The German excavations were greatly scaled down with the outbreak of the First World War, and in 1917 were forced to cease completely. By 1918, the world was already transformed, and a period of unprecedented upheaval, uncertainty, creation, destruction and change, Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘age of extremes’,1 was underway. The upheaval was felt in intellectual terms in forces that fundamentally affected the place of archaeology and history: a great rise in atheism and a diminishing role for the humanities, the latter reduced, according to some, to mere luxuries that the dangerous new world could do very well without, and the withering in the face of modern atrocities not only of the notion of progress that placed modern Europe at history’s pinnacle, but also of the more benign hope of progress as a general belief in human ability to build toward positive goals in the long term.2 Significantly from the point of view of Babylon’s representation, the period also witnessed the fragmentation of Europe’s shared elite cultural canon, due to the emergence of increasingly cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-confessional societies, the demise of the Bible as a source of narratives familiar to and accepted by all and new approaches to education. Perhaps most importantly, the period is that of the rise and fall of grand theoretical models for understanding – and in politics even directing – human behaviour.

This chapter focuses on approaches to Babylon within and without archaeology after the First World War, and follows three basic threads: the development of German archaeological theory; Babylon’s twentieth-century reception and representation outside archaeology; and the role of the Mesopotamian past in Iraq’s history as an independent state.

German archaeological discourse to 1933

Nowhere was the tumult of twentieth-century European political, social and cultural change so acutely felt as within its young but powerful new focus: unified Germany. The economic performance of Germany in its first few decades of existence, including and backed by phenomenal industrial and military development, left Britain and France, for all their global reach, relatively weak in continental Europe itself. By the eve of the First World War, Germany could boast school and university systems that were the envy of the world and a huge industrial output, as well as unequalled military resources.3 Even Britain’s once unassailable naval dominance became a gap that Admiral Tirpitz aimed to close at speed.4 The language of German politics had grown correspondingly ambitious: ‘Weltpolitik meant for Germans in the 1890s the invention of a new world mission for Germany worthy of her industrial, technological, cultural and military strength.’5 Small wonder, then, that the fight for the nation’s identity and destiny was intense. Between the late nineteenth-century foundation of proto-imperial organizations such as the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft and the rise to power of the Nazi party, the discipline of archaeology in Germany was the focus of intense political and ideological battles whose implications continue to affect us in the present. It was also a period of great technical and scientific innovation in the subject, again centred on Germany.6 This potent combination, as events were to show, was ripe for exploitation by political extremists.

Returning to Delitzsch and Babel–Bibel, we are already witness to perhaps the first major derailment of German imperialist archaeological discourse by religious and racial concerns. That it was a derailment is itself one of the most important points to note about the situation. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century imperialist archaeologies in which racial hierarchies of various kinds were implicit, assumed or consciously developed as explanatory models and the specifically twentieth-century archaeologies that were explicitly driven by racial and ethnic theories have many parallels and connections, but the two are absolutely not continuous nor even particularly compatible. The Babel–Bibel affair provides a good case in point. The lectures were conceived as a staged, controlled public spectacle, and as such had a clear intended narrative. The narrative ought to have been straightforward: what was wanted of Delitzsch was simply to highlight to the nation and the world at large the great steps that studies of the ancient Near East had taken in Germany over a short period of time, and to emphasize that Germany was now the equal of Britain and France in the archaeology and ancient languages of the region. They were not planned as the spur to a national outcry or the condemnation of philological research as blasphemous. The clue that this is what Delitzsch’s lectures would induce, however, was to be found very close to home, within the German academy itself. The recent rise of grand theory on race, language and human development, of which pan-Babylonianism was only one manifestation, appears in retrospect as a bellwether. As has been mentioned above, the foci of academic research on the past are often linked to the pressing concerns of the present, and the public reaction to the first twoBabel und Bibellectures more than matched academic interest in the issues they discussed. Later, those who, like Delitzsch, drew explicitly anti-Semitic conclusions from their study of ancient texts were part of a broader cultural movement that had as much to do with old stereotypes and new insecurities as with philological considerations.

In other areas of history, archaeology and ethnography, theories of race were coming to the fore. The name most strongly associated with this new emphasis is that of Gustav Kossinna, whose model of culture history both served the racial political vision of Nazism and exerted a more positive influence on academic archaeology, leading scholars such as Gordon Childe to develop approaches that did much to systematize and encourage comparative approaches in the study of human prehistory.7 Kossinna was hardly alone in promulgating confusion between linguistic, racial and ethnic identities in his work, but his conclusions drew on multiple strands of nationalist desire. Not only could his theories legitimate a sense of German superiority, they could also incorporate ancient Greece.8 This inclusion was enormously important because in Germany – perhaps more even than in Britain, where imperial experiences had promoted a yet greater interest in the Roman Empire9 – ancient Greece had a decidedly special place in history. The great art historian Johann Winckelmann had first constructed the typology that formally put Greek art at the pinnacle of human aesthetic achievement in the eighteenth century. Enlightenment thought was both ideologically open to and strongly affected by his view of the greatest aesthetic achievement being reached through the greatest personal freedom10 (though Winckelmann himself did not follow the model consistently, frequently showing great admiration for works produced under autocratic regimes).11Many of the most important writers influenced by Winckelmann were German speakers and wrote in German, further heightening his impact on the high culture of the Germanic kingdoms including, crucially from the point of view of later history, Prussia. The historian of archaeology Alain Schnapp highlights Winckelmann’s particular resonance in the original German:

Mid-eighteenth century Germany, which worshipped daily at the shrine of Greek art, was to find in Winckelmann an inspired singer of the praises of antique art, who expressed in a new kind of German prose the matchless quality of Greek art […]. Winckelmann transcended archaeology in the relevance of his analyses, but above all in the quality of his style and the ambition of his aesthetic.12

