Sunday, March 28, 2004

A VISIT TO BABYLON by a Miami Herald reporter:
4,000 years later, Babylon still magical


Special to The Herald

BAGHDAD - The word Babylon had a magical ring, and from Baghdad, fifty miles to the north, I could hear its toll beckoning.

My interpreter, Wada, arranged a driver to take us for the day for $50. The going rate for drivers was from $3 to $15, but Wada (wa-DAH) felt for his country's suffering masses and was on his own wealth redistribution campaign.


Past the Poles, the base spread in all directions. On a hill in the distance stands one of Saddam's many gauche palaces, which like most of the others, is now used by Coalition forces. Below the palace are the ruins, which you enter through a courtyard where a troupe of guides waits for visitors. Generally, it's not the best of times for Iraqi tourism, but with all the multinational soldiers, the guides have business. Mine was Hadi, a bespectacled archaeologist whose English was almost as incomprehensible as the ancient clay tablets with wedge-shaped writing scattered all over the site.

''The Gate of Ishtar!'' he announced. The gate is a 1980s replica -- the real one is in Berlin -- but, then, much of the place looks pretty Disney, only with real mice. Tall, yellow brick walls frame each of the rebuilt sections, and arched doorways opened onto freshly paved alleys and empty, echoing courtyards.

It was Saddam's idea to rebuild the ruins; deaf to the howls of UNESCO and archaeologists, in 1987 he committed $100 million to the project. The ancient bricks bore the inscription, ``I am Nebuchadnezzar II, the son of Nabopolassar. The god Marduk [Babylon's most revered god] ordered me to build this palace for his excellency.''

The new bricks say, ''Rebuilt in the age of Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq, the protector of civilizations, the descendant of Nebuchadnezzar.'' Saddam's effort to link himself with the ancient king was more propagandistic than delusional: The latter ruled a 1,000-mile empire that stretched all the way to the Mediterranean. And he had, of course, liberated Jerusalem from the Jews -- a message that his Arab audience, which tends to have a fresh memory of ancient history, would easily understand.


They constructed ziggurats, immense towers as platforms for their temples. The greatest of these ziggurats was a 300-foot structure called Etemenanki, ''the foundation of heaven and earth.'' Although there's little archaeological evidence -- the place marked as site itself is a just a pit in the ground -- some researchers suppose that this was the structure that the bedazzled and comparatively primitive Jews called the Tower of Babel.

''For the captives who were brought here from Jerusalem, it must have been like going from Des Moines to New York City,'' says Erle Leichty, curator emeritus of the Babylonian section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (see sidebar).

It was probably not coincidental that the Jews wrote the Babylonian Talmud here. Babylonian legal codes started in 2100 BCE.


No comments:

Post a Comment