Priority Project

The Future of Babylon

Babylon, Iraq

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.  

Recent Accomplishments

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.

Current work: 2017

In 2016, WMF and the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage launched a conservation program at Ishtar Gate. Documentation has been completed that includes a digital 3D model and set of AutoCAD drawings, detailed photo-documentation, monitoring programs, and preparatory studies. Work has been done to improve drainage immediately around Ishtar Temple. In 2017, onsite conservation work addressed immediate needs such as repointing the brick at Ishtar Gate and measuring the changing groundwater level, its impact on masonry humidity, their correlation to the nearby Shatt al-Hillah, a branch of the Euphrates River, and climatic conditions through a weather station on site. The results of all are providing a detailed picture of how Ishtar Gate is being affected by the elements.

In late 2017 and 2018, the project team will complete backfilling and topographic remodeling of the zone behind the east flank of Ishtar Gate, where three campaigns of gradual infill and compaction in layers have raised the ground in some areas by nearly two meters, providing better protection against water infiltration, a serious threat to a mudbrick structure. The final stage will be to elevate the surface slightly more to achieve a drainage slope that directs water away from the back of the gate and down a slope past Ninmah Temple through the picnic grounds to a service road.

Another main focus in 2017 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. Work on the World Heritage nomination process will continue in 2018.  

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. 

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.


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