Winckelmann’s Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums13 became canonical, its status only entrenched by the increasing volume of northern European travellers to Greece and the shipment of greater quantities of antiquities north from Greece and Italy during the nineteenth century. The overwhelming dominance of the classics in Prussian intellectual life was only beginning to shift at the turn of the twentieth century,14 a process helped, ironically, by the great achievements of German scholars in classical philology and archaeology in the nineteenth. Excavations revealed quantities of pre-classical material, Mycenean, Geometric and Archaic, that did not fit easily into Winckelmann’s scheme and provoked new approaches.15 The exploration of prehistory created new problems of classification, as well as a need for explanation of historical processes in the absence of written records. Kossinna’s solution was to combine the art historical approach associated with Winckelmann with a form of social Darwinism, building up an ethno-linguistic model that placed Germanic Aryans at its peak. This might at first seem incompatible with an idolization of ancient Greek art and architecture; the answer for Kossinna (and thereafter for culture and historical archaeology in general) was migration. His model could explain great cultural achievements in other parts of the world through the migration of Kulturvolker, a term coined by Gustav Klemm to designate culturally creative peoples as opposed to passive Naturvolker.16 For Kossinna Kulturvolker meant essentially Germanic peoples, and so for him the Greeks and Romans became groups of Germanic colonists whose genius had been gradually corrupted by inferior local blood. This explanation emphasized the idea of Germany’s special position and destiny inKulturgeschichtewhile avoiding a total renunciation of ancient Greek culture and its merits. The model was a racial adaptation of Winckelmann’s doctrine of the downfall of art through superfluity. The artist, in Winckelmann’s opinion:

[A]t last gradually raised art among the Greeks to the highest beauty. After all the parts constituting grandeur and beauty were united, the artist, in seeking to embellish them, fell into the error of profuseness; art consequently lost its grandeur; and the loss was finally followed by its utter downfall.17

In due course, new waves of Germanic peoples overwhelmed Rome. Here, Kossinna looked further back, to Tacitus. (As one commentator notes, ‘The most salient fact about the Gothic migrations is that they forcefully underscore how old theories never die’.18) The journal set up by Kossinna to disseminate the findings of the Deutscher Gesellschaft für Vorgeschichte, of which he was the first president, was named Mannus after a founding god of the Germanic peoples named in the Germania.19 Tacitus himself regarded the Germanic peoples ‘as aboriginal, and not mixed at all with other races through immigration or intercourse’, albeit for rather different reasons than Kossinna. For him, ‘[Q]uite apart from the danger of a rough and unknown sea, who would abandon Asia or Africa or Italy for Germania, with its unlovely landscape and harsh climate, dreary to inhabit or behold, if it were not one’s native land?’.20 For Kossinna, the important aspect was purity of German blood. Nietzsche’s aristocratic supermen, already innately superior and devoid of any responsibility to the rest of humanity, and already driven by the megalomaniac raison d’être of the Will to Power, could now take on a racial character.21

There is little common ground between the ideas of Delitzsch and Kossinna. Ex oriente lux could not sit easily with a model that made Germany the font of all cultural innovation. For his part Kossinna dismissed Near Eastern, Egyptian, and even classical studies as unpatriotic in the conclusion to his Die deutsche Vorgeschichte: eine hervorragend nationale Wissenschaft (‘German prehistory: A supremely national science’).22 Nonetheless, Delitzsch’s controversy is one that, as much as Kossinna’s work, is relevant to the later use of archaeology in legitimating anti-Semitic persecution.23 Moreover, they shared a position in the changes then sweeping through the German academy. Suzanne Marchand characterizes Kossinna and the arch pan-Babylonianist Hugo Winckler as examples of a contemporary type:

[A]spirants to cultural prestige [… who] would look to the universities for cultural legitimation […] most leading para-academic existences […]. Importantly, these academic outcasts generally spoke to rather large popular audiences composed of educated laypeople and local elites, evinced sympathy for the natural sciences, and, usually working in areas less attractive to the classicising professorate (such as indology, German prehistory and Near Eastern studies), drew popular attention to the insularity and obsolescence of neohumanist academe.24

Although he can hardly be seen as a rank outsider or ‘para-academic’, some of the characteristics identified by Marchand extend even to the august Delitzsch. Certainly his speeches to a broad public brought a new relevance and urgency to the work of his discipline. As in the case of Kossinna, however, his controversial interventions foreshadowed the Nazi use of his subject. For Delitzsch and others it was not the Bible as a whole that was undermined, but specifically the Old Testament. For Delitzsch, the existence of Mesopotamian comparators negated the status of the Old Testament as revealed knowledge, but had no bearing on and could not undermine the New Testament. In the 1930s this fringe position was to move to the very centre of German religious politics. Although he did not live to see this dark conclusion, Delitzsch would have been well aware that his work was politically meaningful. Political anti-Semitism, never entirely absent in European history, had been a significant factor in German politics since the late 1870s, associated with extreme nationalism and at least tolerated by Bismarck for the purposes of ‘negative integration’, whereby the perception of some internal enemies helped to unify and stabilize relations between other groups.25 Anti-Semitic movements were fuelled by the uncertainties and removal of traditional structures associated with industrialization and urbanization, for which Jews made convenient scapegoats.26 They also became linked with nationalism, another factor relevant to the work of Delitzsch. The link was a strong one: according to Pulzer, ‘Nationalism had, by the beginning of the twentieth century, become the main driving force behind anti-Semitism’.27

Babylon outside archaeology

The twentieth century saw the emergence of an exciting new tool for representing the past. The early history of cinema contains many examples of biblical and Near Eastern subject matter, and a number of very early Italian and French films feature Babylon and other Near Eastern subjects, including brief but often highly original adaptations of the stories of Belshazzar, Semiramis and Sardanapalus.28 Babylon continued to appear as films became longer and more complex. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1919 Male and Female, an adaptation of J. M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton, contains a remarkable Babylonian dream sequence, prompted by the W. E. Henley poem ‘To W. A.’:

Or ever the knightly years were gone
With the old world to the grave,
I was a king in Babylon
And you were a Christian slave.

