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Ancient Babylon In Iraq Restored


Babylon in ancient Mesopotamia was known as the site of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But it's never been listed as a modern World Heritage Site by the United Nations. As NPR's Jane Arraf reports, archaeologists working in the ruins of Babylon in present-day Iraq are hoping to change that.


JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Mohaned Ahmed is sponging the bricks around the relief of a dragon with a serpent's head. It's so well-defined it looks like it might have been made yesterday instead of more than 2,000 years ago. But American archaeologist Jeff Allen says underneath it, the mud bricks and the mortar of what was the ancient world's grandest city have been disintegrating.

This brick is crumbling in your...


ARRAF: ...Hand.

ALLEN: So what happens is the salts get into the brickwork and dissolves brickwork matrix. And the bricks just fall apart.


ARRAF: The salt is from groundwater trapped by modern concrete, added in damaging 1980s reconstruction. After 2003, there was a Polish military base here as part of the U.S.-led military occupation that included landing helicopters on the ancient site.


ARRAF: That damage is part of the reason Babylon hasn't met criteria of UNESCO, the U.N. culture organization, to list it as a World Heritage Site. Iraq is making a new effort this year. Allen has been coming back to Babylon for nine years with the World Monuments Fund. His projects have stabilized walls, restored the statue of the Lion of Babylon, removed modern buildings built against the ancient walls and dismantled razor wire fences.

ALLEN: Basically, we tried to initially subtract a lot of the modern additions that were on the site. So it looked more like an archaeological site than it did a minimal correctional facility.

ARRAF: This latest project, funded by the U.S., has Allen training local residents of Babylon to replace the mud mortar between the ancient bricks in the Ishtar Gate, the city's grand entrance.

ALLEN: So be very careful about how you put down so you maintain these edges. This is this is good, OK.


ALLEN: But if he gets too high, it looks like melted chocolate.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: Iraq is awash in archaeological sites. But conservation isn't taught in universities here. Allen calls training local technicians to conserve the site the future of Babylon. It has a rich past. Babylon became the capital of an empire 2,500 years ago. Its hanging gardens were said to be one of the seven wonders of the world. Iraqi Jews are believed to have descended from the Jewish community, taken captive to Babilonia. Today, what's visible is the top of some of the city walls. But it's extraordinary. When I went there, like most days, it was deserted.


ARRAF: You look around and you're surrounded by these 2,500-year-old walls with mythical creatures on them. Everywhere you look goes back to the history of some of the earliest civilizations. But there's almost nobody here.


ARRAF: If Babylon's application to be a World Heritage Site is accepted, it would give Iraq's antiquities department more power to protect it. And an incentive for more tourists to come here. Allen argues that the bad restoration during Saddam Hussein's era and even the damage done by the military should be seen by UNESCO as another part of Babylon's history.

ALLEN: Everything that's happened is - it leaves a mark on the site. So if they're irreversible, how do you deal with them as a material? And we say, embrace it. It's part of the history of the monument.

ARRAF: For all its importance to the ancient world, only about 10 percent of it has been excavated. Olof Pedersen, a professor of Assyriology in Sweden, expects there are wonders underneath.

OLOF PEDERSEN: We know the names of the different temples and approximate where they should be. But no one has ever touched them.


ARRAF: That will have to wait for future excavations. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Babylon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.