Last week I visited the ancient ruins of the city of Babylon. Here are my impressions.
The first thing that struck me is how hard it is to comprehend what ancient really is. Babylon can claim its most recent history in 232 B.C. when Alexander the Great died within her walls. Go back further and Babylon is mentioned in the Old Testament, along with her king, Nebuchadnezzar, around 600 BC. Go back another 1,100 years and Hammurabi wrote the first set of codified laws between 1772 and 1750 B.C. Within this history lies the Hanging Gardens of Babylon - lost to myth, speculation, and time. And the city is even older than that; built and razed and built again for five thousand years. Walking the ruins we were reminded that there are ruins under the ruins; ten to twelve feet under what we can see.
The ground covering the ruins is vast. It’s secured from trespassers and the only visitors seem to be the Coalition Forces or State Department, or the various special visitors to the site. However, there is potential for tourism in the next ten years that most likely won’t be ignored. The ruins themselves are truly incredible, although it requires imagination to fully appreciate them.
What you see on the ground is the collaboration of new and old. It’s a bit of a letdown initially. Babylon ruins were rebuilt during Saddam’s regime. In the 1970’s major sections were either rebuilt on top of the existing walls, or recreated altogether, as in the in the case of the blue bricked Ishtar Gate. While the original gate sits in a museum in Berlin, its recreation reveals brick over plywood and twenty years of neglect. The Ishtar Gate acts as the main entrance to the ruins themselves.
The ruins are of the southern palace and do not include Nebuchadnezzar’s palace. It’s believed that Saddam Hussein’s palace sits on top the former king’s. In the southern palace five, vast open courtyards lead to a confusing maze of small alley ways and side rooms; possibly merchant and skilled trade shops that kept the city alive. The tan brick is the only color in the courtyards that once must have had pennants, awnings, flags, and tapestries of all sort of different colors.
The quiet stands in mocking contrast in a place that once held 200,000 to a speculated 1,000,000,000 people. The only sounds you hear of your own footsteps and the reverently hushed voices of other guests. You have to add your own soundtrack of food vendors, slave traders, royal processionals, and the daily sounds that filled this place.
We stopped at the “Babylon Lion” a twelve foot tall, six foot long stone carving of a lion standing over the supine form of a man; the power of the lion over man. Or maybe it’s some divine fertility symbol. The statue we are told was taken by the Nazis in World War II and returned by the Allies. It is the stop on the tour.
It was at the Babylon Lion where we promoted two of my Soldiers, MSG Cummings and CPT Weaver, leaving them with a story for their grandchildren.
On the way out I lagged behind and lingered. I wanted to savor the moment and imagine the this place where history is recorded in its walls, where history passed through, and where it is made even today. A place for over, fought for, and still bearing witness.