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

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.


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.”

‘We have long reached for the stars’: Arab history in space exploration

Updated 20 July 2019

‘We have long reached for the stars’: Arab history in space exploration

  • On June 17, 1985, Saudi Prince Sultan entered the history books when he journeyed into space from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida
  • As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are spearheading a new era of Arab space exploration

Arab astronauts may not have set foot on the moon, but an Arab geographer left his mark on the Earth’s natural satellite as long ago as 1935.

A lunar impact crater 65 km in diameter was named AbulFeda by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in honor of Isma’il Ibn Abu Al-Fida, a prince of the Ayyubid dynasty who lived between 1273 and 1331 in Syria.

The IAU was founded in 1919 to promote the science of astronomy and pay homage to major contributors in the field. AbulFeda is just one of 11 lunar craters named after luminaries from the golden age of Islamic civilization, which lasted from the mid-7th century to the 13th century.

In all, 24 lunar craters have been named after individuals from the region, including Abbas Ibn Firnas (810-887), an Andalusian inventor, physician, musician, engineer, humanitarian and poet — and the first man to fly. According to a 9th century poem, the so-called Leonardo da Vinci of the Muslim world “flew faster than the phoenix in his flight.”

Ibn Firnas was 65 when he became the world’s first hang-glider, jumping off the side of a mountain with feathers attached to his body and “touching the sky for a few minutes,” according to historical accounts.

Centuries later, in February, 1976, a meeting between the-then president of the UAE Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan and three US astronauts changed the course of a man’s life and fired the imagination of a young nation. A year earlier, the astronauts had taken part in the historic docking of an Apollo command/service module and a Soviet Soyuz 19 capsule as part of the first joint US–Soviet space flight.

A black-and-white photograph of the meeting, which can be seen at the operational air force squadron in Abu Dhabi, made a great impression on a young Emirati pilot, Hazza Al-Mansouri.

“I would look at the photo and imagine retaking it with three Emirati astronauts sitting with the founding father,” he said later.

Now 31-year-old Al-Mansouri, the UAE’s first astronaut, will also make history when he joins a mission to the International Space Station in September.

“It is a great honor to be represent the UAE in space, and to make my dream and the dream of a nation come true,” he told Arab News.

The astronaut plans to take personal items with him into space, including a seed of his country’s national tree, Al-Ghaf, and his traditional Emirati outfit.

The photograph of Sheikh Zayed and the US astronauts was not the only image that fired Al-Mansouri’s imagination. Inside his fourth-grade school book was a color photo of Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the first Arab and royal to travel into space.

On June 17, 1985, Prince Sultan, a Saudi air force fighter pilot, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on board the space shuttle Discovery. During the seven-day mission, he helped to deploy a satellite for the Arab Satellite Communications Organization (Arabsat).

Prince Sultan became a hero and an icon across the region. “We have long reached the stars and beyond,” he said.

Two years later, on July 22, 1987, Muhammed Faris, a Syrian military aviator, became the first Syrian and the second Arab in space, carrying a vial soil from Damascus on his journey from Earth.

Faris, who now lives in Turkey as a refugee, struck a responsive chord with many when he later told an interviewer: “When you go up there, you realize there are no borders, no countries, no nationalities. Just Earth. Mother Earth. We should protect this Earth. Who hurts their mother?”

The 1980s was a decade of expansion, exploration and transformation in the Middle East. Now, 30 years later, that energy has returned.

As the third Arab country (after Saudi Arabia and Syria) to send a man into space, the UAE has a special relationship with space and the moon.
In a corner of the Al-Ain national museum is “a piece of the moon” gifted to Sheikh Zayed by the three US astronauts.

“This fragment is a portion of a rock from the Valley of Taurus-Littrow. It is given as a symbol of the unity of human endeavor and carries with it the hope of the American people for a world at peace,” says the plaque describing the object.

Next to it, is a small, well-traveled UAE flag.

“This flag of your nation was carried to the moon aboard spacecraft America during the Apollo XVII mission, Dec. 7 to 19, 1972. Presented to the people of the UAE from the people of the United States of America, Richard Nixon 1973.”

As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, the UAE is looking forward to the launch of Al-Amal, or Hope, in 2021 to mark the 50th anniversary of the country’s foundation. The spacecraft will orbit Mars, which has an area of contrasting brightness and darkness that was named Arabia Terra in 1979 for its resemblance to the Arabian Peninsula.

“The moon landing was a pivotal moment in human history,” Salem Humaid Al-Marri, assistant director general for science and technology at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Center, told Arab News.

“It was when something we imagined became a reality, and humanity left this planet. It was the result of science, engineering, mathematics and imagination coming together.”

“Space makes people dream the impossible,” said Al-Marri.

The words uttered by Neil Armstrong when he became the first man to step on to the lunar surface, on July 20, 1969 — “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” — have become part of history.

“It was such a powerful statement that influenced so many who watched the original landing as well as those from the current generation who watched it on the Internet or TV,” said Al-Marri. “There isn’t anyone who hasn’t see the moon landing somewhere.”

The space era began as a “race” between the superpowers that helped to break new ground.

“The race pushed space industry development to new levels. While it was driven by military involvement, the benefits from the technological advances were for all people,” said Al-Marri. “We have better satellites, as well as a better understanding of our planet and the world around it, as a result.”

However, after the 1969 moon landing, strained budgets and depleted resources forced the space industry to abandon competition and embrace cooperation.

“Space today is all about cooperating to reach new heights. If you want to fly into space now, you have to do so on a Russian spacecraft as the Americans retired their shuttles in 2011,” Al-Marri said.

Al-Mansouri will head into space together with a US and a Russian astronaut, symbolizing a new era of Arab participation in space exploration.

“The UAE is working with the Saudi space program, as well as with others such as Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait and Bahrain, to boost the Arab presence in the space industry,” said Al-Marri.

“Space is bringing Arab nations together.”

In the broad sweep of history, these space programs are building on the contributions of the Islamic civilization that shaped the modern world — and honoring the memory of scientists and explorers such as Abu Al-Fida and Ibn Firnas.