War ina Babylon: US Cultural Genocide in Iraq
Thu, 24 Mar 2005 23:02:28 -0600
By Katrina vanden Heuvel Republished from The Nation
The devastating and wanton damage inflicted on the ancient city of Babylon by US-led military forces gives another meaning to the term collateral damage
The sterile term “collateral damage” justifiably brings to mind the human tragedy of war. But the devastating and wanton damage inflicted on the ancient city of Babylon by US-led military forces gives another meaning to the term. In this case, we are witnessing violence against one of the world’s greatest cultural treasures. Babylon’s destruction, according to The Guardian, “must rank as one of the most reckless acts of cultural vandalism in recent memory.” When Camp Babylon was established by US-led international forces in April 2003, leading archeologists and international experts on ancient civilizations warned of potential peril and damage. It was “tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain,” according to a damning report issued in January by the British Museum.
The report, drafted by Dr. John Curtis – one of the world’s leading archeologists – documents that the military base, built and overseen by Kellog, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, jeopardized what is often referred to as the “mother of all archeological sites.” Helicopter landing places and parking lots for heavy vehicles caused substantial damage to the Ishtar Gate , one of the most famous monuments from antiquity. US military vehicles crushed 2,600 year old brick pavement, archeological fragments were scattered across the site, trenches were driven into ancient deposits and military earth-moving projects contaminated the site for future generations of scientists. As several eminent archeologists have pointed out, while the looting of the Iraqi Museum in the first days of the war was horrifying, the destruction of ancient sites has even more dire consequences for those trying to piece together the history of civilization. Making matters worse, the base has created a tempting target for insurgent attacks in recent months. As Yaseen Madhloom al-Rubai reports in the valuable Iraq Crisis Report (No. 117), “It was one of the seven wonders of the world, but ancient Babylon attracts more insurgents than tourists these days.”
“Turning Babylon into a military site was a fatal mistake,” the Iraqi culture Minister told Iraq Crisis Report. “It has witnessed much destruction and many terrorist attacks since it was occupied by Coalition Forces. We cannot determine the scale of destruction now. As a first step, we have completely closed the sites, before calling in international experts to evaluate the damage done to the [ancient] city and the compensation the ministry should ask Coalition forces to pay. We will run a campaign to save the city.”
That campaign is finding allies among a growing network of archeologists outraged by the unnecessary destruction of an irreplaceable site. John Curtis, author of the British Museum’s Report, has called for an international investigation by archeologists chosen by the Iraqis to survey and record all the damage done.
The overall situation in Iraq is overwhelmingly a human tragedy but that does not exempt the US authorities, who set up Camp Babylon, from the consequences of what The Guardian called an act of “cultural barbarism”—carried out in their name by a subsidiary of Halliburton. There must be a full investigation of the damage caused, and Halliburton should be made to offer whatever compensation is possible for the wanton destruction of the world’s cultural treasure.
Babylon wrecked by war
US-led forces leave a trail of destruction and contamination in architectural site of world importance Rory McCarthy in Baghdad, and Maev Kennedy
Saturday January 15, 2005
Troops from the US-led force in Iraq have caused widespread damage and severe contamination to the remains of the ancient city of Babylon, according to a damning report released today by the British Museum.
John Curtis, keeper of the museum’s Ancient Near East department and an authority on Iraq’s many archaeological sites, found “substantial damage” on an investigative visit to Babylon last month.
The ancient city has been used by US and Polish forces as a military depot for the past two years, despite objections from archaeologists.
“This is tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain,” says the report, which has been seen by the Guardian.
Among the damage found by Mr Curtis, who was invited to Babylon by Iraqi antiquities experts, were cracks and gaps where somebody had tried to gouge out the decorated bricks forming the famous dragons of the Ishtar Gate.
He saw a 2,600-year-old brick pavement crushed by military vehicles, archaeological fragments scattered across the site, and trenches driven into ancient deposits.
Vast amounts of sand and earth, visibly mixed with archaeological fragments, were gouged from the site to fill thousands of sandbags and metal mesh baskets. When this practice was stopped, large quantities of sand and earth were brought in from elsewhere, contaminating the site for future generations of archaeologists.
