Ancient Babylon continues to inspire
Babylon, a name that is associated with urban architectural beauty and military might, was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List this month. Dating back to one of the largest and most influential empires of the ancient world, Babylon was capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire between 626 and 539 B.C. and the seat of a number of powerful rulers. Babylon is famous for giving the world Hammurabi’s legal code and Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, along with stories that live in the three monotheistic religions of the Middle East and an abundance of imagery for tales all over the world. The ancient empire that inherited cuneiform writing and built the Tower of Babel is the stuff of legend and, most recently, computer games. According to Greek texts, Babylon was also home to the Hanging Gardens, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and something of an architectural mystery. Despite lying in ruins today, and the extensive damage it has sustained over the centuries, the ancient city continues to inspire and intrigue.
The UN World Heritage Committee held its 43rd session between June 30 and July 10 in the capital of Azerbaijan, Baku. The committee received and discussed nominations from a number of countries around the world, as it does annually. This year, a record number of 29 new sites were added, so the list of World Heritage Sites now counts 1,121 properties, according to the UNESCO website. For a property to be listed, it has to fulfill specific criteria that distinguish it either culturally or naturally, or both. The committee deemed the site of Babylon to be “the most exceptional testimony” of the Babylonian civilization, which “exerted considerable political, scientific, technological, architectural and artistic influence upon the human settlements in the region, and on successive historic periods of antiquity.” The designated site includes the ancient city’s surviving structures of walls, gates, palaces and temples, along with the villages and agricultural areas around it.
Inscription to the World Heritage List might engage a wider pool of specialists in further excavations and preservation work in Babylon
While Babylon has long been a contender for this recognition, and had been nominated in the past, it took until this month for it to be added to the list of World Heritage Sites. UNESCO has already produced a detailed report on Babylon, through the International Coordination Committee for the Safeguarding of the Cultural Heritage of Iraq, which had established a Sub-Committee on Babylon to assess the damage and report on the archaeological site where a military base had been operating since 2003. The “Report on Damage Assessments in Babylon,” which was published in 2009, outlined the then-recent damage to the ancient city’s layout and standing structures. The report also included recommendations and plans for conservation work on the site, with the purpose of nominating it for inscription as a World Heritage Site.
Despite sustaining more damage over the past decade, to which looting and extended fighting were major contributing factors, the city of Babylon is not among UNESCO’s endangered World Heritage Sites, unlike the ancient city of Ashur (a site also known as Qal’at Sherqat). Having been the capital of the Assyrian Empire for a while, and dating back to the third millennium B.C., Ashur was destroyed by the Babylonians before it enjoyed a brief revival in the first two centuries A.D. Ashur was of particular religious significance, being the city-state that the Assyrians who worshiped the god Ashur considered their religious capital. Despite already being in a bad state, the site’s history brought Ashur detrimental attention when Daesh controlled the area. Ashur’s historical significance as a religious site, similarly to that of Nimrud, which was another Neo-Assyrian capital and an important part of ancient Mesopotamian religious history, was the stated motivation Daesh fighters claimed as they inflicted significant damage on them. The overall effect amounted to wholesale destruction and, in some cases, the total leveling of such significant monuments in the story of humankind.
It would appear that a number of factors have contributed to the relative survival of the ruins of Babylon. The location, 85 kilometers south of Baghdad, might have spared the city’s structures the destruction faced by other sites in the region, especially those in closer proximity to Mosul and the parts of Iraq and Syria that fell under the control of Daesh fighters. Back in 2009, the UNESCO damage assessment report suggested that 20th century excavations and controversial preservation efforts accounted for some of the threats to the standing structures, and contributed to challenges for preservation and excavation work. The published draft report of the World Heritage Committee’s most recent meeting states that 85 percent of the Babylon site is yet to be excavated. This means that inscription to the World Heritage List might engage a wider pool of specialists in further excavations and preservation work in Babylon.
One of the world’s oldest and most famous urban centers may well have the chance to bring new inspiration to human civilization as it grapples with today’s challenges of growing urbanization and the management of natural resources. Whether in the complicated process of UNESCO dealings, in ongoing conflicts in the region, or in the hearts of believers and the imagination of storytellers, Babylon is successfully maintaining a place at various intersections of cultures, languages, powers, laws, religions, and living species.
*Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo” (OUP, 2018). She is currently Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London and Associate Fellow of Pierson College at Yale.