In the dream sequence Crichton, the butler who has risen above his former mistress in the social order after the two and their party have been shipwrecked and cut off from civilization, becomes the king of Babylon, wearing a loosely Assyrian-derived costume and an exaggerated cruel sneer. On either side of his throne stand winged bulls, at least in profile. In frontal view they resemble Norse heroes, though what look like swords they hold are actually snakes. Other parts of the scenery include bricks after those of Babylon and Susa, while the king’s throne carries Assyrian rosettes and a lotus decoration. For reasons that are unclear, the king of Babylon’s servants are African, but true to Daniel he is in possession of a fully functional lions’ den, in which are kept the ‘sacred lions of Ishtar’. The sequence is fun and extravagant, but it is relevant that in a story focusing on class and power Babylon is the venue chosen for an essay on extremes of despotic cruelty, luxury and absolute power. For similar reasons, though in a more lurid context, Gore Vidal’s novel Myron (1974) chooses ‘Siren of Babylon’ as the appropriate fictional film into which to transport its protagonist for a provocatively explicit story centred on sexual transgression.

Babylon’s most noteworthy appearance of all comes in D. W. Griffith’s epic motion picture Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916). Griffith’s Babylon returned to Edwin Long and to Herodotus for inspiration, yet in some respects Intolerance is also an emphatic indicator of change in Babylon’s meaning in representation, and a departure from the nineteenth-century sources that provided its visual inspiration.29

What is apparent to any viewer of Intolerance is the scale of Griffith’s ambition (Figure 22). The film was exceptional in a number of ways and was very consciously a work of innovations and superlatives, explicitly intended to break new ground and expand the horizons of the young motion-picture industry. The film was technically and thematically ambitious in equal measure, and expensive beyond all probability for such an original venture. Intolerance was the first multi-reel motion picture, and its three hours of footage dwarfed anything previously seen. Its high production values were equally novel, particularly in the American film industry, which at this time was less lavish in most respects than those of Italy and France. Griffith, who had already produced hundreds of more conventional silent pictures,30 had enjoyed great success with The Birth of a Nation (1915), and intended to surpass his achievements here in Intolerance. The Birth of a Nation was a deeply racist work, including positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan.31 Even at the time some attempts were made to ban the film, and limited censorship was imposed by the National Board of Review, although this censorship seems to have been only of white racism and racist violence, that is, to produce a yet more positive portrayal of whites’ behaviour.32 Nonetheless, The Birth of a Nation was received as the biggest commercial and artistic success of American cinema, in which Griffith demonstrated a new mastery of cinematography, leading commentators to claim erroneously that he had actually invented techniques such as the close-up and fade-out.33 Intolerance, a relatively difficult academic piece produced on an enormous scale, did not enjoy the same commercial success, and financially ruined Griffith, though his bankruptcy at least came about through employing the original cast of thousands and creating the most lavish and spectacular art. The scale, aesthetic merit and intellectual ambition of Intolerance mark it out as an important moment in the history of cinema. Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, whose title celebrates the seedier side of Hollywood excess and takes Babylon into yet another locale, opens with an evocation of how Griffith’s sets, now ruins in their own right: came to loom over Hollywood:

A make-believe mirage of Mesopotamia dropped down on the sleepy huddle of mission-style bungalows amid the orange groves that made up 1915 Hollywood, portent of things to come […]. And there it stood for years, stranded like some gargantuan dream beside Sunset Boulevard. Long after Griffith’s great leap into the unknown, his Sun Play of the Ages, Intolerance, had failed; long after Belshazzar’s court had sprouted weeds and its walls had begun to peel and warp in abandoned movie-set disarray; after the Los Angeles Fire Department had condemned it as a fire hazard, still it stood: Griffith’s Babylon, something of a reproach and something of a challenge to the burgeoning movie town – something to surpass, something to live down.34

The film’s theme is an eternal conflict between love and intolerance, as expressed through four historical studies: ancient Babylon, Judea at the time of Christ, the persecution of the Huguenots in sixteenth-century Paris and the industrial development of early 1900s America. Of these, the first and last receive most attention. The film is best remembered for the Babylonian section35 and particularly its sets, probably still the largest and in real terms most expensive in the history of cinema. The Babylonian storyline was inspired by Edwin Long’s Babylonian Marriage Market of 1875.36 Once again a Greek source, Herodotus, is used in preference to newly-available Mesopotamian themes, and this at a time when the American academy was rapidly achieving parity with European institutions in the study of ancient Mesopotamia.37 Not to say that these studies were discarded. Rather, as with Long’s painting, they were collected fastidiously and then employed selectively: the effort towards authenticity is focused exclusively on object detail. Unusually, a source survives showing vividly how this was accomplished: Griffith and his researchers put together a scrapbook (now held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York) whose combination of sources from archaeology and European art is reflected in the film itself. In costume a similar process married the most exotic and interesting of the ancient Near East with the requirements of contemporary celluloid glamour. As McCall notes, the result perhaps carried just a hint of gender bias:

The men wore woollen robes with heavy embroidery and look completely authentic, as did the soldiers, priests, and kings, but the women had suffered the same fate as Long’s maidens: they had been prettified to conform with modern tastes and wore flimsy robes that clung or were shaped to the body with jewelled girdles. The women had to be recognisably ‘Babylonian’ to western eyes, that is exotic, mysterious, and beautiful, and prone to lounge on tiger skins.38

As with Long’s painting, this highly selective attention to detail elicited scholarly approval: A. H. Sayce lauded Griffith’s attention to detail enthusiastically in an unpublished letter, and his praise is repeated in the souvenir programme of Intolerance.39 Where Griffith’s work differs from Long’s is that in Intolerance Herodotus only sets the initial conditions; the story is Griffith’s and is absolutely modern. An uncouth mountain girl, representing one of the less attractive women from Long’s painting, attempts to escape from the vicissitudes of the marriage market and decide her own fate. Her will in the story represents love, her oppression intolerance. Even if Herodotus was not wholly sincere in his praise of the marriage market as a system (see Chapter 3), nor is the independent and non-conforming mountain girl of Intolerance by any means the better alternative he meant to imply. For Long in 1875 the same character, pictured at the end of the line of maidens at the bottom right of the image, is little short of an ogre. Her unrefined posture and coarse expression, which in Griffith’s work represent a vital and positive will to freedom, in Long’s image are presented as monstrous and frightening, as evidenced by the horrified male figure pictured above this girl, his own youth and delicate fineness of feature intended to contrast with her coarse image. In Intolerance the wild mountain girl is played by Hollywood beauty Constance Talmadge and is the heroine of a romance. Meaning here has changed radically within, ostensibly, the same story.

