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Iraq Reconstructs Ancient Babylon

But some archaeologists worry that the restored city may be more a crowded tourist attraction than a historical site. ARCHAEOLOGY: MIDDLE EAST

By George D. Moffett IIIStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 6, 1990



BABYLON, IRAQ

EAGER to reclaim the glories of its ancient past, Iraq is now translating its most fabled archaeological site into one of its biggest tourist attractions. Babylon - ``that great city that was clothed in fine linen and purple'' - has been brought back to life after a 2,000 year nap with an ambitious $25 million development program that has produced feelings of pride in Iraq and criticism from some archaeologists, who fear that commercialism may diminish its value to scholars.

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A leading city in Mesopotamia, the fertile plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where Western civilization was born, Babylon was briefly the capital of one of the most powerful empires in the ancient world. Even today it is a symbol both of lavish splendor and moral decadence.

Although the site of Babylon, an hour's drive south of the capital of Baghdad, has been known locally through history, no serious excavations were undertaken until a German expedition began digging in the late 1800s, leaving behind the exposed ruins of several palaces and temples.

In 1979, Iraq launched its own project to restore Babylon to a more visible grandeur.

The centerpiece of the reconstruction effort is the massive southern palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, Babylon's most powerful king, who conquered Jerusalem and carried the Jews into their second captivity. Built around five huge courtyards, the palace walls have been reconstructed to a height of between 24 and 42 feet with new bricks, many bearing the inscription ``restored in the era of Saddam Hussein,'' Iraq's current president.

The reconstruction plan also calls for hotels, restaurants, and other tourist facilities designed to make Babylon one of the biggest attractions in the region.

The government has even offered a $1.5 million prize to anyone who can match the technology used to elevate Euphrates water to Babylon's legendary hanging gardens, cited by the Greek historian Herodotus as one of the seven wonders of the world. No remains of the gardens have been found but some Babylon experts believe they may have been constructed over one wing of the southern palace.

The ambitious development scheme has concerned some archaeologists, who worry about the possible crush of tourists and prefer to let imagination based on unreconstructed ruins - rather than possibly faulty designs - be the guide to what Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon may have looked like.

``Once you turn a site like this into a major tourist attraction it ceases to be an archaeological site,'' says a Western archaeologist who regularly excavates in Iraq.

Iraqi officials in charge of the project insist that Babylon needs to be comprehensible to the nonspecialistfor whom piles of ancient rubble would mean little.

``Before, all there was was dust and palm trees: Everyone was disappointed when they saw Babylon,'' says the director of Iraq's Department of Antiquities, Mouayad Said, of the improvements made at the site.

``What we did was completely scientific work,'' adds Dr. Said, who says only ``reasonable'' designs were used for the reconstruction, new materials were kept visibly distinct from the old, and roofs, plaster, trim, and windows were left out to maintain the integrity of the work.