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Stabilizing Babylon

The Babylon Conservation Action Group was formed by the Babylon Committee, who oversees the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) and World Monuments Fund partnership project. Along with fellow BCAT members Babil Inspector Hussein Felaha and archaeologist Hadi Gatea Musa, I am responsible for undertaking SBAH’s restoration and engineering activities with World Monuments Fund. Our on-site duties include erecting scaffolding and shoring, undertaking scientific conservation, and the maintenance of monuments and archaeological remains at Babylon.

Our work is complicated from many issues. Importantly, Babylon has suffered from relatively little maintenance attention in recent decades owing to political conditions that contributed to a shortage of financing and skills, not to mention the obvious inaccessibility to tourism. In addition, late twentieth-century reconstructions during the Saddam Hussein period severely damaged Babylon’s historic remains. Other threats to Babylon include rising groundwater (affecting both excavated and unexcavated archaeology), and communities and activities within site boundaries and buffers that are growing unchecked.

Routine maintenance at Babylon has never been planned or budgeted, nor adequate staff assigned to these preservation tasks. Handling these problems is complicated by institutional constraints within the SBAH and conflicts with provincial and central governments over jurisdiction and responsibilities.

Today Babylon is falling apart because of a combination of exploitation and neglect that has left the archaeological site in urgent need of just about everything. But before we get onto the issue of painstaking conservation, our partnership with World Monuments Fund has been engaged in simply stabilizing conditions—keeping things from further falling apart and preparing for conservation until time and money exist to fully intervene.

We mainly do this by two ways: halting or reducing sources of water damage, and stabilizing monuments. The former often requires changing drainage patterns, and in extreme cases topographic re-grading through conservation investigations where modern backfills have been improperly deposited and historical sections of the construction reburied. Elsewhere I stabilize architectural elements that risk collapse through bracing and shoring. For example, the entire roof of Nabu-sha-Khare Temple was braced with hundreds of jacks to keep it from falling in, an exterior façade of Ishtar Temple was cracked and about to fall over until we shored a corner, and we did the same for large sections of the original inner city walls—the reasons all were in danger are because of poor drainage planning and previous inappropriate reconstruction work.

The SBAH must invest in staffing conservationists, structural engineers, and restoration architects while assigning funds for training aimed at implementing preservation policies. Other stakeholders can help with training, but the SBAH and its partners in local government must ensure adequate funding to support our work. But chances are that isn’t going to happen soon until Iraq sorts through its current political challenges; luckily until then World Monuments Fund is helping.

As the country recovers from a destructive cycle of history, its heritage sites are recognized as assets to the nation’s reinvention. I am proud to be part of saving Babylon, raising Iraq’s cultural profile and reopening the site to the world. 

Special thanks to the U.S. State Department Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for their support.

Image top: Workers inserting the last pieces of shoring at the Inner City Walls