The clearest example of this kind of shift in meaning, however, is the twentieth-century reception and representation of the Tower of Babel.40 Griffith’s use of an Orientalist history painting as his starting point is, if not anachronistic, certainly late. In contrast with the sexually charged exoticism of the fin-de-siècle, perhaps the most prominent feature of Babylon’s treatment in twentieth-century culture has been the Tower of Babel’s popularity as a motif in philosophical work on identity, knowledge and the complexity of the world at large. In the twentieth century a very old theme, the nature of the confusion of tongues, returns to the fore. Stripped of the certainty of divine will at its centre, however, the Babel of Genesis becomes a very different subject, whose relevance to the emergent and in some ways genuinely new patterns of living in the globalizing twentieth century possessed substance and depth as well as the emotive strength of a well-chosen cipher. A 1950 article analyses five near-contemporary works of fiction in which the theme of Babel occurs specifically in a context clearly linked to the anxieties of the present, the author noting that ‘It is probably more than mere coincidence that five works, published between 1934 and 1948, describe the Devil’s dealings with our world by tracing deterioration in language and speech’.41 In cinema a comparable use of the Tower of Babel can be seen in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), in which the ‘New Tower of Babel’ is the symbol of a futuristic dystopia in which workers and technocrats have lost contact with one another and can no longer communicate. A flashback to the ancient Babylon shows armies of slaves being whipped on as they drag the blocks to build the tower for their priestly masters. Both towers, ancient and futuristic, owe something to the imaginings of Bruegel and his successors. By the time the film was produced it would have been quite possible to include a more ziggurat-like reconstruction, but to draw on the tower as known through the centuries in European culture has its own validity and seems wholly appropriate here: the Babel with which works like Metropolis are concerned is very much that of art and theology.

The modern transformation in the meaning and resonance of the Tower of Babel story is never clearer than in the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, whose work epitomizes some distinctively twentieth-century uses of Babylon. One of the great modern short story writers, in his playful interest in the absurd Borges is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, and the two writers also share a tendency to employ mathematical games in their work. Infinity is a recurring theme in Borges’ writing, as is the labyrinth (not, as in common usage, a maze, but in the stricter sense of a single, folding path leading to a central place). Borges saw the labyrinth as symbolic of – perhaps actively constituting – a form of thought or meditation.42 His two stories with supposedly Babylonian settings are both contained within a series called The Garden of Forking Paths, and both concern infinity and the labyrinth. Against first impressions, both also concern Babylon in more than name.

The Library of Babel43 is named for the confusion of tongues. It consists of the description of a library consisting of hexagonal chambers, in which every possible combination of 25 printed characters over 410 pages is given. The text’s narrator maintains that the library is infinite in time and endlessly cyclical in space, on account of his awareness of a finite number of combinations but inability to conceive of a finite universe. Borges uses this structure to play with the subjects of authorship, language and knowledge. In particular, he draws out the self-referential nature of all written knowledge in the library, since it contains:

Everything: the minutely detailed history of the future, the archangels’ autobiographies, the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of those catalogues, the demonstration of the fallacy of the true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books.44

The problem of drawing meaning from such a library, of transferring knowledge out of this self-referential system, is analogous to Derrida’s web of infinite signification: the assertion that signifiers such as words correspond not to signifieds, i.e. things and concepts in the world, but to more signifiers, that these in turn do the same, and that it is therefore impossible to give a perfect description of an object or for a sign to be discrete. Instead any one sign must refer ultimately to the whole of language.45 Derrida’s (for some) systematic undermining of the human capacity for making meaning sparked strong reactions, and it is a similar problem that Borges presents to the reader. Although the very first sentence of the story begins ‘The universe (which others call the library)…’, it becomes apparent only gradually that the point being made extends beyond the problems of infinite signification within texts. In The Library of Babel the question of infinity and significance is ultimately made physical and tactile. The impotence of the librarians, trapped within their self-referential library, becomes the reader’s own. The sense is that of being entirely lost, searching hopelessly for meaning that one knows, from a structural point of view, cannot be reached.

The problems raised by The Library of Babel are wholly modern, yet the endeavours of the librarians reflect an older approach to knowledge and language; the belief in something divine underlying the chaos. The reconstruction of the original Adamite language was, in earlier discourse, a subject of much speculation and scholarly inquiry, of which Kircher’s comparative linguistic studies in works such as Turris Babel are outstanding examples. More interestingly, the study of the origins and development of languages remained the preserve of philologists closely allied to archaeology, and not least the archaeology of Iraq. The land of Babel, coincidentally, became the best place to study some of the earliest written language and to witness linguistic change over time. The gulf between a philological work and a philosophical meditation on the properties of written language is vast, yet both are ways of addressing the same subject matter. The question of how one might begin to integrate the two raises many interesting possibilities. The point here, however, is that the biblical confusion of tongues did not cease to be a relevant and intriguing subject in terms of the human condition, but that archaeology, once formed into its twentieth-century shape and removed from a literal understanding of the Genesis account, was no longer equipped for such meditations, more natural heirs to this role being found in students of language much further from archaeology such as Borges, or more recently Umberto Eco.46 It thus becomes apparent that the location of some parts of Babylon’s identity and mythology outside archaeology does not mean that those aspects cease to function in important ways, even within academia, once archaeology’s purposes and position are relatively established. Returning to Babylon’s parallels in representation with Venice (noted above in Chapter 3), one is reminded here of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974), and a more philosophical engagement with the relationship between personal experience and the identity of the city as a concept.