Mr Curtis called for an international investigation by archaeologists chosen by the Iraqis to record all the damage done by the occupation forces.
Last night the US military defended its operations at the site, but said all earth-moving projects had been stopped and it was considering moving troops away to protect the ruins.
Babylon, a city renowned for its beauty and its splendour 1,000 years before Europe built anything comparable, was chosen as the site for a US military base in April 2003, just after the invasion of Iraq.
Military commanders set up their camp in the heart of one of the world’s most important archaeological sites and surrounded the enclosed part of the ancient city. At least 2,000 troops were installed, daily passing iconic relics like the enormous basalt Lion of Babylon sculpture.
In September 2003 the base was passed to a Polish-led force, which held it until today’s formal handover of the site to the Iraqi culture ministry.
In his report, Mr Curtis accepted that initially the US military presence helped protect the site from looters. But he described as “regrettable” the decision to set up a base in such an important spot.
He found that large areas of the site had been covered in gravel brought in from outside, compacted and sometimes chemically treated to provide helipads, car parks and accommodation and storage areas. “The status of future information about these areas will therefore be seriously compromised,” he said.
Archaeologists were horrified by the confirmation of reports which have been filtering out of Iraq for months.
“Outrage is hardly the word, this is just dreadful,” said Lord Redesdale, an archaeologist and head of the all-party parliamentary archaeological group. “These are world sites. Not only is what the American forces are doing damaging the archaeology of Iraq, it’s actually damaging the cultural heritage of the whole world.”
Tim Schadla Hall, reader in public archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, said: “In this case we see an international conflict in which the US has failed to take into account the requirements of the Hague convention … to protect major archaeological sites – just another convention it seems happy to ignore.”
Lieutenant Colonel Steven Boylan, a US military spokes man in Baghdad, said engineering works at the camp were discussed with the head of the Babylon museum. “An archaeologist examined every construction initiative for its impact on historical ruins.”
He said plans were being considered to move some of the units in order “to better preserve the Babylon ruins.”
“The significance of Babylon is not lost on the coalition,” he added. “The site dates back to the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon, but there are very few visible original remains to the untrained eye.”
Months of war that ruined centuries of history
Cherished monuments defaced and ancient inscribed fragments found in spoil heaps Maev Kennedy
Saturday January 15, 2005
Iraqi authorities will today take back responsibility for the site of Babylon in a formal handover from the coalition forces. But what they will inherit, say experts, is a catalogue of disasters. According to the report of the British Museum’s John Curtis, the site has been severely contaminated and parts have been irreparably damaged.
The report details:
· damage to the dragons decorating the Ishtar Gate, one of the world’s most famous monuments, from attempts to prise out the relief-moulded bricks
· broken bricks inscribed with the name of Nebuchadnezzar lying in spoil heaps
· the original brick surface of the great processional route through the gate crushed by military vehicles
· fuel seeping from tanks into archaeological layers
· acres of the site levelled, covered with imported gravel – which Dr Curtis said would be impossible to remove without causing further damage – and sprayed with chemicals which are also seeping into the unexcavated buried deposits
· thousands of tonnes of archaeological material used to fill sandbags and mesh crates, and equally damaging, when that practice stopped, thousands more tonnes of material imported from outside the site, contaminating the site for archaeologists forever.
Babylon, capital of the Babylonian empire, site of the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was rediscovered by archaeologists in the 19th century, but has inspired legends for thousands of years. It was the capital of two of the most famous kings of all time, Hammurabi, who ruled from 1792 to 1750BC, and introduced the world’s first code of law, and Nebuchadnezzar, ruler from 604 to 562BC, who rebuilt and doubled the size of the city and built the hanging gardens.
Dr Curtis, head of the Department of the Ancient Near East at the British Museum, has worked as an archaeologist in Iraq for decades, and directed many excavations.
