Controversial move to reopen Babylon

State board of antiquities and heritage believes site needs more protection

The Babylon site

LONDON. The Iraqi government plans to open Babylon to visitors on 1 June, according to news reports. Iraq’s state board of antiquities and heritage is opposing the move, on the grounds that the site needs further protection and investigation before being reopened. This follows the controversial reopening of Baghdad’s National Museum on 23 February, after a government decision to proceed with this, defying opposition from curators who felt that it was too early.

The reopening of Babylon also coincides with suggestions that modern additions to the site introduced by Saddam Hussein should eventually be removed. Iraqi deputy prime minister Dr Barham Saleh criticised the reconstruction of Babylon during a trip to London. On 30 April he visited the British Library, to meet chief executive Lynne Brindley and British Museum director Neil MacGregor. The Art Newspaper was the only media representative present when digitised historic records about Iraq were handed over to Dr Saleh and future cooperation with Iraqi archivists and curators was discussed.

Dr Saleh said that he had visited Babylon last year and was distressed to see that the ruins had been reconstructed in modern bricks, in “a poor imitation” of the original palace. Some of these bricks bear the name of Saddam Hussein, following in the footsteps of Nebuchadnezzar II, who stamped his inscription on the original bricks in around 600 BC. Many archaeologists regret the 1980s reconstruction of Babylon, although the modern walls do now help to protect the foundations of the ancient structure and give visitors an impression of the site.

Babylon was recently visited by British Museum curator Dr John Curtis, who was there on 21-23 February, with transport and armed protection provided by American forces. The trip was under the auspices of Unesco, which is expected to release his report very shortly. Dr Curtis found considerable evidence of damage caused by the occupation by US military forces in 2003-04 and subsequent neglect.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, the Iraqi government has transferred responsibility for the state board for antiquities and heritage from the ministry of tourism to the ministry of culture.

This follows a row in February when minister of tourism Dr Qahtan al Jibori ordered the reopening of the National Museum, against the advice of Dr Amira Edan, who was chairman of the state board of antiquities and heritage and also director of the museum. She was then sacked as chairman, while retaining her position as museum director. The museum was partially reopened, although access is still normally restricted to VIPs and groups. Last month rumours circulated that Dr Edan had received a threatening telephone call, telling her to resign as director of the National Museum.

The Babylon site
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