In The Lottery in Babylon,47 Borges may have been inspired in part by classical material, either in the marriage market of Herodotus or the story of Semiramis tricking Ninus from his throne in Plutarch (see Chapter 3). The story is original, however, and its concerns modern. In it a state lottery extends beyond money to consume all aspects of life, as the lottery’s architects attempt to turn it into a just and complete redistributive system. The result is dystopian, and Borges uses it to explore the modern condition of existence in a world whose systems and scale of operations are inhuman (the company running the lottery seems omnipotent to Borges’ narrator) and, from the perspective of the individual within them, mystifying, yet which at the level of the state have a curious logic of their own. This problem of perspective is also a characteristic of The Library of Babel and of the labyrinth, whose aesthetic is ‘based on the fact that, fully perceived and appreciated, the maze transcends apparent disorder to reveal a grand design’.48 Biblical Babel, built too high and with ambitions too great for humanity’s own good, is a perfect setting for such an exploration.

The Babel and Babylon imagined by Borges have many visual equivalents, including some images based explicitly on his work. There are many twentieth-century representations of the Tower of Babel, and their emphasis is most often on a world that has grown too large and complex for human habitation. Often they reflect the inhuman scale of twentieth-century skyscrapers, as is the case in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. This is part of another modern trope: Babylon as urban dystopia. The confusion of Babel, the luxury and degeneracy described in the ancient Greek sources and the prophecies of destruction in the Old Testament and Revelation all feed into this image. Nowhere is this dystopian strand more powerfully evoked, however, than in the rhetoric of exile and return.

Babylon and exile: Zionism and Rastafari

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw unprecedented levels of deportation, exile, enslavement, displacement and alienation of all kinds. For some groups the struggles of the ancient Israelites in the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar provided compelling parallels with their own situations, and the desire for a return to Zion became a very modern rallying point for the dispossessed. Most obviously there is modern Zionism itself. Demands for the creation of the modern state of Israel were always couched in an acute historical awareness of a long history of persecution and oppression, starting with the trials of the Old Testament, both in Exodus and in the Captivity, and it is in this broadest sense that the term Zionism is used here.

The use of Babylon and Zion in Zionism involves both historical and allegorical references to both cities. Even the return to Jerusalem itself has been, for some, much more than a literal territorial goal:

The important distinction [in evaluating the past results and contemporary relevance of Zionism] in this regard is between Herzl’s school of ‘political Zionism’ and Ahad Ha’am’s school of ‘spiritual Zionism.’ […] According to Ahad Ha’am, Zionism’s primary aim was to overcome the threat to the survival of the Jews as a nation due to historical processes such as emancipation and secularisation, which drove many Jews to assimilate. Ahad Ha’am sought to cope with the threat by establishing a ‘spiritual centre’ in the Land of Israel, one destined to foster a Jewish national culture that would unify the Jewish people and preserve their historical continuity.49

Babylon survives as a rhetorical device in Zionism, although the most influential developments in the binary pairing of the cities have been those of Christian sources, specifically Revelation and St Augustine. The actual modern displacement of the Iraqi (Babylonian) Jews reverses the biblical situation: over the course of the twentieth century, virtually the entire Jewish population of Iraq was forced out of the country. Rakowitz lists factors including ‘Arab nationalism, Germanophilia, British colonialism’50– all of which led to anti-Semitism in Iraq during the 1930s, and the farhud riots of 194151 – but most importantly the creation of the state of Israel. After 1948 the situation for Jews in Iraq rapidly became untenable, and in 1950–1 all but a few thousand of Iraq’s over 100,000 Jews emigrated, principally by means of airlifts to Israel. Iraq’s Jewish population could trace its origins in the country back 2,500 years to the Babylonian deportations, and their loss both of home and of a stake in Iraq’s national identity can hardly be seen as liberation.

Another politicized use of Babylon is made in Rastafarian rhetoric. Zionist and Rastafarian uses of Babylon share a great deal because the symbolism of Babylon is relevant to those aspects of the two that are most alike in political and religious terms. First, both are explicitly political movements with explicitly religious foundations. Second, both are very seriously concerned with place, exile and homeland. Finally, both are affected by the fear of loss of identity through ‘assimilation’ into white and Gentile power structures and societies, respectively.52 Rastafarian usage of Babylon is also interesting in its differences from that of Zionism, however, and particularly its explicit relocation of both Babylon (to America and other sites of black oppression) and Zion (to Africa, and specifically Ethiopia under Hailie Selassie). The use of parallels with the Babylonian Captivity in this case serves to underline the emotive power of biblical metaphors. After all, the metaphor of the Babylonian Captivity is less horrific and far smaller in scale than the effects of the Atlantic slave trade it has come to symbolize, yet that symbolism has remained of paramount importance.

Emperor Haile Selassie’s construction of a messianic self-image in Ethiopia was taken up with great enthusiasm in Jamaica, where an existing politicized Afrocentrism influenced by the founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, Marcus Garvey,53 who appeared to have prophesized the reign of Haile Selassie,54 could fuse with strong Christian traditions. At its inception, Rastafari had a pre-existing political base and a core theology familiar to all Christians. This strong, shared and well-known core theology could be argued to be the great advantage of allegory over (or perhaps as a facilitator for) the explicit use of more recent history in rhetoric. Parallels with the Babylonian Captivity also helped legitimate the idea of Haile Selassie as a new Messiah: the closer the correspondence of recent history with scripture, the more confidently and convincingly these links could be drawn on to affirm his status. The allegory gave religious narrative weight to the forced movement of so many Africans to the Americas, turning oppression into a step on a pre-ordained and righteous path to glory, giving meaning to past suffering and promising future redemption and restoration. The establishment of a divine plan in history is an important aspect of Christian theology’s influence on historical scholarship generally,55 and the role played by Babylon as the Americas here is exactly the same as that of Babylon as Rome in Revelation, transferring biblical narratives and thus the history of God’s chosen people beyond ‘Bible Lands’ and into contemporary politics. Indeed, Haile Selassie’s own use of biblical epithets shows the same concern for emphasizing significance in this greater, religious history: his titles drew on Isaiah (‘Conquering Lion of Judah’) and Revelation (‘King of Kings’, ‘Lord of Lords’).56 Some reference to Rome also survives within the Rastafarian usage of Babylon, with reference to its status as the centre of the Roman Catholic Church, seen as colluding with states and with colonialism.57 Beyond even this, the movements and relocations of Babylon in Rastafarianism are growing yet more complex. The socio-political appeal of Rastafari has proven broader than its original Jamaican context, and indeed has found support beyond African diaspora communities, both in other groups marginalized by colonialism (Maori in New Zealand) and increasingly in Africa itself.58

