War-Zone Archaeologists Saving Babylon

As American troops pack up their guns and tanks, dismantle bases and stream out of Iraq this month, an intellectual invasion of archaeologists, urban planners and art historians stream in.

Jeff Allen, an American preservation planner, is part of that onslaught.

Contracted by the New York City-based World Monument Fund, a private organization dedicated to preserving architectural and cultural heritage sites, Allen's personal mission is to save the ruins of ancient Babylon.

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Located 55 miles south of Baghdad in the culturally and religiously rich Babil province, Babylon is considered the cradle of ancient civilization, home to such architectural marvels as the Tower of Babel, the Ishtar Gate and the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

But the historic fabric of the site has been largely denigrated over the last 30 years, first by Saddam Hussein and then by foreign troops.

In the 1980s, Hussein built an ostentatious palace and hosted nationalistic festivals on the site.

"The Hussein restorations at Babylon are typical of a lot of construction undertaken by Saddam -- puffed up in scale, fairly tacky and covered with images of him being a great guy," Allen said by phone from his home in Cairo.

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After the 2003 American invasion, Hussein's modern amenities made Babylon an attractive outpost to troops advancing through southern Iraq. Exploiting existing fortifications and landing pads, U.S. and Polish troops established a helicopter base dubbed Camp Alpha on the ruins of ancient Babylon.

"It was horrifying that the military would be encamped on such an important archaeological site," Lisa Ackerman, executive vice president of the World Monument Fund said. "But from a military standpoint there was infrastructure. It was not without a certain logic."

Logic that has now created a trove of archaeological and historical site management and preservation challenges as American troops withdraw.

Problems with the site are numerous: heavy masonry used to fortify ancient structures in Hussein's gauche reconstructions is cracking, destroying the original mud brick; water runoff from encroaching farms and villages threatens to erode the more than 90 percent of the site that has yet to be excavated; and political wrangling between the local government and the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage may derail the entire effort.

"This is a chance to take on the most difficult situation in archeology in Iraq," Allen said. "If we could nudge out some kind of compromise, Babylon becomes a model for how Iraqis can deal with similar issues."

Allen and his backers at the World Monument Fund have spent the past year trying to broker that compromise. They have burned through $1 million in U.S. government and private funding by importing the expertise of German and French surveyors and architects, training Iraqis in preservation techniques and developing a site management plan as they seek the imprimatur of UNESCO's World Heritage status.

"Getting Babylon on the World Heritage list would mean the site means something to people around the world," Gina Haney, co-director of the Babylon project said. "The designation holds much honor and when it is obtained, it increases tourism."

Tourism may seem like a pipe dream in war-ravaged Iraq, but it is the intent of local officials who see tourist dollars and economic development amid Babylon's piles of rubble.

"Everyone knows Babylon is a big moneymaker in the future," Allen said. "But development can cause great harm and shorten the livelihood of the site."

Such concerns often pit antiquities authorities against local officials.

"Everybody wants Babylon to be popular and for tourists to come and spend money, but the fact that it is fragile and has to be managed carefully is hard to grapple with in the face of immediate economic benefits," Haney said.

Despite the myriad of challenges, the World Monument Fund remains committed to raising as much as $3 million to continue work at the site for at least five more years.

"When the world changes in Iraq and people can go there with greater ease," Ackerman said, "Babylon will take its place in that pantheon of sites that people who travel the globe will want to go to."