Saturday, March 16, 2013 - Babylon, Iraq I am on a 14-day tour of Iraq with a group of 15 intrepid travelers. The main goals of our journey are on one side the excavations of the ancient cultures in the southern Mesopotamia and on the other side the holy Shiites places between Basra and Baghdad. After a morning tour of Karbala, one of the Shiites holy cities, there is a pearl of the ancient Mesopotamia, Babylon, on schedule for the afternoon. Upon arrival to excavations of Babylon, we pass underneath one of the many Saddam palaces standing on an artificial hill above the area. We stop at the sentry-box. After ten minutes explaining we get permission to see the sights. In the parking lot, where we get off our bus, we meet the French group we saw in Nasiriyah. They are the only tourists in Iraq beside us. The sun shines through the haze made of fine sand scattered in the air. We enter Babylon through a large gate, built in 1958. It resembles the original gate of the goddess Ishtar, which once stood in another city location. Germans, while working on excavations at the beginning of the 20 century. dismantled the ancient gate and transported it to a Berlin museum, where they put it back together again. I saw it there during my Berlin visit in 2003. Behind this 1958 “Ishtar Gate” Saddam Hussein built his imaginary Babylon (Babylon make believe) on the real city foundations. According to archaeologist Geoff Emberling from one American university, who is accompanying us, Saddam’s Babylon has no historical value, because nobody knows how the original buildings looked like. Our first stop is at the ancient “Procession Way,” on which the original Ishtar Gate stood. The Germans covered it with asphalt during their excavations, which is flaking now. Underneath we see remains of the original asphalt from the time of glory of the city. Babylon had existed for 2,500 years. It was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt many times. What we see in Babylon now, dates mostly from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. at around 600 BC. Hammurabi’s Babylon (1791 - 1749 BC) is now below the ground water level and its excavation has not yet been attempted. From the “Procession Way” we descend down into a kind of street excavated by the German archaeologists. There are wall frescos on both sides of this street representing various gods in several rows. In the bottom row there is the Babylonian god Marduk with head of a dragon. These are the original walls uncovered by the Germans. All walls are made of mud bricks. We can take photos without any restrictions and the local guide gives us a very detailed explanation. Next, we go outside the city created by Saddam Hussein. We enter the well preserved temple where women by taking bath got rid of their sins. Next area is full of crumbling remnants of the original buildings. Among them we can distinguish double wall that once surrounded the city. Since the times of Sumerians every city in Mesopotamia had a ziggurat, which was part of a temple. Each ziggurat had 2 to 7 floors and generally it was a high-rise building. The Babylonian ziggurat was completely destroyed and the place, where it stood, is a pit now. Mesopotamian ziggurats were not places for public worship. They were the dwellings of gods and each city had its own divine protector. Only a priest could enter a ziggurat and he was responsible for care and needs of the gods. In the Sumerian society the priest had great power. Meanwhile clouds had covered the sun. We go back through the newly rebuilt Babylon, whose bricks carry Saddam's name. In the pre-throne and the throne rooms our archaeologist Geoff plays Alexander the Great for us. Alexander the Great died probably of malaria here. After 3 hour tour we return to the entrance and past the 1958 “Ishtar Gate” to our bus. The last place we are to visit is the Saddam Palace, which rises on the artificial hill above the ancient Babylon. When we get there, several local police officers stand around the building. The palace had been looted of everything except the ceilings where the vandals could not reach. The walls of the empty halls are covered with graffiti. There are missing doors, windows and metal parts of bathrooms. Yet it could be rebuilt in a 5 star hotel. A policeman tells me that something like that is on a drawing board. There is a beautiful view of Babylon from one terrace and at the water of the old river bed of the Euphrates River on the other side of the building. There is a ship tied on the opposite bank. This opposite bank is covered with a date palms grove. I am told that the dates from this grove are not harvested. Instead, Iraq imports dates from other countries. I gather, it might something to do with the American rebuilding the Iraq oil infrastructure. Saddam Hussein did not sleep in the main building, but in a lower structure next door. He had a lot of palaces all over Iraq and perhaps he visited this one only once or twice. After his fall the locals took his palaces by storm. I am taking photos with several Saddam motifs, which miraculously survived. However, it is time for departure and for visit of other places in this country.
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