musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Sunday, October 25, 2009


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.

As with most things in Iraq, personalities dictate reality. In some cases this leads to much-needed inter-sectarian dialogue, interstate commerce, etc.; in this case it has led to inactivity. Despite having a staff of 100 people who desperately hold on to the memories of the last Babylon Festival that happened over 10 years ago (giving new meaning to Prince's song about partying in 1999), the ruins of Babylon continue to be heavily guarded yet not visited by tourists of any kind (I'm sure the Japanese would be there in a heartbeat if they could), not to mention littered with bottles, petrified Coke cans and a strong stench of guano.

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.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Preparing for Life as a Retiree

Yesterday I turned on my television and, for some strange reason, the satellite opened to Turner Classic Movies. Now I'm a big fan of movies, but HD is usually preferable to Technicolor in my book. For some reason, I couldn't change the channel. It might've been that I needed to switch out the batteries in the remote control, but I think it had more to do with the fact that I was enthralled by the powerful primary colors, fake backgrounds, and scenes of 19th century high society (riverboats, etc). After watching the epic "How the West was Won" (1962) last night (in case you were wondering, it was railroad that won the west), I woke up this morning, still in last night's trance, to "Billy Rose's Jumbo" (1962). Here are some thoughts on my journey down pre-memory lane:
  • The women in these movies are stunningly beautiful, akin to porcelain dolls, albeit surprisingly similar in appearance to one another.
  • Every movie made before I was born seems to have been a musical, something distinctively lacking in today's flicks. Now I know where Bollywood got the idea.
  • British accents were synonymous with sophistication even in the days of yore.
  • Butt chins were acceptable and made the manly men even manlier.
  • Horses featured prominently in every movie.
  • Kissing sequences never lasted less than 5 minutes, were always accompanied by sweeping strings, and rarely involved anything other than the actor/actress locking lips at extremely awkward neck angles for excruciatingly long amounts of time.
  • "Special effects" are almost more special when you realize that they were accomplished before the advent of computers.
  • Any given group of Native Americans ("Indians") had vocabularies eerily similar to a pack of hyenas.
  • Did life exist before computers?
I have to note that Billy Rose's Jumbo was particularly entertaining at the end. If you haven't guessed by now, it's about a circus and contains all the normal mid-century drama: love found, love lost, rags to riches to rags to riches, love found again. The fun thing about BR's J (as a gen. next-er I feel the need to abbreviate everything) was that after the final plot resolution (read: love found again) the movie extended for several more minutes on a colorful dance/circus/song master performance that made me want to dust off my old clown nose, train an elephant on my upcoming trip to Kenya and join a mid-western circus circa 1934.

Anyone care to join?