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Ancient Babylon: excavations, restorations and modern tourism

A conversation with Lisa Ackerman, World Monuments Fund, and Beth Harris, Smarthistory. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    Recalling the unit on Rome, and how in the Fascist era there Mussolini fancied himself the successor of the Caesars, and now in this unit, where it is mentioned that Saddam Hussein thought of himself as the successor of Nebuchadnezzar, I'm moved to ask if this kind of megalomania is good for antiquity, and where else in the world it may be a factor in how rulers of nations see themselves.
    (7 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Laurel Kinn Martin
    This was excellent but didn't really even touch on the role of slavery in ancient Babylon. Who built all this exactly? My guess is they weren't enjoying river views.
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user drszucker
      From the author:Slavery was a constant in much of the world prior to the past two centuries and continues even today. I am writing this from New York, a city that was built with slave labor and continued to recognize the legality of slavery until just before the American Civil War. Slavery should indeed be mentioned by historians more often.
      (10 votes)
  • leaf orange style avatar for user Dianna Wynn
    I was in Berlin on vacation a couple weeks ago and visited the Pergamon Museum. I was surprised to see in the video at that the animals appear in relief on the unadorned walls. Are these original or reconstructions at the site? The tiles comprising the animals in the Pergamon exhibit are very dimensional, and I had assumed that the tiles themselves created all the dimension allowing the animals to appear in relief. (See video beginning at ). The images in the video lead me to conclude the the relief was instead constructed on the walls in plain brick and the colored tiles were then shaped to conform to the relief on the wall. Is that correct?
    (5 votes)
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  • leafers tree style avatar for user Zach Walden
    Added question: Who is Ishtar and what parts did she play in Babylonian mythology?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user JhosyLephor
    One thing that I have doubt. The ishtar gate was built as a gate of the walls of Babylon or it is part of the maduk temple?
    (1 vote)
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  • piceratops seed style avatar for user jaward2
    This was excellent but didn't really even touch on the role of slavery in ancient Babylon. Who built all this exactly? My guess is they weren't enjoying river views.
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user dcr.man
    Did Isis do anything to this site?
    (1 vote)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user kurtisc444
    why does,nt anyone want to live there... or why dont they just try to rebuild it
    (0 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Maybe the only way to live there is to be a farmer, and not a lot of people want to do that any more. Maybe all of the farmland is already owned, and nobody's selling. Maybe there's not good infrastructure like water pipes, sewers, electric lines and such. Maybe it's too far from good schools. Lots of reasons not to live there. And lots of reasons about historical research not to try to rebuild it. Maybe Iraq needs the money to do other things, like feed hungry children and lift the status of women.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Vernon Eckleberry
    How might someone in the U.S. arrange a guided tour of Babylon?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user hannieelovely
    Is this a medium-sized city ?
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Voiceover] I'm here in the offices of the World Monuments Fund and we're gonna talk about the ancient site of Babylon. That so many of us have heard of from the Bible, we've heard of the story of the Tower of Babel which may have come from a ziggurat in ancient Babylon. But what is it like to visit Babylon today? - [Voiceover] It's great to talk about Babylon 'cause it's one of my favorite places. We've learned a lot in the seven years that World Monuments Fund has been working on the site. Babylon conjures up these great images of the ancient world, and many achievements, and famous people. But it actually is a very humble-looking site. People are often shocked that it's mud-brick, that it's simple construction technologies and except for the raised brick animal figures that are very famous, the rest of it doesn't look the way we expect. - [Voiceover] We read about Hammurabi and his building campaign and his Code of Laws, and then later, during the period that we call Neo-Babylonia, when Nebuchadnezzar rebuilt the walls and made luxurious palaces and how it was this center for learning and the arts. And the site of one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and an imperial capital. - [Voiceover] I think it's beautiful in so many ways. It's a long, particularly beautiful bend of the Euprates, lined with palm trees and certain times of the year, very green and lush. Other times of the year, sandstorms, but I think that's what made it a desirable settlement and antiquity that you could grow things very easily and it was clearly along a trade route. - [Voiceover] And we know that the site has been occupied for thousands of years. People still live adjacent