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A race to shore up the ancient walls of Babylon

After two failed bids, archaeologists seek to establish Babylon as a UNESCO World Heritage Site despite damage from Saddam Hussein and US troops. Those are just its latest encounters with conquerors, they argue.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / May 25, 2012

World Monument fund workers erect scaffolding to shore up leaning wall of Babylon, Iraq, in February.

Jane Arraf

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Babylon, Iraq

The sound of hammers echoes from ancient brick as Iraqi workers battling damage done by wind, water, and modern history race to shore up the crumbling walls of Babylon.

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“If we don’t do something, in the next 10 years it will disappear completely,” says Thierry Grandin, a consultant to the World Monuments Fund overseeing workmen erecting wooden scaffolding to stabilize the 2,600-year-old north wall.

The capitol of the Babylonian empire, one of the wonders of the ancient world, has fallen on hard times.

Only a fraction of the 4,000-year-old site has been excavated; but the ruins above ground have been eroded by wind and salt water, and damaged both by sweeping reconstruction ordered by former President Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and the more recent US military occupation.

The Iraqi leader's project to rebuild the walls, literally in his own name, and create an imagined version of the ancient city has done major damage to the remains of the city. It also hampered the ruins' prospect for preservation. Despite Babylon's historical and religious significance, UNESCO has twice turned down Iraq’s bid to list the ancient city as a World Heritage Site.

“The main reason for the rejection was because of the interventions during the Saddam Hussein era,” says Jeffrey Allen, a World Monuments Fund consultant who has headed the conservation project since 2009. “There were large-scale interventions at Babylon that changed the dynamics and the appearance of the site. Those have compromised the integrity of the original remains.”

Crumbling bricks

Within the boundaries of the ancient city, on a hill above the excavated ruins, Mr. Hussein built a modern palace overlooking the ancient one. Bricks inscribed "in the era of Saddam Hussein" echoed those marking the reign of the biblical King Nebuchadnezzer. Empty spaces in the walls mark where some of the bricks were pried out while US soldiers controlled the area, say Iraqi antiquities officials.

The fragile walls of the old city are now sandwiched between heavier modern bricks pressing down on the original mud brick and a rising water table that has sent salt water seeping into the foundations of the ancient walls. In the 1980s, concrete was poured directly against the original brick. The conservation project is mapping the damage with a three-dimensional scan – brick by brick - to see how to stabilize the site and change the drainage pattern.

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