Heritage and identity in modern Iraq

Iraq is a young state, often considered ‘artificial’, in the sense of having been set up by European powers with insufficient regard for older cultural affinities and boundaries that the new borders of the post-1918 Middle East ignored. It is not true, however, that the three former Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul were thrown together arbitrarily. In many ways the creation of the modern state of Iraq cemented what had been an informal grouping of the provinces under Ottoman rule, and an even longer history of close relations.59 The designation of the whole area as Iraq is certainly over 1,000 years old, and is found in the geographies of Ibn Hauqal, al-Muqadassi and Yakut al-Hamawi.60 Moreover, the influence of Baghdad could be felt throughout this area, and had never been confined only to the province that bore its name. One example of this ambiguous relationship would be the way in which European travellers used the city as a hub for all three provinces, Joseph de Beauchamp and Claudius Rich both living there for substantial periods.

There is a tradition of capital cities with pan-Mesopotamian territory and power in central Iraq stretching back to ancient Babylon itself, and interrupted only by the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258 and the subsequent Turkoman Il-Khanate period, 1258–1534, during which strong centralized power was absent and Baghdad’s role as capital supplanted by Tabriz in north-western Iran.61 Rather than creating something wholly new, therefore, the establishment of the British Mandate following the First World War was perhaps most significant in changing international relationships and reinforcing an existing but weaker pattern of centralization, reorienting the country from its place in the Ottoman Empire and its connections with Turkey and Syria, towards a reinforced centrality for Baghdad.62

A significant special case was Kuwait, which was already under British control to a great extent prior to 1914 and which, though part of Ottoman Basra, had always retained substantial autonomy.63 Its future as a separate state was effectively guaranteed by a July 1914 Anglo–Ottoman agreement, specifying Kuwait’s borders and legitimating Britain’s special authority in the (still Ottoman) region. The separation of Kuwait, then, while certainly a product of British economic interest (as a terminus of the proposed British version of the Baghdad railway originally conceived by Germany), did not constitute a sudden or unexpected appropriation of an area controlled by Baghdad prior to the establishment of nation-states and borders. The extent to which the formation of modern Iraq was subject to fleeting European economic concerns, while significant, should not therefore be emphasized to the exclusion of a pre-existing Iraq with comparable borders and an economic and administrative hub in Baghdad. Indeed, while the assertion of Iraq’s borders as arbitrary is usually intended as a criticism of British imperialism, it is potentially much more damaging for Iraq itself, serving to dent the modern state’s legitimacy and talk down the potential for peaceful coexistence.64 It was also one of the arguments frequently used in the legitimation of Saddam Hussein through the perceived need for a ‘strong’ central government. The argument remains relevant, and its implications serious and immediate, in the post-Saddam era, where political freedom, independence, interdependence and representation are central concerns for all involved and, despite Iraq’s experience of Saddam Hussein, calls for a dictatorial ‘strong man’ figure can still be heard. For the same reason, the claim of artificiality has served to excuse tyranny in the past65 and economic exploitation by foreign powers in the present.66 The claim to artificiality is both historically unconvincing and politically dangerous. Continuity at this level, however, by no means implies stability or unity. Rather, with such diverse stakeholders, Iraq’s national identity has been and continues to be a site of intense conflict. It should come as no surprise that the past has been of great importance here, or that huge efforts have been made to shape its representation in support of present-day political goals.

An appropriate starting point for this topic is the Ottoman ‘reconquest’ of Iraq in 1831. In reality this was more of a centralization and reassertion of Ottoman power than a reconquest of lost territory. The governors of both Baghdad and Basra were mamluk, while in Mosul the al-Jalili family were semi-autonomous. When Da‘ud Pasha, the governor of Baghdad, refused to comply with the so-called Nizam-i Cedid (New Order) and give up his office, an army led by ‘Ali Rida Pasha, governor of Aleppo, captured Da‘ud Pasha and put the three provinces under direct rule from Istanbul.67 As a result, the provinces were more heavily affected by the Ottoman drive for reform based on European systems of government and, crucially, education. The failure of these reforms to prevent the continuation of old hierarchies, alongside the introduction of European-style education that had an impact on political thought and activity, would lead ultimately to the Young Turks, and to the rapid transformation of the terms of political participation throughout the Ottoman Empire.

The Young Turk revolution of 1908, which forced the Sultan to reintroduce the Ottoman constitution and saw the emergence into the open of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), allowed many of the hitherto suppressed currents of political opinion within the three Mesopotamian provinces to find public expression, as they did elsewhere in the empire. The proliferation of clubs, groups and societies after 1908, as well as the explosion of journals and newspapers (an estimated sixty titles were published at various times in the three provinces in the years following the revolution of 1908), is testimony to the political engagement of growing numbers in Mosul, Baghdad and Basra.68

It was thus a highly unstable Ottoman Empire that entered the First World War, and one widely expected to be succeeded by a very different political landscape regionally. In the short term the Iraqi provinces came under the rule of another empire. In 1914 the British army occupied Basra, followed by Baghdad in 1917 and Mosul in 1918. Iraq was officially ruled by British Mandate from 1920, an arrangement which in turn immediately gave fuel to a nationalist movement aiming at independence. The British solution was the installation of the Hashemite Emir Faisal as King Faisal I in 1921.69 This move involved both practical and symbolic concerns, of which the latter were particularly bound up with heritage. One advantage of Faisal was his Hashemite lineage, through which he could claim descent from the Prophet.70 This made up somewhat for the fact that the new king would be a foreigner: he was a son of the Sharif of Mecca, and his new station (following a very brief reign as King of Greater Syria in 1920 before being driven out in the Franco?Syrian War of 1920–1) was effectively a reward from the British for his success as a leader in the Arab Revolt during the First World War.

