BABYLON – Hussein Sahab, a frail, gentle man in his late 50s, married, two sons and two daughters, has had the same job for the past 27 years. His salary: 24,000 Iraqi dinars a month (less than US$8). Sahab is one of the caretakers of Babylon, the mythical Bab Ilou (God’s gate), founded in the 24th century BC by the Amorite king Sumu-Abum.
Nothing could be more enlightening than to roam around Babylon guided by this quintessential Mesopotamian. He talks about how Babylon started to make history after the fall of Ur in 2003 BC. He talks about the great king Hammurabi, a skilled diplomat who turned Babylon into the center of an empire settled in a territory comparable to contemporary Iraq. He shows the visitor around the Babylon of king Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BC – as reconstructed by Saddam Hussein. At the time of Nebuchadnezzar, the prophet Jeremiah described Babylon as “a cup of gold in the hands of the Lord which inebriates the whole of the earth.”
Hussein Sahab takes the visitor to some of the visible ruins of Hammurabi’s Babylon (most are 40 meters underground). He shows the exact corner where Alexander the Great died of malaria in June 323 BC. He talks about sexy Semiramis – the legendary founding queen of Babylon – who chose her lovers among her most handsome soldiers and executed them once she was satiated.
According to legend, Babylon was built in 365 days by 2 million workers. At the outset of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Saddam set out to rebuild Babylon. The summer palace, the temples of Ishtar, Nabu and Ninmah, the ramparts, the Greek amphitheater, were all restored. If one uses one’s imagination, one can hear the chanting of pilgrims echoing around the “House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth” – the ziggurat (temple tower) the whole world knows under the biblical name of the Tower of Babel. “It’s over there,” says Hussein Sahab, pointing to the top of a hill less than 800 meters away from Nebuchadnezzar’s palace walls.
In a commemorative plaque placed at the square of the throne, Saddam Hussein says that he rebuilt Babylon “to restore to the Iraqi people the pride of its glorious past.” Saddam is now gone: Hussein Sahab figured it out when he noticed the surrealist Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf did not show up on Iraqi TV on April 9. Hussein Sahab says, “We are not satisfied with the Americans, but we are satisfied because they destroyed Saddam’s family.” What Hussein Sahab did not expect was the destruction that take place afterwards – and from which Babylon was not spared.
Babylon’s museum was pillaged and torched. Although most of what has been discovered on site since the end of the 19th century is in European museums, it held some priceless objects recently excavated by Iraqi archeologists. Hussein Sahab says that most were saved by the site’s staff of 60. The vandals, he says, were “not people living in the area.” The tribune in the Greek amphitheater where Saddam’s family used to watch concerts was also vandalized. The restored, sprawling Nebuchadnezzar’s palace at least was not bulldozed: originally it had more than 200 rooms and courtyards linked by corridors, with royal apartments, administrative buildings, courtesan quarters and shops whose ruins were long mistaken for vestiges of the famous Hanging Gardens.
What happened in Babylon is only a fraction of what happened in Baghdad. The transformation of the siege of Baghdad into the pillage of Baghdad is considered by many Iraqis and concerned foreigners as a crime against humanity, a crime against civilization and a crime against Islam. In Mesopotamia, the “Land between the Rivers,” the home of the Garden of Eden (which is located 74 kilometers north of Basra in the direction of Baghdad, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet), the human race invented agriculture, alphabets, codes of law, mathematics, astronomy, poetry, epic literature and organized religion. Without Mesopotamia, the human race might have lived a lot longer in darkness and ignorance.
The Iraqi Museum in Baghdad, housing more than 170,000 priceless sculptures, bass reliefs, ceramics and ancient texts, chronicling Stone Age settlements of half a million years ago, the rise and fall of the great civilizations of Uruk, Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria and Persia, and the spread of Islam, has been thoroughly looted. Among the irreparable losses are the tablets containing Hammurabi’s Code – the first code of law in history – and the 4,600-year-old Ram in the Thicket statue from Ur. The 4,300-year-old bust of an Akkadian king was smashed.
Asia Times Online went to the Iraqi Museum one day after the looting, which took place on April 10. Dr Doni George, director of general research and studies at the State Board of Antiquities, said at the time, “The whole administrative compound was completely destroyed and looted. The first point is that there were people who knew what they wanted. They’ve taken the precious vase of Uruk, an Akkadian bronze statue from 3,200 BC, Abbassid wooden doors. Before they started looting, there were American armored cars outside, and people inside. They asked for the American troops to intervene, but they did not. On Sunday, the chairman of the State Board of Antiquities went to the American HQ and explained the situation. But they sent no help. This shows they wanted the Iraqi Museum to be destroyed.”
At the time, the curators were too traumatized to discuss what was lost, and how. In the following days, they started collecting extremely disturbing evidence that this was a very well organized operation. Archaeological files and computer disks simply disappeared. Glass-cutting tools were found on the museum’s floor. Replicas that the curators had switched with the genuine article were still there, but the genuine artworks were stolen. The museum’s vaults had been opened with special keys: an armed guard at the museum told Asia Times Online that American soldiers had not taken anything, but that they had opened the doors for “people from other nationalities” to loot. “The way they opened the locks, no Iraqi could do it.”
Specialists at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in their headquarters in Paris are convinced that this was a concerted operation organized outside of Iraq. Not all the oil in world – which as a matter of fact will not benefit Iraqis anyway, but will serve to pay foreigners for the Iraqi war – would be enough to compensate the Iraqi population, the whole Arab nation, and the whole civilized world for what has been lost in the looting.
Meanwhile, in a deserted Babylon tormented by sandy winds, Hussein Sahab wants to keep his job. He shows the visitor that the Lion of Babylon is still standing: it has not been stolen or vandalized. The Lion of Babylon – supposedly a trophy from Hitite times, middle of the 2nd millennium BC – is an enigmatic basalt statue representing a man who is about to be killed by a lion. But in fact the man is resisting: with one hand he tries to shove the lion’s mouth away, and with the other he fights one of the lion’s menacing paws. Legend rules that as long as the statue is there, Babylon will never be conquered. As to Hussein Sahab, he could have stolen anything from Babylon, and sold the loot for millions. He did not. Long live the lions of Babylon.