Babylon represents one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. Its remains date back thousands of years and were excavated by Robert Koldeway, a German architect, at the end of the nineteenth century. Famous for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Babylon is also home to Ishtar Gate and the Lion of Babylon, a national icon. During the reign of Saddam Hussein, much reconstruction took place at the site and an opulent palace was built on a hill overlooking the ancient city.
Babylon achieved military fame, was the capital of a vast ancient empire, and contributed greatly to our knowledge of the ancient world through the study of the Code of Hammurabi, an eighteenth-century B.C. set of laws by which the society was ruled. Babylonia was a prosperous land and the remains today give scholars great insight into the sophisticated world in which Babylon thrived.
Preservation of Babylon more important than ever
Since 2008, WMF has been working with Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage to conserve the fragile archaeological remains of Babylon. There are many challenges: repairing damage caused by military occupations, assessing effects of twentieth-century reconstructions, halting illegal encroachments, and helping the Iraqi authorities make the site ready for visitors to enjoy the wonders of this site in the cradle of civilization. While international visitors are rare in Iraq today, thousands of Iraqis continue to visit.
From 2009 to 2016, WMF collaborated with the SBAH to document the site, complete condition surveys, and develop conservation plans. We assisted with the conservation and stabilization of the Lion of Babylon and completed a Site Management Plan, which addresses issues such as site boundaries, areas where future excavations might take place, identifying economic opportunities for local communities, and ways to accommodate tourists effectively at the site.
From the beginning, the Future of Babylon project focused on building local capacity and working closely with the SBAH and community members to integrate the project with needs identified by the SBAH to advance its work managing Iraq’s cultural heritage. A highlight of integration of training and work on site was the 2010 digital scanning at Babylon and subsequent drawing documentation workshops, which allowed SBAH personnel to work with CyArk, a nonprofit dedicated to digital documentation tools for cultural heritage. Project team members were exposed to the various stages of documentation and were enthusiastic at the potential of digital scanning. Training with CyArk allowed SBAH project team members to gain skills necessary to complete brick-by-brick drawings for condition assessments to define conservation plans and identify changes necessary to improve water management at Ishtar Gate.
Ongoing work at the Ishtar Gate
During the project’s early planning process, the Ishtar Gate, one of the most iconic structures in the archaeological park, was identified by members of the Iraq SBAH as one of five priority sites for general maintenance and conservation actions. Since 2016, WMF and the SBAH have been implementing a series of actions to reduce the impact and damage caused by water on the Ishtar Gate, as well as to provide a better visitor experience. Work has focused on improving water management at and around the monument, and conservation of the historic fabric most damaged by moisture. This ongoing work is supported by Public Diplomacy Office grants from the US Embassy in Baghdad, and includes comprehensive conservation interventions to strengthen the historic masonry and mitigate the visual impact of irreversible modern masonry infills, and a major upgrade of the visitor facilities. Following a successful pilot project to fix decayed masonry at the lower portions of the gate that have suffered from rising damp, WMF is providing the necessary expertise, training, and materials to replace the inappropriate modern masonry infills along the lower levels of the Ishtar Gate façades in a manner that is sympathetic with the monument’s historic integrity and authenticity. This work extends to adjoining damaged historic masonry right above the modern infills, where its condition warrants consolidation and, in some cases, replacement with new in-kind building materials to prevent collapse.
The SBAH and WMF program has become all the more important for Iraq. The project serves as a template for documenting heritage, assessing conditions, and developing conservation plans. As the SBAH grapples with the risks to sites throughout the country, the SBAH can utilize these tools for conservation purposes and for archival records for sites where damage is considerable and future conservation needs or rebuilding efforts are unknown.
Another main focus of the project has been assisting the SBAH with the completion of a World Heritage nomination for Babylon. Several workshops were held in 2017 to advance the research and writing necessary for this goal. On July 5, 2019, Babylon was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
WMF is grateful to numerous donors who have contributed to the conservation, training, and management planning activities for Babylon including the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the Paul Mellon Estate, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, the J. M. Kaplan Fund, and the Charities Aid Foundation of Canada.