Hussein 'ruined' ruins of Babylon

11 Jun 2003 | Sgt. Colin Wyers

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of three articles on how the rise and fall of Saddam Hussein affected Babylon, Iraq.  Part one focuses on the ruins of the ancient city, part two examines the surrounding community, and part three looks at Hussein's palace in Babylon.

In the book of Daniel in the Old Testament, Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon, was troubled by dreams, and sought wise men to interpret them for him.

When Saddam Hussein became ruler of Iraq, he had dreams for Babylon as well - a dream to rebuild the ancient city as a monument to himself.

Mysterious signs also troubled Nebuchadnezzar's descendant Belshazzar.  When asked by Belshazzar to translate the mysterious writing on the wall in the Throne Hall of the Southern Palace, Daniel answered, "God has numbered your kingdom, and finished it.  You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting." 

By the time Hussein saw the writing on the wall, and his regime was removed from power by coalition forces, untold damage had been done to the ruins of the Southern Palace.

At the end of the processional street in ancient Babylon sat the Ishtar Gate, covered in the symbol of gods Marduk and Addad.  There, people would come to visit the Southern Palace of Nebuchadnezzar.

The pilgrimages to honor Nebuchadnezzar and Hamurabi, who built the original city of Babylon, still occurred in the early days of Hussein's rule.  Thousands of tourists from Europe and America, as well as students from schools all over Iraq, came to see the ancient ruins, according to Danis Mirza, an Iraqi who moved to America now a translator with the First Marine Expeditionary Force.

Hussein, born in the northern city of Tikrit and a Sunni Muslim, cared little for the mostly Shiite population of southern Iraq.

"This part of Iraq was neglected by the regime," said Mirza.  "People in this part of the world are very poor.  There weren't good doctors, no big schools."

The Shat al Hillah canal, which comes from the Euphrates River, runs through Babylon, causing groundwater to seep into the soil.  Successive rulers of Babylon built over the buildings of their predecessors because the foundations were being eaten away by the groundwater.  Hussein's many construction projects in Babylon only made things worse.

"Saddam did too many things," said Mohammed Tahiti, director of the museum in Babylon since 1997.  "He dug three artificial lakes in Babylon.  To make a good excavation, (you have to) reach a level below 15 meters.  I think he could have destroyed the level of Hamurabi, and the level above it."

Hussein also built over the walls of ancient Babylon, reconstructing much of the Southern Palace, and a Greek amphitheater originally built under the rule of Alexander the Great.

"This construction must be removed," said Taheri, gesturing to the surrounding walls of the rebuilt Southern Palace.  "All this is new, built above the archeological site.  He (had) too much wrong in the history of Babylon.  He could ruin the ruins of Babylon."

Hussein, like Nebuchadnezzar, had bricks made proclaiming his greatness to be used in the walls of the Southern Palace, hoping to do what rulers of Babylon had failed at.

"Saddam wanted to prove that he was the greatest person in the world," said Mirza, "(He wanted to) prove that he did something completely.  But he did not complete it and live in it, like he had in his mind."

Now, tourists have returned to Babylon - Marines come to hear about the history of Nebuchadnezzar from the museum's curators, who are now free to tell the truth about the reconstruction, the damage done, the palace on the hill that once belonged to Hussein, and their treatment under the regime.

"Before, when we had a group of tourists visit Babylon, they were not allowed to take pictures of the palace," said Taheti.  "If anyone tried that, bodyguards came down to take film from cameras and burn the film.  Once, men arrested me, put me in jail.

"Now, I feel my freedom in Babylon, (thanks to) the U.S."