The fortunes of the ancient city of Babylon have waxed and waned with the rise and fall of empires. Today, the biggest threat to this powerful symbol of diversity are the Islamic State jihadis who swept out of Syria to capture large swathes of Iraq, looting archaeological treasure and blowing up shrines and sites they consider blasphemous along the way.
“Babylon is a symbol of strength. For those who want to take pride in Iraq, Babylon is the best we have. It is a symbol of unity from north to south,” says archaeological director Hussein Fleih.
In Iraq, that unity is now under threat, with the country splintering along sectarian and ethnic lines. The Kurds hold the north, Shiites the south, and Sunni militants the rest as a newly-formed mixed government in Baghdad pushes to keep everyone together under one flag.
In 2010, after the site reopened to the public, about 24,000 visitors flocked to Babylon, an oft-conquered seat of ancient empire. Visitors enter the sprawling complex through a modern replica of Ishtar Gate, an arch of glazed blue bricks decorated with low-reliefs of wild cattle and a mythical hybrid known as mushushu, a dragonlike creature with a scaled body, feline forelegs, eagle talons and scorpion-tipped tail.
Mirroring the steady decline in security, however, the number of visitors has dramatically dropped since. Babylon logged 16,737 visits in 2011, 6,539 in 2012, another 6,392 in 2013, and about 3,000 so far in 2014, most of them before the lightning summer IS offensive that left a third of the country in the hands of the militants and shocked the world into action.
The majority of those visitors were Iraqi families and students on school sponsored trips.
“My dream is to see lots of foreigners visiting Babel because it would be a sign that the country is finally fine. Since 2013, no international archaeologists or experts have visited the site,” says Mr. Fleih, who still shows up to work without fail. His nightmare is that IS could blow up Babylon in the same way that the Taliban blew up the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.
Ancient Babylon is an area of 2,100 acres divided by a channel of the Euphrates River. Two checkpoints guard the northern and southern entrances. In line with UNESCO guidelines, security has been stepped up outside the perimeter, while the antiquities police works within the walls. But current measures could hardly prevent an IS onslaught.
In March a suicide bombing hit a checkpoint leading to the site, killing dozens of Iraqis, just a tenth of a mile from the remains of the summer palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, credited with building the mythical Hanging Gardens.
Today the closest frontline between IS fighters and government-backed militias lies in Jurf Al-Sakhr, a picturesque cluster of orchards and palm groves just 37 miles north of Babylon, within the same governorate of Babil. Jurf Al-Sakhr is a small but strategic gateway connecting the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala to Sunni militant strongholds west of Baghdad. It too is rich in archaeological treasure from the Babylonian and Islamic eras, but fell out of government control two years ago.
“The situation created by Daash has been painful to everyone working (in) this field,” says Fleih, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “I care for these ruins like I care for my children. Even if I am the last man standing, I will fight [IS leader Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi and defend this city because he is a danger to all of humanity.”
IS advances have already taken a major toll on Iraqi cultural heritage sites, causing alarm in the international community. Jonah’s Tomb in Mosul, a place holy to Muslims, Christians, and Jews, was blown up in July. UNESCO warned last month that Assyrian palaces, churches, shrines, and other monuments are being destroyed and looted by the group.
Priceless works, some of them over 2,000 years old, have already left the country, according to Qais Hussein Rashied, director of the Baghdad Museum. Speaking at a UNESCO meeting in Paris Sept. 30, he warned that extremists had “undertaken digs to sell (objects) in Europe and Asia via middlemen in neighboring countries.… These sales are financing terrorism."
“Is it right to be concerned about cultural cleansing when the dead are being counted in the tens and thousands?" asked the French ambassador to UNESCO, Philippe Lalliot, at the same meeting. “Yes, absolutely. Because the destruction of heritage that carries with it the identity of a people and the history of a country cannot be considered as collateral or secondary damage that we can live with. It is on par with the destruction of human lives.”
Secretary of State John Kerry struck a similar note at a September gathering in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, describing the attacks on Iraqi and Syrian cultural heritage as an attempt to rob future generations of any connection to the past. “(IS) is not only beheading individuals; it is tearing at the fabric of whole civilizations.… (IS) is stealing lives, yes, but it’s also stealing the soul of millions,” he said.
For now, the Islamic State is far enough away for Iraqi archaeologists working in ancient Babylon to allow themselves a joke or two, but they are also acutely aware that should IS reach the 4000-year-old site, everything they hold dear could be destroyed.
The archaeological site has already suffered heavy losses in modern times. Saddam Hussein crushed much of its ancient foundations with the construction of modern-day replicas of the city walls and a copy of an amphitheater built in the third century BC by Alexander The Great. Three out of four layers of the “The Processional Way,” the main artery on which Babylonians feasted the New Year, were stripped by looters after the US ousted Saddam Hussein, US and Polish troops also damaged the site by setting up a military base here.
Ahmed Sahi, a young archaeologist learning English in the hope of leading tours in better times, makes a simple plea to the world: “We must save the cradle of civilization from these mercenaries. Babylon is a heritage not only of Iraq but of all the world. Here are the roots of writing and law.”
His elders are confident the battered ruins will outlive IS in the same way that it survived the passing of ancient armies and modern despots. But they also recognize that in this 21st century battle the future of Iraqi identity is at play.
"Our present is joined with our roots and roots means the lion of Babylon. If we lose these roots, we will lose our present,” warns Ahmed Ibrahim, another archaeologist working on the site. “If the next generation doesn’t find anything from their past, they will say we are not Iraqis.”