Marines volunteer to restore Babylon treasure

7 Jun 2003 | Army Sgt. Michael Sweet

Pitching in with brooms and good old Yankee know-how Marines and Sailors are working to rehabilitate the Nebuchadnezzer Museum on the grounds of the ruins of Babylon.

Volunteers spent the afternoon of June 7 cleaning the museum. Technical experts now plan to help make the museum better than it was before the war.

"I have always been interested in history and what had happened here," said a sweating Lance Cpl. Jason R. Speeg, a ground support equipment specialist with the Marine Aviation Logistic Squadron 39 based out of Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Accompanying a group of Marines and Naval construction engineers better known as Seabees, who were working in 110-degree heat, Speeg hauled out trash and shattered glass from inside of the museum.

"I guess this makes me part of that history," he said.    

Looters tried to ravage the grounds of the ancient ruins before the Marines arrived in Babylon and secured the international treasure.

Whether they were taking out vengeance on Saddam Hussein or were just opportunists wanting to steal whatever they could get there hands on, looters demolished the museum located inside the ancient walled city, said Mohammed Taher, the museum's director.

"Fortunately we did not have any original artifacts on display," Taher said.  "I do not understand how they could have done this to their own heritage."

Inside the darkened and dusty museum, Seabees and Marines begin to remove debris littering the building.  Glass from display cases was strewn about, mixed in with posters and items left behind by looters.

Scale models representing the ancient city, were flipped over and smashed when looters used them as stepladders to pillage light fixtures from the ceiling.   Almost everything that could be taken was, Taher said.

"It looks like if they could not take it they tried to destroy it," said Senior Chief Petty Officer Don N. Greene, a Navy reservist from Bevard, N.C., who is consulting on the rehabilitation project.

Greene, who is a project chief with the Seabees, was sent to assist the museum in designing its heating and air-conditioning system.  As director of facilities management for North Carolina, Green has vast experience in designing heating and air-conditioning systems for museums back in the United States.

Aside from the Nebuchadnezzer Museum project, Greene has worked on projects for the Mint Museum and the Science Museum in Charlotte, N.C.  He has had to develop heating and air-conditioning systems that are sensitive enough to protect famous works of art from humidity caused by patrons' breathing.

"Its important that they protect the artifacts," Greene said, "This is why it is so important for me to work with them."     

Most of the original artifacts from the museum were kept in Baghdad during the war, said Marine Capt. Gavino Rivas, a reservist who is working as an archeological and antiquities specialist with the 3rd Civil Affairs Group based in San Diego. "They would bring down special exhibits from Baghdad of items uncovered from Babylon such as cuneiform tablets or pottery but sometime before the war they stopped bringing them down."

The Mesopotamian empire of Babylon dates back thousands of years and is recognized by experts as one of the most important cities of ancient times.  It is the second most noted city in the Bible after Jerusalem, according to Army Capt. Avroham Horovitz, a Jewish chaplain supporting troops serving with the I Marine Expeditionary Force.

It was the city where King Hammurabi established the famous code of laws during the first Dynasty of Babylon (1792-150 B.C.).  They were written down on clay tablets and were used to manage the empire.

"Babylon was the important center for literature and religion in the ancient world," Taher said.

According to the museum's director, records have been found that the people of Babylon had a highly developed culture and pioneered the study of math, astrology, medicine, and science. They also developed an abstract form of picture writing based on cuneiform symbols. These symbols were written on wet clay tablets and baked in the sun. 

The ruins of Babylon are not only an Iraqi treasure but a world treasure, said Rivas, who graduated from the Naval academy in 1992 and is working toward a master's degree in public relations at the University of California in San Diego. His job is to make sure that these treasures are protected and documented for all to enjoy.

"Since 1978 the average Iraqi was not allowed to come here," said Rivas.  "I was talking to one of our translators who lives only six kilometers from here and has never seen this site."

Manual labor is not the only help that is being offered to the museum. Those with artistic knowledge and creative flair are also pitching in. 

Aside from cleaning up the museum, Rivas is coordinating volunteers who will help with some artistic rehabilitation.  He has already drawn up a list of volunteers to touch up murals that were damaged.  He is also found some Seabees who are willing to try and repair the models of Babylon that were damaged during the looting spree.

According to Greene, some of his Seabees are model railroad enthusiast and cannot wait to get to work.

"The big problem I have now is getting them the right tools," said Rivas.  "They need exacto knifes and glue guns.  It is just something we cannot find in stores around here."

Greene is working with local contractors and engineers who will install and maintain the electrical and cooling systems.

"This is a way to get local people back to work and earning money," said Greene.  "We are here to help but it will be up to them to make this project a success.

The Museum rehabilitation project is important to the Marines.  They are investing more than $35,000 to protect the artifacts said Rivas.

"I am pleased with the people who we are working with," said Rivas.  "They are professional and have a lot of pride in protecting the artifacts."

His goal is to have the rehabilitation project completed in time for the annual Babylonian festival that is scheduled for September 22.

"This is a cooperative effort," said Rivas who before becoming a civil affairs officer flew CH-46 helicopters.  "Marines, Seabees, soldiers, Iraqis; everyone is working together to make this work."