Friday, April 20, 2012

War and Oil -- Saving Ancient Babylon


I admit it -- I've developed a soft spot for Ancient Babylon while writing The Hounds of Zeus. However, my research and writing were so focused on discovering and recreating the ancient city that I was oblivious to her condition today. Now I find that what remains stands of the brink of final oblivion.

For more than a millennium, Babylon was one of the great cities of antiquity. Then, in 539 BC, the Queen of Cities declined and fell into ruin after it was conquered by the Persians under Cyrus the Great. Centuries of looting and neglect were followed by some hit-and-miss excavation efforts in which many treasures like Ishtar’s Gate were removed and placed in museums outside the country. (Possibly this saved them from total destruction as no one else seemed to find them worth saving until then, but I digress.)

The Lion of Babylon
In the 1980s, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein wreaked further havoc upon the ruins by building an ostentatious palace over them. Then war came to Iraq, and it was open season on archeological sites in general. Countless numbers of these all over Iraq suffered at the hands of thieves.

For a short time after the withdrawal of American and Polish troops from the war-torn country, it seemed that the ruins of ancient Babylon might at last receive the careful treatment that they deserved. UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural and scientific organization, said it would be carrying out some initial repair work and pledged to begin the process of naming Babylon a World Heritage Site.

Next, the New York-based World Monument Fund stepped in to offer its help, spending $1 million in U.S. government and private funding to bring in experts to survey the site, train Iraqis in preservation techniques, and develop a site management plan, while supporting UNESCO’s goals.

Now it seems that all those efforts may have gone for naught. The country needs revenue and is looking to its one commodity of tremendous value: oil. How will this affect the preservation of ancient Babylon and its future as a World Heritage Site?

For more about the unfolding drama, please read Rami Ruhayem’s disturbing report “Iraq's clash of old and new: Oil pipelines in Babylon” at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-17702153

If you could call the shots, what would you do?

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