Babylon, world wonder and jewel of Iraq’s national narrative

The Ishtar Gate at the ancient archaeological site of Babylon, south of the Iraqi capital Baghdad. (AFP)
Updated 07 July 2019
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Babylon, world wonder and jewel of Iraq’s national narrative

  • Babylon developed from a tiny Akkadian town along the Euphrates River in 2300 BC to the capital of the great Babylonian empire, straddling both sides of the mighty river’s banks

HILLA, IRAQ: Babylon was once hanging gardens and opulent temples before parts were excavated and smuggled to Europe. A bastion for Saddam Hussein, then the forces overthrowing him. A center of enlightenment, repeatedly destroyed.
Like Iraq, the 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian city has borne witness to the heights of grandeur and lows of destruction, a long legacy now recognized on the UN list of World Heritage sites.
The World Heritage Committee met on Friday in Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku and voted to include Babylon on the prestigious list, a rank Iraqi authorities had been lobbying since 1983 to reach.
Hundreds of kilometers away, under the setting summer sun, 38-year-old Farzad Salehi walked in awe with a friend and their guide along the processional walkway into the city.
“It’s amazing!” exclaimed the Iranian businessman between selfies and comparisons with his country’s treasure of Persepolis.
“It’s a pity that right now I cannot see any tourists here, and it means the government of Iraq should do more to attract tourists across the globe to come,” he added.
Much of Iraq’s history unfolded under the same beating heat.
Babylon developed from a tiny Akkadian town along the Euphrates River in 2300 BC to the capital of the great Babylonian empire, straddling both sides of the mighty river’s banks.
“It was the first city in the world where the religious temples and government palaces were kept separate,” says Qahtan Al-Abeed, who heads the Basra Antiquities Department and led efforts to get the site listed by UNESCO.
It became famed for its hanging gardens and the biblical Tower of Babel, the Akkadian religious structure known to archaeologists as the “ziggurat of Babylon.”
Perhaps most well known is the Ishtar Gate, which marked one of Babylon’s eight entrances with bright blue bricks and reliefs of mythological animals.
Many of these wonders were built under Nebuchadnezzar II, even as he destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem.
Excavations began in the 19th century, and by the 20th, thousands of pieces had been carried in the suitcases of colonial archaeologists to Europe.
Original reliefs from the 28-meter-wide, 2,600-year-old Ishtar Gate can be found at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, and Iraq has thus far been unable to repatriate them.
Years later, Saddam left his own mark at Babylon, building an immense palace overlooking the site adorned with replicas of his own face.
He was toppled by the 2003 US-led invasion — but Babylon paid a heavy price, too.

BACKGROUND

Babylon developed from a tiny Akkadian town along the Euphrates River in 2300 BC to the capital of the great Babylonian empire, straddling both sides of the mighty river’s banks.

US and Polish soldiers set up a base there and were accused of crushing Babylon’s ancient walkways with military vehicles and breaking mud bricks to fill sandbags.
“They left tons of military debris and even repainted the replica of Ishtar’s Gate in black,” says Abeed. The site had already suffered damage and looting during previous decades of virtually nonstop conflict. And its characteristic mud bricks were known to crumble in Iraq’s searing heat, even as it was being built.
But most of the sprawling city has withstood time and tragedy, nestled between palm trees and hugging the river bank.
It features in every textbook and is a favorite memory of generations of Iraqis who took school trips there. Replicas of the Ishtar Gate adorn restaurants nationwide and a huge copy even welcomes contemporary visitors at the Baghdad airport. “It’s impossible to skip over Babylon in Iraq’s multimillennial national narrative,” says Geraldine Chatelard, a researcher at the French Institute of the Near East who consults Iraq’s government on heritage. UNESCO’s decision, she said, “is a prestigious recognition and good news for authorities who hope it will reinforce national pride.” Iraq already had five sites recognized by UNESCO, including three that are also on the agency’s endangered list.
Among them is Hatra, a city in Iraq’s northern Nineweh province dating back to the 2nd century BC that was damaged by Daesh in 2014.
Daesh considered pre-Islamic culture as heretical, and its members destroyed and looted historical sites across Iraq and neighboring Syria.
After declaring victory against the militants in late 2017, Iraq is hoping to make a cultural comeback by drawing tourists to its 7,000 heritage sites.
That will require massive government effort and funds. Authorities have already allocated $50 million to Babylon, said Abeed, hoping the UNESCO listing will open the door to even more support. That could build on the work of Iraqi cultural authorities and the World Monument Fund, which 10 years ago began rehabilitating Babylon and training staff on preserving artefacts and hosting tourists. Among the young staff now working at the site is engineer Ghadir Ghaleb. “Babylon makes me proud. Here, we find our roots and the roots of civilization,” the 24-year-old told AFP. “Our ancestors built all this. But it’s up to us to protect it.”


