UNESCO releases report on damage done to Babylon

On the 15th of January, 2005, the world woke to the BBC News headlines:


These were harsh words to swallow in a heavily critiqued and already unpopular war.  The United States was faced with rampant criticism not only from the fledgling Iraqi government, but from the global community.  As an investigation was launched to examine the extent of the damage, specific details soon came to light.

The initial 2,000 US troops and contractors, notably from KBR — then a Halliburton subsidiary – who were deployed in Baghdad set up camp amidst the ruins of old temples, including the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.   2,500 year old brick pavement was crushed by heavy military vehicles moving about and a helicopter pad was constructed on top of the site using compacted gravel and in some cases chemical treatment. The vibrations from helicopters using this same landing pad led to the roof of one of the buildings to collapse.

To top it all off, reports indicated that soldiers also filled their sandbags with archaeological artifacts, just because they were lying around and easy to pick up.

On Thursday, experts from UNESCO published the specifics from their survey in a report.

“There has indeed been a considerable amount of damage,” said archaeologist John Curtis of the British Museum, who inspected the site just after U.S. troops handed it back to Iraqi authorities in late 2004.

He said nine of the dragon carvings from Babylon’s landmark, 2,600-year-old Ishtar Gate, appeared to have been vandalized by looters while the site was under U.S. military control.

U.S. authorities have said the looting would have been worse had its troops not been there.

UNESCO officials stressed that the damage didn’t begin with the U.S. military or fully end after it left. Many of Babylon’s most famous artifacts were ripped off walls by European archaeologists during the 19th century and remain on display at the Louvre and Pergamon Museums in Paris and Berlin.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein also restored or distorted some of the ruins so badly that it prevented UNESCO from listing Babylon as a World Heritage site in the past, UNESCO officials said.

Looting and black-market trading has continued on a large scale since the site was handed back to Iraqis, they added.

The scale of the damage means it is too early to assess how much money will be needed to restore and fully protect the site, said Curtis and the other experts who prepared the UNESCO report, which caps five years of investigation and multiple findings by Iraqi and international academics.

“I’m happy to say we didn’t actually find any sign of malicious damage,” done after the departure of the U.S.-led coalition troops in 2004, Curtis told reporters.

There are, however, concerns that local Iraqi authorities are arguing with the country’s Culture Ministry over control of the area, UNESCO said, and questions remain about a section of the site that was recently leveled to create a picnic zone.

The Iraqi ambassador to UNESCO said authorities were worried by all these problems and would try to solve them.

“(But) the priority of the government was, and still is, the security of people on the ground,” said ambassador Muhy al-Khateeb.

It is not UNESCO’s role to ascribe responsibilities for the damage, said Francoise Riviere, the agency’s undersecretary general for culture. Damaging cultural artifacts is forbidden under the 1954 additional protocol to The Hague War Conventions, but the text has been largely ignored during conflicts around the world. (Read it here.)

Riviere said in Babylon’s case, any possible financial settlement would be “left to the appreciation of the parties to the conflict.”

The U.N. cultural body is leading efforts to reinforce the Hague rules “so that what happened to Babylon can’t ever happen again,” Riviere said.

UNESCO could coordinate funds and reconstruction efforts, Riviere said, hoping to improve Babylon’s protection by making it a World Heritage site “possibly within two years.”

From the Associated Press


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