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Ancient Babylon: excavations, restorations and modern tourism

Babylon, an ancient site rich in history, is a humble yet monumental place. The World Monuments Fund works to preserve and restore it. Despite its modest mud-brick construction, Babylon's grandeur lies in its scale and its past as an imperial capital. Today, it remains a beloved site for locals and a potential tourist destination. A conversation with Lisa Ackerman, World Monuments Fund, and Beth Harris, Smarthistory. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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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)