How Babylon was spoiled by war

A new exhibition at the British Museum will celebrate the glories of the ancient city and highlight the damage done to the site by coalition troops.

Archeologists from the British Museum visit the historic site of Ur, Iraq. The visit was part of an assessment of various archeological sites for damage and looting.

The archeologists visited a number of sites between 2 - 9 June 2008. The visit was hosted by the General Officer Commanding Multi National Division (South East) Major General BWB White-Spunner.
Photo shows  John Curtis (centre) in Iraq,  he is a curator from the British Museum
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When Cyrus the Great of Persia captured Babylon in 539BC he must have been quite taken by the Hanging Gardens, the Tower of Babel and the palaces of cedar, decorated in gold and bronze. Contrary to the standard operating procedure for invaders of his day and age, instead of laying waste to the place Cyrus set an example for the future by allowing his new possession to prosper, respecting its religion and cultural heritage. Instead of shock, awe. More than 2,500 years later, some of the surviving glories of what is considered to be the capital of the ancient world are to go on show at the British Museum, London, in an exhibition which opens on Nov 13. Visitors to "Babylon, Myth and Reality", will see 100 objects, predominantly from the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar (605 - 562BC), including glazed panels from the Ishtar Gate, one of the entries to the fabled city, and enamelled lions from the walls of the Processional Way. These remains are almost mythical, but what might make an even more profound impression on visitors will be the section of the exhibition devoted to the reality of the five years since the Second Gulf War. What it highlights is the "carelessness" of the troops who set up camp on the site of the ancient city in May 2003 and proceeded to cause incalculable damage to the ruins and the relics that lay beneath. The exhibition has already been shown in Berlin and Paris but, surprisingly, neither capital made anything of this cultural tragedy. The British Museum, however, pursuing its now familiar, eye-catching policy of relating the past to the present, as it did with Persia in 2005 and the Emperor Hadrian earlier this year, is not afraid to mix politics with pottery. John Curtis, the keeper of the department of the Middle East at the British Museum, visited Babylon before the invasion and several times since, in a flurry of dramatic helicopter rides and a border dash, complete with highway robbers demanding antiques at gunpoint. "It's the same as the other shows in that we look at Babylon and what it means to European thought and tradition," he says. "What makes ours different is that there is much more focus on Babylon today." Mr Curtis was one of the first to ring the alarm bells about the post-invasion vandalism. Not a man prone to exaggeration, as long ago as Dec 2004 he nevertheless filed a report saying: "It is regrettable that a military camp of this size should have been established on one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. This is tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain." He listed the damage, including the digging of trenches, the building of a landing zone for helicopters that flattened the ground, deep ruts from vehicles and fuel leakage. Pieces of pottery and cuneiform inscriptions were found in banks of spoil and in the soil used to fill sandbags. Nothing has happened since to change his sense of outrage. "There is no excuse for what happened," he says. "It was totally unnecessary. I have asked for a full-scale international investigation into the damage done to the site during its occupation by coalition forces." He has no time for the suggestion that this type of institutional vandalism is an inevitable consequence of war. "The fact is that when Babylon was made into a military camp the war had already been won," he says. "I don't think it was necessary to establish a camp there at all. Maybe they did it because it has the same strategic advantages that made Babylon a capital city in the first place - on the banks of the river, on an intersection of routes and on slightly rising ground - and it was in an area which lies 90km south of Baghdad which had already been fenced to protect the site, so it was very convenient. "But there is obviously no special advantage in making a camp there, because when the coalition closed the base down at the end of 2004, after all the controversy about the damage, they were quite happy to do so, even though it was at the height of the insurgency." It was not "political or deliberate", he believes. "I'm a great believer in conspiracy theories but in this case it was just incompetence." The problem, he says, was that the coalition forces did not have archaeologists or other experts embedded who knew about Iraqi history or culture. "That's a retrograde step from even World War Two, when the troops in Italy and North Africa did have experts who were put to good use. It compares poorly with World War One, too, when there was much less destruction even though there were vast numbers of troops." More than 30,000 British troops - mainly Indians - died during the Mesopotamian campaign in the First World War, fought against Ottoman forces led by German commanders and waged chiefly to protect British interests in one of the world's first oil refineries, at Abadan. Donny George, an Iraqi archaeologist who was director of antiquities in Baghdad before leaving the country in Aug 2006, after receiving death threats against him and his family, insists: "The invasion troops knew