Makki Mohammed sits in the throne room of Babylon. Every morning he watches the sunrise here. As the first rays of the sun glide over the palace walls, he likes to imagine how King Nebuchadnezzar II ruled the Babylonian Empire here 2,600 years ago. Or how Alexander the Great breathed his last on this spot in 323 BC.
“When I sit here, I feel power,” says Mohammed, a 56-year-old Iraqi with a full mustache and a black cap. “In Iraq we have many problems, but here you feel the presence of the old kings. That calms me down.”
Mohammed has been working as a guide in Babylon, 80 kilometers south of Baghdad, for thirty years. Early one morning in September, before it gets too hot, he gives a tour of the excavations. There are virtually no other visitors. Muhammad goes on and on about the processional way of the Babylonian kings, the reliefs of bull and dragon-shaped gods and the gigantic palace walls designed so that archers could shoot down an approaching enemy unseen. Every so often he stands still and takes a deep breath. “Do you feel that history?” he asks. “It makes me emotional. If I don’t get to Babylon for a day, I’ll get sick. My wife says I even give tours in my sleep.”
The excavations in Babylon date from the time of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626-539 BC). Almost all constructions are the work of King Nebuchadnezzar II, famous for the construction of the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (of which nothing remains). Babylon had a population of up to 200,000 people at the time and was, according to some archaeologists, the largest city in the world. The remains of the Old Babylonian Empire (ca. 1760-1595 BC) lie much deeper underground and have never been excavated. In the intervening centuries, Babylon was successively taken by the Hittites, Kassites, and Assyrians.
The British and French began plundering Babylon in the nineteenth century. Many artifacts ended up in the British Museum and the Louvre, another part sank to the bottom of the Tigris River when a convoy of ships with finds was attacked by local bandits in 1855. The Germans were more careful and undertook the first scientific excavation of Babylon between 1899 and 1917, but they also took the spoils with them. For example, King Nebuchadnezzar’s famous blue-glazed Ishtar Gate was completely packed, shipped to Berlin and reassembled in the Pergamon Museum.
What can be seen in Babylon today is mainly the work of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi dictator liked to think of himself as modern Nebuchadnezzar and completely rebuilt the palace walls of his Babylonian ‘predecessor’ in the 1980s. Like Nebuchadnezzar, Saddam had his name engraved in the building blocks. “This was built by Saddam son of Nebuchadnezzar for the glory of Iraq,” reads one of the stones.
Saddam also shot down his own palace on a hill overlooking ancient Babylon. Mohammed lived with his family in a village on that hill at the time and had to make way. “We have been nicely compensated,” says the guide. “I was able to meet Saddam at the time. Of course I was a little scared when I shook his hand, but he smiled and gave presents. We got a new house nearby.”
The palace is now abandoned and open to visitors. Mohammed happily trotted past Saddam’s bedroom and jacuzzi. “Saddam loved luxury,” he says. The ceiling of the throne room is decorated with a kitschy mural depicting the Babylonian gods, Nebuchadnezzar’s Ishtar Gate and Saddam’s television tower in Baghdad side by side. There is cat poop on the floor.
After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Americans used Babylon as a military base. Tanks stood next to the excavations and soldiers played basketball in Saddam’s throne room, Mohammed says. In addition to declarations of love from Iraqi couples, texts from the American occupier can still be found on the walls of the palace: ‘Don’t dump chicken, tuna, sardines or bodily juices in the trash!’
Mohammed does not have good experiences with the Americans. He says that in the spring of 2003 he caught a female soldier stealing tablets with Babylonian cuneiform writing that were among the excavations. “I told her: this is our history, don’t touch it,” says Mohammed. “The next day they arrested me. I spent weeks in prison and abused just because I love Babylon.”
The US-British invasion led to the rise of the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda. Some of those fighters later became part of the Islamic State terrorist group and conquered large parts of Iraq in 2014. Mohammed watched in horror as IS fighters smashed Assyrian art treasures in Mosul’s museum and feared that Babylon would be their next target. IS did not get that far, but archaeologists and tourists stayed away for years.
That is now slowly changing. Due to the relative (but fragile) peace in Iraq and the recent abolition of the visa requirement for travelers from many countries (including the Netherlands), Mohammed sees more and more foreign tourists in Babylon. Last year there were 632, this year 1,163. Yet 97 percent of the visitors are still Iraqi. “Unfortunately, many foreigners still think that Iraq is a war zone,” says Mohammed. “That is why I always try to show our guests that they are welcome and safe here. Last year I invited 22 Germans to my house for lunch!”
Besides tourists foreign archaeologists also return. For example, a French-Iraqi team of twenty archaeologists has been engaged in major excavations for three years Larsa, a Mesopotamian city founded in 1763 BC. was conquered by the ancient Babylonian king Hammurabi. And just last month, an Iraqi-American team discovered 2,700 year old Assyrian reliefs in Nineveh, where archaeologists were repairing the damage done by IS.
In Babylon, archaeologists are currently only involved in conservation, says Ammar al-Taee, a 32-year-old Iraqi archaeologist who works in Babylon with colleagues from Iraq, the US and Europe. It stands in the temple of Ninmakh, a stone structure that was rebuilt by Saddam but is in danger of collapse due to the poor quality of the building material used at the time and adverse weather conditions.
Taee therefore makes new bricks by mixing straw and clay in perfect proportions. “So did the Babylonians.”
At most 5 percent of Babylon has been excavated, says Taee, who did a master’s degree in archeology in Baghdad. “The cuneiform tablets tell us that there is much more to discover. They speak of more than a hundred temples, while only three have been excavated,” he says. “But what you dig up, you have to preserve. As long as there is not enough money for that, we prefer to leave something underground. At least it’s safe there.”
The young archaeologist hopes to start a PhD at University College London next year. The archeology faculty has already accepted him, he says, although he still has to pass his English test. He has also planned a trip to Berlin. “As soon as I land, I go straight to the Pergamon Museum,” says Taee. “Then I can finally see the Ishtar Gate.”
German project developers are competing for a contract to transform Saddam Hussein’s palace into a museum, says guide Mohammed. Plans for the makeover were announced earlier this year by the Iraqi Ministry of Culture. “They have made 10 billion Iraqi dinars (almost 7 million euros) available for it! It must be the most beautiful museum in the Middle East.”
But whether Germany will ever return the Ishtar Gate and other kingpins to Iraq is highly questionable. Baghdad made multiple requests, Berlin never complied. And so Babylon will have to make do with the kitschy replica that was placed here in the 1950s in front of the entrance to a never-completed museum.
Mohammed doesn’t seem to mind. “I am glad that the Ishtar gate is in Germany,” he says. “I have seen them take good care of themselves. And there are many more tourists there than here. What matters to me is that all those people see that Iraq has a great history.”