Priority Project

The Future of Babylon

Babylon, Iraq
A Closer Look

The Future of Babylon

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 the Ishtar Gate; the Lion of Babylon, Iraq’s national icon; and the Tower of Babylon of Biblical fame. 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’s fame extends beyond the fact that the site dates to a time more than 4,000 years ago. 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 was created and thrived.

Preservation of Babylon more important than ever

Since 2008, WMF has been working with Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) to conserve the fragile archaeological remains of Babylon. There are many challenges: repairing the damage caused by military occupations, assessing the effects of the twentieth-century reconstructions at the site, halting illegal new building encroachments, and helping the Iraqi authorities make the site ready for visitors to once again enjoy the wonders of this site in the cradle of civilization.

We are currently engaged in a collaborative project with the SBAH to clean and stabilize the archaeological ruins of Babylon, and in 2016, we will start large-scale conservation at the Ishtar Gate. Work is nearing completion in presenting anew the Lion of Babylon, a statue that was at risk of falling over until we intervened to stabilize its pedestal and install measures to reduce vandalism. At several other sites, such as Ishtar Temple and the inner city walls, the SBAH and WMF have teamed up to prevent collapse until conservation work can be undertaken. Recently the primary visitor route has been thoroughly cleaned with broken and inappropriate modern buildings and hardscape elements removed.

WMF produced a site management plan that 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. One goal of the project is to assist the Iraqi authorities with the completion of a World Heritage nomination for Babylon.

An integral aspect of the Future of Babylon project is the need to strengthen the capacity of the SBAH to manage Iraq’s cultural heritage. Training started in documentation, one of the foundations of defining comprehensive conservation actions. A highlight is the 2010 digital scanning of monuments and the subsequent drawing documentation training process. WMF sponsored two digital scanning training sessions with the SBAH and CyArk. The first was when CyArk representatives joined WMF at Babylon to scan monuments and provide field-based training. Staff members were exposed to the various stages of documentation and were enthusiastic at the potential of digital scanning. The SBAH’s enthusiasm for digital scanning led to the second session held at CyArk’s headquarters in Oakland, California. Two SBAH representatives participated in a training course in digital preservation that provided them with tools and data that they and two other engineers, who formed the SBAH’s Babylon Documentation Work Group, used for making detailed brick-by-brick drawings for condition assessments that helped define conservation interventions and  changes to the existing topography to improve water management at the Ishtar Gate.

But the documentation effort includes not only a digital 3D model and set of AutoCAD drawings—Ishtar Gate has also undergone detailed photo-documentation, monitoring programs, and preparatory studies too, and the Babylon Documentation Work Group work extends to 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 and human presence.

Although conceived prior to the current crisis in looting and the destruction of antiquities, the SBAH and WMF’s documentation mission has now become all the more important for Iraq. At the Ishtar Gate a template for improving conservation throughout the country is being fashioned, one where risk management policies comprise comprehensive documentation not only for conservation purposes, but as archival records of a monument at a given point in time.

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, and the J. M. Kaplan Fund.

Join us in keeping watch over mankind’s greatest achievements, and support this call to action.