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Oil and politics are ancient Babylon's new curse

By Karin Laub

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, July 1 2012 11:54 p.m. MDT

In this Sunday, May 6, 2012 photo, barbed wire surrounds the Lion of Babylon at the archaeological site of Babylon, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) miles south of Baghdad. Once the center of the ancient world, it has been despoiled in modern times by Saddam Hussein's fantasies of grandeur, invading armies and village sprawl. Now come two more setbacks for the city famous for its Hanging Gardens and Tower of Babel: Parts of its grounds have been torn up for an oil pipeline in March 2012, and a diplomatic spat is hampering its bid for coveted UNESCO heritage status. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Associated Press

BABYLON, Iraq — Nowadays it seems that Babylon just can't catch a break.

Once the center of the ancient world, it has been despoiled in modern times by Saddam Hussein's fantasies of grandeur, invading armies and village sprawl.

Now come two more setbacks for the city famous for its Hanging Gardens and Tower of Babel: Parts of its grounds have been torn up for an oil pipeline, and a diplomatic spat is hampering its bid for coveted UNESCO heritage status.

The pipeline was laid in March by Iraq's Oil Ministry, overriding outraged Iraqi archaeologists and drawing a rebuke from UNESCO, the global guardian of cultural heritage.

Then Iraq's tourism minister blocked official visits to the site by the World Monuments Fund, a New York-based group that is helping Babylon secure a World Heritage site designation after three rejections.

It's payback for an unrelated dispute with the U.S. over the fate of Iraq's Jewish archives, rescued from a waterlogged basement after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and taken to the U.S.

"I will make Babylon a desolate place of owls, filled with swamps and marshes. I will sweep the land with the broom of destruction," God warns in Isaiah 14:22-23.

Today desolation and destruction are all too evident.

Uncontrolled digging, paving and building have resulted from Saddam Hussein's heavy-handed attempt to replicate the splendor of a city dating back nearly 4,000 years.

Since his downfall foreign troops have camped in parts of Babylon's four square miles. Growing villages are spilling onto its grounds and rising groundwater threatens the ancient mud brick ruins in the roughly 20 percent of its area that has been excavated over the past century.

"It's a mess and there are a load of problems," said Jeffrey Allen, a consultant for the World Monuments Fund. "A lot of this feeling you get from a major archaeological site is missing from Babylon."

Babylon, straddling the Euphrates River some 55 miles south of Baghdad, was both a testament to human ingenuity and a symbol of false pride and materialism.

It produced two of the major kings of antiquity — Hammurabi, author of one of the world's oldest written legal codes, and Nebuchadnezzar II, conqueror of Jerusalem in 597 B.C.

With towering temples and luxurious palaces, Babylon was transformed by Nebuchadnezzar into the largest city of its time. His Hanging Gardens, according to legend a multilevel horticultural gift to his homesick wife, was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Babylon is mentioned dozens of times in the Bible, which tells the story of Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of the Jewish temple and enslavement of the Jews.

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