Deportation of Syrian refugees from Istanbul creates panic

Turkey’s move to deport unregistered Syrian refugees is seen as being related to pleasing the ruling AKP government’s constituencies, who have complained about refugees taking their jobs. (AFP)
Updated 18 min 24 sec ago
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Deportation of Syrian refugees from Istanbul creates panic

  • Turkish citizens consider Syrian refugees as one of the top critical issues in the country

ANKARA: The deportation of about 1,000 Syrians in a week from Istanbul to Syria’s Idlib province has sparked a debate about Turkey’s refugee policy and the timing of the move. Syrian refugees who have illegally crossed into Turkey or committed a crime were sent to rebel-held Idlib, where Turkey has 12 observation posts and some safe zones.
Local authorities in Istanbul on Monday set a four-week deadline — until Aug. 20 — for Syrians living without authorization to return to provinces where they were registered or be forcefully dispatched to those regions, Reuters reported.
The number of refugees exceeds 4 million in Turkey, with Istanbul hosting about half-a-million Syrian refugees. More than 5,000 Syrian refugees in Istanbul were also reportedly detained by police because their residency permits were registered in another Turkish city.
They will be moved to those cities from the relocation centers because according to the law they should stay in the province where they are registered and obtain a special permit to travel elsewhere.
There are about 300,000 refugees in Istanbul who are registered in another Turkish city.
According to some experts, deporting unregistered refugees is understandable to a point, but sending them to a war zone is not acceptable. For other experts, the move is seen as being related to pleasing the ruling AKP government’s constituencies, who have complained about refugees allegedly taking their jobs.
A recent poll conducted by Turkish Piar research company revealed that Turkish citizens consider Syrian refugees as the second most critical issue the country faces.
Murat Erdogan, of the Migration and Integration Research Center at the German-Turkish University in Istanbul, said that the move appears to have two objectives.
“On the domestic front, the authorities intend to send a message to Turkish society to say that the flow of Syrian refugees is under their control. From the international perspective, it is a message to the European Union, which insists on not launching a visa-free Europe to Turkish citizens although Turkey has met the key criteria,” he told Arab News.
For Erdogan, sending Syrian refugees to a dangerous place such as Idlib, where the latest bombings have targeted civilians, is a tactical move to seriously disturb European officials.
“How those Syrians relocated to the city where they were registered will be accommodated by the local people from an integration point of view, and how they will find jobs to make ends meet, is another concern,” he said.
Erdogan said that the management of refugee flows from Syria was a significant soft power tool for Ankara.

HIGHLIGHTS

• The number of refugees exceeds 4 million in Turkey, with Istanbul hosting about half-a-million Syrian refugees.

• More than 5,000 Syrian refugees in Istanbul were reportedly detained by the police because their residency permits were registered in another Turkish city.

• They will be moved to those cities from the relocation centers because according to the law they should stay in the province where they are registered and obtain a special permit to travel elsewhere.

Halit Hoca, founder of the Solidarity with Syrian People Platform and ex-president of the Syrian National Coalition, said that the government’s latest move with Syrian refugees came as a surprise to them.
“There were some Syrians who came to Turkey under the guise of refugees over the past eight years, and some of them gained citizenship status but they were not refugees. However, we insistently advised the government to coordinate these refugee flows with the relevant civil society actors, but our calls remained unanswered,” he told Arab News.
Now the government had suddenly decided to send them back in an unsystematic manner, which had caused great panic and may create new wounds, Hoca said.
“The timing is also telling. These deportations occurred during the days when Russian planes heavily hit targets in Idlib,” he said.
Turkey had a similar deportation wave in 2017, which was criticized by Human Rights Watch. Last week, a 16-year-old teenager was reportedly sent back to Idlib because he had left his identity card at home.
“Although this time it is not the first wave of deportation, it is on a more massive scale than the previous one. But one thing is clear: This decision might be temporary, but there is a constant message that comes out: Turkey wants to show that it can host and send back guests whenever it wants,” Hoca said.
Syrian refugees who work without a work permit are also under close examination by police.
The Syrian High Negotiations Committee (HNC) recently announced its plan to address the situation of refugees in Turkey. During a press conference in Riyadh, Nasr Al-Hariri, head of the HNC, said that it was currently working with Turkish authorities on this issue.
For Omar Kadkoy, a Syrian-origin researcher on refugee integration at Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, the recent measures put both the mandate of temporary protection and the universal principle of non-refoulement (a principle of international law that forbids a nation returning asylum seekers to a country in which they would be in danger of persecution) at risk of violation.
“The former indicates an obligation of notification in case of removal and the latter requires verifying the aspect of voluntary return through a third-party — namely the UNHCR — and the presence of a safe country of origin. Unfortunately, recent actions don’t seem to meet the aforementioned conditions,” he told Arab News.
“The current bad turn of the economy is affecting everybody. Yet the reactionary behavior of the government reflects two bitter realities,” Kadkoy said.
“First, losing the megacity to the opposition in the re-run elections — but still telling the constituency that it is the AKP who calls the shots. Second, harvesting the bad fruits of the laissez-faire approach toward Syrians from the onset. After all, the subjects of unregistered Syrians, informal employment or businesses were not born yesterday.”