to the ruins today. - [Voiceover] One of the great surprises of the site is we think that these sites are abandoned. Because we look at the ruins and we don't see people living right there, but in fact, less than a 30 minute walk away from the most famous parts of the site are agricultural communities and thriving modern settlements. Before the invasion in the early 2000's, this was the most visited site in all of Iraq. And virtually every Iraqi, at some point, during either his or her schooling or in their adult life, came to Babylon. And so it's a site that people really loved and even today, where there is not international tourism, Iraqis still come to the site. And a lot of them come just to take a walk along the river or picnic. So it's great to see people using the site even amidst the chaos we have today. - [Voiceover] Part of the work of the World Monuments Fund is to, when things settle down politically, to make this a place that people can come visit. And to make it a place that's sustainable for tourism, while still protecting the site. and making future archaeological excavations possible. - [Voiceover] We were invited by the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage in 2007 to work with them to do several things. One was to create a site management plan. One was to do condition surveys, and the final element, which is what we're doing today, is to develop conservation plans that we're implementing on site. And very much with an idea that international tourism will return to Iraq before too long. And one of the things we're working on right now is developing tourism paths. And in the meantime, we work very intensively with a group of State Board Antiquity employees at Babylon. Archaeologists, engineers, architects, conservators, and then our international experts come and go as needed on the site. - [Voiceover] So the site was excavated in the early 20th century, very late 19th century by Robert Koldewey. Much of what he excavated, ended up in museums around the world including most famously, the amazingly beautiful enormous Ishtar Gate which is in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. But quite a bit still remains on the site. - [Voiceover] There are dozens of buildings that were excavated that are still visible on the site. And even the Ishtar Gate, in fact, its predecessor is still there on the site. So what was taken away to Berlin was a top layer. And then it turns out that there are two more layers of the Gate. So they just kept building on top. So you were asking me about what it's like to visit the site today and I think one of the great surprises is even though mud-brick is a very humble material, the monumentality of the site is in the scale. So you look at these walls and they are meters and meters thick and they are 20 feet high. - [Voiceover] Talking a minute ago about the rebuilding that happened several times in antiquity, but there's recent rebuilding by Saddam Hussein who saw himself as a heir to Nebchadnezzar, the sixth century ruler of Babylon. And then there have been restoration efforts that have gone on in the 20th century since the discovery of the location of Babylon. - [Voiceover] Well I think Babylon has a history like many sites in Europe and the Middle East. It was excavated at the end of the 19th century, spilling into the early 20th century. Then because of World War I, excavation activity stopped. Then between the wars it resumed a little bit again. And then there was quite a bit of activity in the 50's and 60's. Then, in the 1970's and 80's was when there were a lot of reconstructions and a lot of restoration efforts on the site. One of the things that you can see if you look at before and after images, so there's the palace, which we can see what it looked like in the 1920's and 30's. And then you see in the 1980's that what were ragged footprints of buildings have now all been made very uniform. And so that's a little bit of a concern to understand exactly how the reconstruction was undertaken. - [Voiceover] So some concern that the restorations that happened and the rebuilding that happened under Hussein, were not undertaken with the kind of scientific archaeology that would be ideal in the 21st century. - [Voiceover] It's not just Babylon that suffers from this. There's a taste that ebbs and flows about how we look at archaeological sites. So at one end of the pendulum is very heavy reconstruction so that we understand what we're looking at and the other end of the pendulum is do nothing and leave it in a pure state. I think here we don't necessarily know enough about how the decisions were made and it does appear to have been made more for political than scientific reasons. - [Voiceover] To get a real sense of that imperial city and it's scale and what it meant in the ancient eras, we'd have to go. - [Voiceover] I hope that we all have that chance. I think what will happen if you do get to go, is not just that sense of grandeur and scale about the ancient world, but I think what you'll find fascinating is the world we see today at Babylon. That it's not a static museum experience. It's the birds that fly overhead, it's the dates we might find on the ground, it's the honey we might buy from local residents, and it's wandering around the site and imagining both the ancient world and maybe thinking about where we're going to go and relax later in the day sitting by the river, enjoying a beautiful vista that I think people have enjoyed for 5,000 years. (upbeat piano music)