Unesco lists Iraq's Babylon as World Heritage Site

The ancient city is one of 7,000 archaeological sites across Iraq, which has lobbied for its inclusion since 1980s

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Unesco's World Heritage Committee voted on Friday to list the sprawling Mesopotamian metropolis of Babylon as a World Heritage Site after three decades of efforts by Iraq.

Iraq had been trying since 1983 to have the site – a 10-square-kilometre complex of which only 18 per cent has been excavated – recognised by Unesco.

Straddling Iraq's Euphrates River about 100 kilometres south of Baghdad, the city was the centre of the ancient Babylonian empire more than 4,000 years ago.

"What is the world heritage list without Babylon? How to tell the history of humanity without the earliest of old chapters, Babylon?" Iraq's representative to Unesco's World Heritage Committee said before the vote.

The committee met in Azerbaijan's capital of Baku to consider Babylon and 34 other sites, including some in Brazil and Burkina Faso, for the list.

"It fills a gap that was evident on the list and indeed, this is a type of site that we can say this convention was actually designed to protect," Tunisia's delegate said.

After the successful vote, Iraq's delegation joined hands and invited all delegates "to visit Babylon, the cradle of civilisation".

Babylon developed as a walled city of mudbrick temples and towers known internationally for its hanging gardens, the Tower of Babel and the Ishtar Gate.

Excavation began there in the early 1800s and artefacts were sent abroad, including parts of the Ishtar Gate which remain in museums across Europe.

'Extremely vulnerable condition'

The site was substantially affected by new structures built under the direction of dictator Saddam Hussein and further damaged by soldiers during the US-led invasion that toppled him in 2003.

Unesco on Friday said the site's "extremely vulnerable condition" sparked "serious concerns, with many structures in urgent need of conservation and several on the verge of collapse".

But it opted not to designate Babylon as a World Heritage Site in Danger after objections from Iraq, and instead said it would work with local authorities on a plan of action for conservation.

"Babylon is the largest populated city in ancient history," said Qahtan Al Abeed, who leads the Basra Antiquities Department and led efforts to have the site listed.

"The Babylonians were the civilisation of writing, administration and science."

The Unesco designation "will encourage research and development of the site", and would "be free publicity for tourists", Mr Al Abeed said.

Babylon is one of 7,000 archaeological sites across Iraq, many of which were destroyed by ISIS or ravaged by lucrative artefact looting.

Five have been listed by Unesco, including the Arbil citadel in northern Iraq and the southern Mesopotamian marshes.

The three others are also on the agency's "World Heritage in Danger" list and include Hatra, an ancient city in northern Nineweh province damaged by ISIS in 2014.

Samarra, along the Tigris River, was added in 2007 and Ashur, the capital of the Assyrian empire, in 2003.

Iraq has another 11 "tentative" sites that it hopes will be listed by Unesco.

After decades of back-to-back conflict, the country declared victory against ISIS in 2017 and is now basking in relative calm.

It has sought to attract international investors and tourists, and hopes its prominence on Unesco's lists can do both.