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.
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.
``We are scientists, not builders,'' he says.
Babylon first came into prominence nearly 4,000 years ago under a dynasty that included Hammurabi, the lawgiver, who made it the capital of a kingdom comprising all of southern Mesopotamia. Although the famous obelisk bearing Hammurabi's code of laws was found in Persia (Iran) and now sits in the Louvre in Paris, the ruins of ``old'' Babylon are largely inaccessible because of high levels of groundwater.
The Babylon visible to tourists today is largely the work of neo-Babylonian monarchs including Nebuchadnezzar, who during his 43-year reign (605-562 BC) literally covered over many existing buildings to create his grand city.
``What strikes you is the gigantic scale of Nebuchadnezzar's undertaking,'' says the Western archaeologist. The city at its zenith had a population of one million and covered an area of nearly 8 square miles. It straddled the Euphrates and was entirely surrounded by massive defensive walls.
BEFORE the modern excavations were begun, what was known of ancient Babylon was gleaned from classical writers like Herodotus, who may or may not have actually visited the city.
Since the digging began, fragments of hundreds of clay cuneiform tablets have been unearthed, many written by Babylonian priests and court historians, which have given a surprisingly complete picture of the layout of the Mesopotamian capital: the location of major buildings, the course of the Euphrates (which has now shifted several hundred yards to the west), the site of bridges, canals and temples.
In this teeming metropolis, according to the Biblical account, one Hebrew captive, Daniel, was elevated to political prominence and later thrown to the lions, while three others, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego were cast into the furnace for refusing to worship the king's idol. After making Babylon his own capital 300 years later, Alexander the Great died in Nebuchadnezzar's southern palace.
The center of the empire, Babylon in its brief heyday, which lasted until it was conquered by the Persians under Cyrus in 539 BC, was also a place where science and philosophy, mathematics and astronomy flourished.
``Babylon deserves more than the curses it has received,'' says Said. ``It gathered all the experience of the ancient world.''
In addition to the southern palace, the reconstruction includes a half-size replica of the great Ishtar Gate through which passed Babylon's main ceremonial thoroughfare, Procession Way, also visible today. Although unpainted bulls and dragons can be seen on remnants of the original gate, the brilliant blue enameled bricks that adorned it were carted off to Berlin's Pergamum Museum at the time of the German excavation.
Nearby, in a shallow pool of water, lie the foundation stones of a 300-foot tower that was constructed in the sixth century BC, on what archaeologists say could be the site of the legendary Tower of Babel referred to in Genesis.
A model based on the ground plan recovered at the site, plus dozens of artists' conceptions of the tower ``whose top may reach unto heaven,'' may be seen in a small museum adjacent to the southern palace.