Babylon designated UNESCO World Heritage Site

BAGHDAD, 6 July 2019: 

The ancient city of Babylon, first referenced in a clay tablet from the 23rd century BC, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site yesterday – after a vote that followed decades of lobbying by Iraq.

The vote, at a UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, made the ancient Mesopotamian city on the Euphrates River the sixth world heritage site within the borders of a country known as a cradle of civilisation.

Iraqi president Barham Salih said the city, now an archaeological ruin, was returned to its “rightful place” in history after years of neglect by previous leaders.

Prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi also welcomed the news. “Mesopotamia is truly the pillar of humanity’s memory and the cradle of civilisation in recorded history.”

The government said it would allocate funds to maintain and boost conservation efforts.

Babylon, about 85km south of Baghdad, was once the centre of a sprawling empire, renowned for its towers and mudbrick temples. Its hanging gardens were one of the seven ancient wonders of the world, commissioned by King Nebuchadnezzar II.

Visitors can stroll through the remnants of the brick and clay structures which stretch across 10 sq km and see the famed Lion of Babylon statue, as well as large portions of the original Ishtar Gate.

As the sun began to set on the crumbling ruins, activists and residents flocked to the replica Ishtar gate at the site’s entrance to celebrate what they called a historic moment.

“This is very important, because Babylon will now be a protected site,” said Marina al-Khafaji, a local who was hopeful the designation would boost tourism and the local economy.

It would allow for further exploration and research, said Makki Mohammad Farhoud, 53, a tour guide at the site for more than 25 years, noting that only 18% of it had been excavated.

“Babylon is the blood that runs through my veins, I love it more than I love my children.”

Excavations of what was once the largest city in the world, began in the early 19th century by European archaeologists, who removed many artefacts.

In the 1970s, under president Saddam Hussein’s restoration project, the southern palace’s walls and arches were shoddily rebuilt on top of the existing ruins, causing widespread damage.

This was exacerbated during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when US and Polish troops stationed nearby built their military base on top of the Babylonian ruins.

Many inscriptions written by soldiers can still be seen on the ancient bricks.

The site is in dire need of conservation, Farhoud said. Unlike three other World Heritage sites in Iraq, UNESCO did not designate Babylon as one in “in danger” after objections from the Iraqi delegation.

Iraq is replete with thousands of archaeological sites, many of which were heavily damaged or pillaged by Islamic State during its barbaric three-year-rule which ended in 2017.

The other five World Heritage Sites are the southern marshlands, Hatra, Samarra, Ashur and the citadel in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.

UNESCO also inscribed Myanmar’s ancient capital of Bagan as a World Heritage Site today, nearly a quarter of a century after the complex of Buddhist temples was first nominated for listing.

The decision recognizes the importance of the central Myanmar site – which includes more than 3,500 stupas, temples, monasteries and other structures built between the 11th and 13th centuries – and will likely be a boon to Myanmar’s tourist industry.

The Myanmar proposal to list the site was approved at a meeting of the UN’s cultural body in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The International Council on Monuments and Sites recommended the listing, noting Myanmar had adopted a new heritage law and had formed plans to reduce the impact of hotels and tourism developments around the temple.

Myanmar had reversed some “inappropriate conservation interventions,” the body said, noting Bagan was important for its historical significance and as a place of continuing Buddhist worship.

Bagan was first nominated as a World Heritage Site in 1995, but the military junta that ruled the country at the time was accused of ignoring experts’ advice on restoration efforts and the nomination was rejected.

Earthquakes have also damaged the ancient structures, most recently in 2016 when nearly 200 temples were damaged by a 6.8 magnitude quake.

Myanmar has renewed efforts to list the site since a transition from military rule began in 2011.

“Bagan is living heritage, having endured all forms of challenges for more than a thousand years,” said Myanmar diplomat Kyaw Zeya, speaking on behalf of the Myanmar delegation at the Baku meeting.

“Today we are celebrating the joyous moment of the successful inscription of Bagan in the World Heritage List. Afterwards we will continue our efforts on conservation and management of Bagan so that this treasured heritage will remain for another thousand years.”

– Reuters