The period of the British Mandate and the Hashemite monarchy also involved a reinforcement of Britain’s archaeological interests in Iraq. This is the period of Leonard Woolley’s famous discoveries at Ur.71 Following their time together as both archaeologists and spies, resulting simultaneously in detailed geographical information for the British government and an acclaimed piece of archaeological survey work,72 T. E. Lawrence went on to become more deeply involved in politics, advising in the Arab Revolt led by Sharif Husain of Mecca and his sons, most importantly Faisal, while Woolley continued with archaeology, and through his work at Ur became one of its most famed practitioners.

One of the most important British figures in Iraq’s political history, Gertrude Bell, was also heavily involved with the country’s heritage and archaeology (Figure 23). She was officially Oriental Secretary to Civil Commissioner Arnold Wilson in the original 1920 British Mandate administration, but her actual role was unique and wide-ranging. In politics she is remembered for the influence of her views on Iraqi self-government, of which she began as an opponent and ended as a strong advocate, although continuing to see a senior, even paternalistic role for Britain in managing the country’s affairs.73 She was instrumental in the installation of King Faisal,74 and arguably in speeding the end of the British Mandate. In archaeology it was she who, as Director of Antiquities, presided over the foundation of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad (which opened in June 1926, only shortly before her death on 12 July of the same year) and the introduction of new laws restricting the export of Iraqi antiquities, making all excavated material the property of the state and guaranteeing Iraq a share in material excavated by foreign archaeologists.75 Bell was also responsible for regulating the quality of excavation methods, and for requirements that teams excavating in Iraq had, for example, an epigraphist, an architect and a photographer.76 All of these were standard in the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft excavations that had so impressed Bell before the outbreak of war in 1914, and it seems quite possible that what she had seen at Babylon and Ashur encouraged her in promoting these new requirements. Under the auspices of Gertrude Bell, British archaeology in Iraq flourished, and the legacy of her support for the field can still be felt: her memorial fund formed the core of funding for the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, founded in 1936.77

Bell was adventurous, and travelled extensively in Iraq without a motor car and with only her servants for a male escort.78 She also spoke good Arabic, and in the First World War had been assigned by the British Secret Service to promote Arab uprisings against the Ottoman government. She visited the excavations at Babylon for the first time in April 1909,79 and would later be responsible for the decision to send finds from pre-war German excavations to Berlin, first in the case of Samarra immediately after the war,80and later in the case of Babylon (see Chapter 6). In general, however, she is remembered for working to keep material from new excavations for Iraq, making sure that the young state got the best of divisions of finds and providing collections for the new Iraq Museum. She retained her position in the early years of the monarchy, and Amatzia Baram notes Faisal’s unconcern at the continued European control of archaeology in Iraq:

[W]hile King Faisal I was very particular about the choice of the man who would run his Ministry of Education (i.e., Sati‘ al-?Husri), as he wanted to ensure that a radical pan-Arabist would be in charge of molding the minds of the Iraqi younger generation, he was perfectly happy to have the Department of Antiquities headed by a British colonial officer. Indeed, the first non-European Director of Antiquities, none other than al-Husri, was only appointed as late as October 1934 […]. Secondly, apparently because they were all aware of the fact that the digs were being conducted in hopes of discovering pre-Arab and pre-Islamic civilizations, neither Faisal nor any of his ministers […] considered the need to enact a Law of Antiquities until they were prodded to do so by Bell.81

There are some qualifications to be made here. Winstone describes Faisal as ‘anxious to protect the country’s archaeological heritage’,82 and his government’s decision to appoint Gertrude Bell as (Hon.) Director of Antiquities was an effective way to ensure such protection. Bell maintained strong friendships with many of the archaeologists while still proving a powerful advocate for the claims of the Iraqi state. In his memoirs, the British archaeologist Max Mallowan defends the somewhat cosy situation, recalling that:

During my first two seasons at Ur, Gertrude herself acted as Director of Antiquities and would spend several days battling with Woolley over their share of the finds. The division was supposed to be on a fifty-fifty basis, but no tigress could have safeguarded Iraq’s rights better.83

With regard to Baram’s second point, the responsibility of enacting a law of antiquities really lay with the British Mandate authorities, since its establishment, as Baram acknowledges, was specified as a requirement in the Mandate Charter itself. The fact remains, however, that in archaeology British influence, and that of Gertrude Bell in particular, continued prominently and formally after the Mandate.

Gertrude Bell was succeeded by several further, generally short-lived, English Directors of Antiquities, most notably the British Museum’s Sidney Smith (1928–31), and by the German Julius Jordan (1931–4).84 Significant change came in 1934 with the appointment of the Arab nationalist intellectual and politician Sati‘ al-Husri to the post.85 Al-Husri immediately introduced a far more stringent antiquities law, against which, predictably, the foreign and especially British archaeologists who lost most through the changes protested, sometimes vehemently.86 In reality the changes ought to have been expected: there had already been Iraqi protests that the old law had been too soft and had allowed foreign archaeologists to export too much, nor were the new arrangements less favourable to foreign excavators than those adopted by many other states. Sati‘ al-Husri also made a significant departure from the pre-Islamic focus of foreign expeditions, founding the Islamic Museum at the fourteenth-century caravanserai Khan Murjan, Baghdad,87 and encouraging excavations of Islamic sites including the medieval city of Wasit and the great mosque at Kufa.