that this was the city of Babylon. I believe that the original decision to have an army there was to protect it but then they thought it was a wonderful place for a camp and, little by little, it was developed into a very big base." He says that in April 2003, before the invasion, "American archaeologists gave the military the co-ordinates for thousands of archaeological sites. So they knew where they were, they had the names of the sites, everything. The damage could have been avoided." For Mr George, the exhibition has an important message to convey: "It is very important to explain that whatever the aims of the military were, they have done this damage to the country. Not only to Babylon but to the history of mankind." In addition to the destruction caused by the occupying forces, as many as 16,000 objects were looted from the Museum of Iraq in Baghdad alone, although about half have since been returned. Many were hidden away by Mr George in reinforced storerooms. "I think the looting was organised," says Mr Curtis, "but I don't think it was organised by western criminal gangs or the Mafia, as some have suggested, but by local sheikhs and their tribes. "It's a huge problem trying to track the artefacts down. We don't have much information about how much was dug up, who was doing the selling, how things were transmitted abroad and which market things ended up in." Since Dec 2004 the site has been protected by elements of the Iraqi paramilitary Facilities Protection Service but, says Mr Curtis, "The damage has been done. It has taken until now for a proper assessment to be agreed on and we are waiting for Unesco to draw up a management plan so that things can be put right." The US Senate has allocated some money and there is a proposal that the World Monuments Fund and the Getty Foundation should become involved. Nevertheless, "it will all take a long, long, time", says Mr Curtis. The Babylon exhibition itself is, of course, steeped in irony; that it is possible at all is thanks only to what amounts to European looting from another age. There are some valuable finds still in Baghdad, such as glazed brick panels, tablets, terracottas and jewellery, but they are, inevitably, trapped in Iraq and cannot form part of any exhibition staged abroad. Consequently, everything in the show will have come from the collections of the Louvre in Paris, the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin and the British Museum. In May 2002, the Iraqi archaeological department demanded that artefacts removed by German archaeologists at the beginning of the last century should be returned. Mohammed Aziz Selman al Ibrahim, an official of the ministry of culture, said at the time: "I have anger, but what can we do? I appeal to the German government to give back our antiquities to Iraq." Nothing was forthcoming. Much of the Ishtar Gate, excavated between 1899 and 1914, was lifted and taken to Berlin, where it was reconstructed in 1930 and where it stands today. The Germans took many other treasures, including all but two of the 120 golden lions on the friezes which lined the Procession Way. Both the French and British also removed the spoils of their excavations. Having created Iraq, which became a state in Nov 1920, the British imposed a monarchy on the new country but retained control until the Thirties. Under the country's first Antiquities Law of 1922, it was decreed that foreign archaeologists should split their finds 50-50 with Iraq. Nevertheless, the proceeds of excavations by the colonial powers were often removed in bulk - such as the two shiploads said by some to have been removed by Gertrude Bell, the British archaeologist and political officer, and which allegedly ended up in Britain. Bell was a vivid character who worked with TE Lawrence and the British government's Arab Bureau to create Iraq out of the post-First World War carve-up of the Ottoman Empire. In a letter home, written as she worked on creating the new borders imposed on the region by the victorious western allies, she wrote: "I feel at times like the Creator about the middle of the week. He must have wondered what it was going to be like, as I do." The consequences of her "creation", of course, reverberate today. Nevertheless, Bell had a genuine love for the region and its history, and founded The National Museum of Iraq, an act that helped to make her an object of veneration to some when she died in Baghdad in 1927. In her life she had encouraged the youthful nation to exploit the glories of Babylon as part of a British-orchestrated exercise in nation building. Saddam Hussein also understood Babylon's symbolic value and in 1985 started rebuilding the city on top of the ruins. To the dismay of archaeologists, he inscribed his name on many of the bricks in imitation of Nebuchadnezzar, and in glorification of himself. The inscriptions proclaimed: "This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq". "My complaint about Gertrude Bell," says Mr Curtis, "is that she is one of the great imperialists and the notion of drawing lines through the map to create new countries irrespective of tribal allegiances or history has led to a lot of the problems we have today." Nonetheless, despite the mistakes of empires - past and present - he is cautiously optimistic that, like him, visitors will come away from the exhibition with the feeling that things will improve for Iraq. Mr George, speaking from his exile as visiting professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York, says: "I believe that this kind of exhibition and the material that is being shown will help to show people that Iraq is not a desert, not a place where people live in tents and have camels, but a great civilisation."