Babylon means different things to different people. To the writers of HBO's 'Carnivale' it was the holy grail, the place where good and evil would finally meet and have one last epic battle. To Biblical scholars, the land of the Babylonians (otherwise known as Babel) contained a massive tower housing thousands of people who, thanks to an ongoing bout of irreverence to God, spoke in a confusing mix of unintelligible dialects. To those of you with proverbial green thumbs... well, I bet you think the Hanging Gardens are pretty neat.
To Iraqis, the story of Babylon is an all too familiar one of former glory marred by poor decision making and megalomania. An archeologist's paradise, the actual ancient city of Babylon is vast - no less than 2 square kilometers - and contains who-knows-how-many undiscovered keys to understanding a civilization that roamed these same streets some 25,000 years ago. Like most of Iraq, the area around the site is very flat and arid; but once you enter the vicinity of what used to be King Nimrod's (the founder of the city) stomping grounds, hills abound. Apparently these hills, a natural by-product of centuries of neglect, cover up the markets, homes, and bath houses of the old city. Unfortunately, western archeologists don't exactly have full access to the site due to a number of complications (the existence of more weapons per capita in Iraq than any country in the world plays a minor part), so it might be some time before we see what's really there.
Now to the aforementioned megalomaniac. It's no secret that Saddam Hussein liked himself... a lot. Unfortunately for for the ancient city of Babylon, he saw himself as just another ruler in a long line of great kings of Babylon, and in 1983 he set out to make his mark. He decided to try and 'reconstruct' the old city by building new walls and temples on top of the old ones. One of the many problems with this, not withstanding how wrong that is morally even to a non-archeologist like myself, was that he used very poor construction methods. Instead of using mud bricks like the ancients did, he used concrete and fired bricks that, less than 30 years later, are already starting to crumble under the extreme temperatures of southern Iraq. In a tragic final twist, the weight of Saddam's bricks - many of them labeled "This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq" - are crushing the ancient edifices below.
Nonetheless, the site is fascinating. Knowing that I was walking on stones that have been there since the beginning of recorded history made me pause more than once. I had managed to sneak my way onto a heavily guarded excursion with a State Department consultant by posing as a photographer (I'm sure they would've let me on anyways but it sounds more daring if I make you believe my cunning wit played a part), but here I was just staring at a blank wall, wondering whose blood had been spilled there thousands of years ago and for whose wedding was the place adorned with decorations. It felt somewhat similar to climbing through the caves of Cappadocia or admiring the library at Ephesus; but somehow this was different. Visually, earth tones rule in Babylon, the marble of Turkey's ruins replaced by dust colored bricks with dried mud sealant. Emotionally, a sense of hope for the future preservation of this wonderful place won out over the heavy sorrow caused by Saddam's short-sightedness.
That's right, bat you-know-what. This delight to the senses was most profound when we were, at one point in the walkabout, shuffled down a flight of stairs to where the German archeologists who first excavated Babylon believed (apparently with little scientific backup) is the foundation for the Hanging Gardens. Breathing through my mouth to avoid passing out, I couldn't help but think of the thousands of other things this place-that-looks-oddly-like-an-underground-warehouse-for-lemons could be.
Finally, as the sun set over one of Saddam's many palaces on an artificial hill, it was time to go home. Walking back to the armored 'sub' (as some affectionately call our monstrous Chevy Suburbans), I took one last quick glance over my shoulder at Saddam's personal playground on top of one of the ancient wonders of the world, wondering what it would've looked like 20,000 years ago.