He was back in Baghdad in 2003 as soon as the bombs stopped falling, when the British Museum led the international effort to assess the damage and losses from the looted national museum. He returned to Babylon last month at the invitation of the Iraqi authorities, and inspected it with a team of Iraqi archaeologists. However, he was still not able to inspect the entire site, as part of it is still fenced off and mined.
He therefore warns – in what one archaeologist who has read the report described as “the killer phrase” – that his report “should not be seen as exhaustive, but is indicative of the types of damage caused”.
The military camp was established by the American forces in April 2003, and damage was already visible when Dr Curtis first visited part of the site that June. The same contractors, Kellogg, Brown and Root – a subsidiary of the American civil engineering corporation Halliburton, of which the US vice-president, Dick Cheney, is a former chief executive officer – were used to develop and maintain the site throughout, as it grew to a 150-hectare camp, housing 2,000 soldiers. This was officially handed over to Polish forces in September 2003.
His 14-page report, which includes maps and was compiled during a site visit in December, lists dozens of examples of visible damage. In a walk through the ancient city he observes damage to:
The Ishtar Gate
One of the most famous monuments of antiquity. It was excavated in the 19th century by German teams; the upper glazed parts of the gate are in a Berlin museum. However, the monument was so important to the Babylonians that the foundations, deep underground and never visible in antiquity, were also decorated with beautifully modelled dragons and inscriptions. He reports 10 separate areas of damage to the moulded brick reliefs. “It has been suggested that most of the damage [to figures on the gate] was caused … by a person or persons trying to remove a decorated brick,” he says.
The “Warsaw” Gate
Two 20-metre long trenches have been dug here. “In the piles of spoil alongside the trenches there are many fragments of brick, some with inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar,” the report says. One brick clearly has an inscription which reads: “Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, who provides for Esagila and Ezadila, the el dest son of Nabopolassar, King of Babylon, am I.”
The “Reno” gate
At one point, outside the base entrance nicknamed the “Reno Gate”, he found a 200-metre stretch of road, lined with the mesh baskets “that have clearly been filled with deposits from the Babylon site, containing sherds, bones, etc.”
The processional street
Two areas of 6th century BC brick pavement, part of the processional street, are exposed in this area. “In both cases the bricks are badly broken. This is thought to be the result of a heavy vehicle or vehicles driving over them. If this is so, it is likely that the bricks still covered by earth are similarly damaged.”
Trenches have been dug into the ziggurat, one of the stepped pyramids which were one of the most distinctive Babylonian monuments and gave rise to the legend of the Tower of Babel. “Much pottery and many fragments of brick with cuneiform inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar were observed in the bank of spoil” next to the trench.
Other observations include: an old car park vastly expanded to make a helicopter landing zone and parking lot, all flattened and gravelled, old tracks covered in new stones, now deeply rutted from heavy vehicles, large areas scooped out to a depth of two metres to obtain material to fill the sand bags and metal baskets and earth mounded up to protect six fuel depots, which also show evidence of leakage.
The most serious damage may be invisible, the contamination and disturbance of areas which have never been excavated, which may mean that many of the secrets of Babylon, including the site of the hanging gardens, may never be resolved.
In his conclusions Dr Curtis says: “A full-scale international investigation should be launched into the damage done to the archaeological site of Babylon during its occupation by coalition forces.”
All mines and ordnance must be cleared, and all disturbed areas investigated and recorded by archaeologists appointed by the Iraqis, he says.
Babylon has never been on the Unesco list of world heritage sites. “Now more than ever Babylon needs the care, attention and advice that being a world heritage site would ensure it received,” he says.
Dr Curtis said it was not possible for him to determine at which time, and by which forces, damage was caused: a separate report has been compiled by Polish archaeologists. A further report is being compiled by the Iraqis on the damage to Saddam Hussein’s palace, built in a corner of the site, and which had already been looted before allied forces began camping out in the shell. The site had such symbolic importance to Saddam that he rebuilt many of the walls and gates, using bricks stamped with his name, many of which have been stolen.
Dr Curtis, back in his office in the British Museum, refused to say who should pay for the damage, but said: “The Iraqis simply do not have the resources to tackle the scale of this site, an international effort will clearly be needed.”