The Destruction of Babylon
American troops, stationed in Iraq at the
site of ancient Babylon, may prove to be the instrument
of biblical prophesy.
"So shall Babylon, the great city, be thrown down by
violence and shall be found no more" (Revelation 18)
Where is ancient Babylon located?
On the balks of the Euphrates, 60 miles south of Baghdad,
just outside the modern city of Hilla. Established in the
24th BC and a ruin by the time Christ was born, the site
was "restored'' by Saddam Hussein, who built a palace
there. Then, in April 2003, US marines under Colonel John
Coleman stormed up the Euphrates valley on their way to
Bghdad and turned Saddam's palace into a camp and supply
depot for some 2,000 troops. Six months later the base was
passed to a Polish-led force, which held it until the start
of the last year, when it was handed over to the Iraqi culture
Why is Babylon so renowned?
Because for at least two periods of antiquity, it was the
world's most exciting and largest city, with 200,000 residents.
It flourished under King Hammurabi (1792-1750BC), credited
with handing down one of the first sets of codified law.
And it reached even greater glory under Nebuchadnezzar II
(605-562BC) who restored Babylon's power and prosperity
after a century under thrall to the Assyrian Empire, and
extended the rule of his Chaldean dynasty across Egypt and
the Levant. In the process he locked horns with the rebellious
kings of Judah: three separate invasions of their land culminated
in the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews
to Babylon. Deportation of this sort was a feature of both
Assyrian and Babylonian policy and it wasn't until the Chaldean
dynasty fell to the Persian, Cyrus the Great, in 53BC that
lithe Babylonian "captivity'' came to an end.
What did Nebuchadnezzar do?
He doubled its size and ordered the complete reconstruction
of the imperial grounds and the building of the Ishtar Gate,
the most spectacular of eight gates ringing the city perimeter.
The ancient Greek scholar Herodotus claimed the city was
ornamented with solid gold statues and protected by walls
56 miles long, 300ft high and wide enough for two four-horse
chariots, to pass along.
(But Herodotus had never actually been there.) Nebuchadnezzar
is also credited with building the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
(one of the seven wonders of the ancient worlds) allegedly
to cheer up his homesick wife, Amyitis.
What happened thereafter?
Under Cyrus and his heir Darius I, Babylon became the administrative
capital of the Persian Empire and a centre of learning.
In 331BC, the city fell to the young Alexander the Great,
under whom it flourished once again. But after Alexander's
mysterious death in 323BC in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar,
Babylon went into decline, and by 141BC, when the Parthian
Empire took over, it had fallen into desolation, though
its reputation as a centre of sorcery and depravity remained.
How much of the city remained?
It was largely built from mud bricks so, unlike the Egyptian
pyramids or the Roman Forum, its monuments did not last.
As years passed and the Euphrates flooded and desert enriched,
it crumbled. Many precious artifacts that did survive were
carted off by colonial powers. Nebuchadnezzar's Ishtar Gate
was excavated by the German Archeologist Robert Koldewey
and reconstructed in the Pergamon museum in Berlin. The
French grabbed ceramics, the Turks used the bricks, some
still bearing Nebuchadnezzar's name, to build damns on the
Euphrates. Yet Babylon is still one of the great archeological
sites. Huge amounts of material lie underground, perhaps
including the fabled Hanging gardens.
Did Saddam leave the ruins intact?
Saddam Hussein saw himself as a latter-day Nebuchadnezzar
and Babylon as a propaganda tool. To "restore'' the
site, he imported thousands of Sudanese laborers (Iraqis
were at that time tied up in the Iran-Iraq war) to build
a palace atop Nebuchadnezzar's original. Yellow brick wails
40ft high, stamped with the dictator's name, replaced mounds
of biblical-age mud.
Lest anyone missed the point, he added a huge portrait of
himself and Nebuchadnezzar. After the Persian Gulf War in
1991, he commissioned a modern palace in the style of a
ziggurat and carved out an underground car park among archaeological
deposits. Yet he also did some genuine restoring (e.g. shoring
up Processional Way, a wide boulevard of ancient stones).
He was about to build a cable car line over the site, when
the Americans invaded.
What damage did they do to the site?
A report last year by the British Museum's John Curtis
painted a devastating picture. Curtis found that large areas
had been covered in gravel brought in from outside, compacted
and often chemically treated to provide helipads, car perks
and storage areas. US military vehicles had crushed 2600-year-old
brick pavements, scattering fragments across the site. More
than 12 trenches had been dug into ancient deposits. Vast
amounts of sand and earth, mixed with archaeological fragments,
including bricks inscribed with Nebuchadnezzar's name, were
gouged from the site to fill sandbags. But the most serious
damage has been the contamination of areas which have never
been excavated: it means that many secrets of Babylon, including
the Hanging Gardens, may never be solved. (Troops also took
precious objects home as souvenirs. By the summer of 2003,
Babylonian cuneiform tablets, the oldest examples of writing,
were being sold on bay.)
What next for Babylon?
Iraqi leaders and UN officials hope to restore it, turning
it into a cultural centre or possibly an Iraqi theme park.
But no major excavation will occur until the security situation
in Iraq improves. Meanwhile the sandbags filled by the US
military with earth rich in archaeological material are
falling apart. In time, they will form yet another layer
of occupation at the site, a layer that will come to be
known, as likely as not, as the "American stratum''.
One of the main reasons why Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem
was to take all the leading Jewish engineers and architects
back to Babylon to plan a city more beautiful then Nineveh.
The Jewish engineers quickly found the weak point in the
city's location and by diverting the Euphrates River from
flowing inside Baghdad; they managed to engineer the surrender
of the capitol to the army of Cyrus the Great without a
shot being fired.
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