritage.”
Extra effort went into this years submission to ensure it was included
So what changed this time around? Abeed was aware that the likes of Hussein’s developments and the damage done to Babylon by coalition forces, whose soldiers, for instance, used earth containing archaeological fragments to pack their sandbags, needed smart technological solutions to be separated from the historical site so the latter could finally prevail.
Take Hussein’s vainglorious attempts to channel his inner Nebuchadnezzar by building over the ancient ruins. Abeed says the team created a 3D buffer zone around each modern structure prior to submission, “so, all the new developments by Saddam Hussein were not part of the outstanding universal value of the site”.
With Babylon’s more modern constructions effectively taken out of the equation, Unesco repaid Abeed’s hard work in spades – tour operator Jebrin says he has already fielded calls from wannabe Babylon tourists. The Iraqi diaspora is also celebrating Babylon’s long overdue recognition, echoing the celebrations taking place within the country. Saleh Dhumad, a psychiatrist who lives in London welcomes Unesco’s decision.
“It was definitely a very crucial moment for Iraq,” says Dhumad, who travels regularly to his birthplace to practice psychiatric medicine. “And it’s not just for historical reasons. But for Iraq itself, which is recovering from war and civil war and war with Isis, who destroyed a lot of historical sites over which we had no control. So morale was extremely low. Now this has lifted everything.”
But could mass tourism provide a new method to damage Babylon?
Today, Babylon’s glorious heritage is not so easily discernible. Much of the ruins remain unexcavated; and remnants from the sixth-century BC Ishtar Gate are still housed at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, even if Babylon does host a replica of the gateway.
But Unesco’s recognition of Babylon means change is afoot. Reports say Iraqi authorities have already allocated $50 million (Dh183.6m) to this Mesopotamian site; and many Iraqis now hope that intrepid visitors from far and wide will soon find Nebuchadnezzar’s former realm a perfect place to soak in some ancient Arab culture, despite the state’s continued security concerns.
Yet, Abeed cautions against making the tourist jump too soon. “You have to control the site first,” he explains, pointing out that steps, such as the completion of the visitors’ centre and making the ruins safe for tourists, must be taken before the doors to the site are thrown open. “You have to prepare everything for tourism – because, at the same time, the tourism you are attracting could damage the site.”
The pressure to deliver a Babylon fit for the rigours of 21st-century Iraq has just begun.
Check out all of the new Unesco World Heritage Sites named in 2019 here:
Updated: July 18, 2019 03:27 PM