Al-Husri’s background was international. Born in Yemen in 1882, his family were Syrian and his education was that of the Ottoman elite, including a spell in Paris. Before becoming Minister for Education in Faisal’s Iraq, he had also been part of the short-lived Faisal government in Syria. Against the structure of state boundaries imposed on the Middle East by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement – though entirely in accordance with the terms of victory as the Allies had led Faisal, T. E. Lawrence and others to believe during the war, and for which the Arab Revolt had been fought – al-Husri was a strong advocate of a vast, politically unified Arab state. Following German romantic nationalist ideas of nations as organic, naturally occurring entities,88 he argued that the Arab world constituted a single nation on linguistic and cultural grounds, and that the political unification of this nation was a goal of the greatest importance for Arab leaders. The view had direct implications for his work on education and as Director of Antiquities. In both cases it made sense to shift the emphasis away from the pre-Islamic heritage (which was both uniquely Iraqi and traditionally of greater interest to Western than Arab historians) and towards the Islamic past, where a sense of shared heritage and Arab identity could most effectively be fostered. Such virtues, however, were very much a matter of political persuasion. For those whose nationalism was Iraqi rather than pan-Arab the approach held equal political disadvantages. A large part of Iraq’s population was not Arab but Kurdish, and while the rest of the Arab world was overwhelmingly Sunni, in Iraq the existence of a Shiite majority made unification based on Islamic history very difficult. The holy cities of Karbala and Najaf and the martyrdoms of ‘Ali and Hussein lie at the root of Sunni–Shi‘a religious differences. The ancient past of Sumer, Babylonia and Assyria, just as its specificity to Iraq was a disadvantage from the point of view of Arab nationalism, held great potential for Iraqi nationalists, particularly since those groups in Iraq who claimed a more direct connection to this past than others (Assyrian Christians, for example) were minorities rather than any of the major ethnic or religious groups. The idea of a pre-Islamic national past in which all, Arab and Kurd, Sunni and Shi‘a, could feel an equal stake was to become an important cultural tool for Iraqi politicians.

To say that ‘all’ could have a stake in the new Iraqi national heritage, however, is to ignore the fate of one important part of the country’s population. Another, tragic, development of the early twentieth century was the effective termination of two and a half millennia of Judaism in Iraq. What had begun with the Babylonian Captivity had become a major Jewish minority in Iraq, with its own culture and traditions but also a strong stake in Iraqi national life. To be an Arab Jewish Iraqi nationalist was not, in the early twentieth century, an uncommon position. Increasing anti-Semitic feeling in the middle of the century reached boiling point with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Conditions for Iraqi Jews became impossible, and from 1950 many thousands of Jewish families had no option but to take advantage of a new law allowing them to leave Iraq, giving up their nationality as they did so. They went to Israel, from where many moved on to Britain and the United States. In 1947 the Jewish population of Iraq was 117,000; by 1952 practically all had left the country.89 Continuing persecution made life impossible for the few who stayed, eventually forcing more families to leave and reducing Iraq’s Jewish population almost to nil.90

Heritage and archaeology in Ba‘thist Iraq

The role of heritage in Ba‘thist Iraq has been explored by Amatzia Baram, who has studied the selective preservation and establishment of cultural festivals as well as uses of ancient material and iconography.91 More recently, Zainab Bahrani has discussed both Saddam Hussein’s association of himself with the militant kings of Assyria and Babylonia mentioned in the Old Testament, and his representation in terms of these leaders’ despotic reputations abroad.92 Baram charts a gradual permeation of pre-Islamic Mesopotamian components into Iraqi national identity during the 1930s–50s, but a major boost in 1958 following the successful coup of ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim, and an even greater one with the Ba‘th party’s consolidation of power from 1968.93 The party was pan-Arabist in its ideals, but political circumstances, including the increasingly concrete reality of the existing states and their borders and a permanent schism between the Ba‘th parties of Syria and Iraq, created a use for the specifically Iraqi ancient heritage in practice.

Saddam Hussein made extensive use of the ancient past, investing heavily in heritage and, particularly, in enormous reconstructions at Babylon, work on which began in 1978 but which became far more ambitious from the mid-1980s onward. Archaeological work was well supported by the state. The antiquities budget doubled in the first four years of Ba‘th rule, increasing much further after 1979, while decades of prior investment paid off in the form of a growing pool of highly trained Iraqi archaeologists, many employed by the Department of Antiquities and complemented by an extensive network of site inspectors and site guards.94 Iraqi and foreign excavations and research projects continued throughout the Iran–Iraq War, with a brief return of large-scale foreign research projects, many intended as long-term, between that war’s end and the 1990–1 Gulf War,95 after which foreign projects ceased and Iraqi projects were greatly reduced.

For the promotion of nationalism by the Iraqi government, the ancient past not only had the advantage of being shared but also served to differentiate secular Iraq from its revolutionary neighbour. Following the 1979 revolution, Iran’s new government set about consciously removing the many symbols of pre-Islamic heritage associated with the Shah, and a major shift in emphasis towards Iran’s Islamic heritage began. Iraq, whose Ba‘th government was at least nominally socialist and explicitly secular, was already well positioned to emphasize its difference from the Iranian theocracy, but the aggressive rhetoric of the new government in Tehran and fear of the Islamic revolution spreading to Shi‘ite southern Iraq gave special impetus to the promotion of Iraq’s ancient past by the state. Saddam Hussein’s identification with Assyrian and Babylonian kings focused on their strength and power through force, showing him playing the role of an ancient king.96 These themes are also encapsulated in what is possibly Baghdad’s most famous modern monument, the giant ‘Victory Arches’ completed in 1989. Also known as the Hands of Victory or Swords of Qadisiyya, the arches commemorate Iraq’s victory over Iran in the Iran–Iraq War (itself highly questionable: the war ended in what was in reality an immensely costly stalemate).97 The Battle of Qadisiyya to which the monument also refers is a great Arab victory over Sasanian Persian forces in the seventh century, the decisive engagement that led to the Islamic conquest of Persia and thus a useful parallel for Saddam Hussein to draw with the modern conflict, also playing to the anti-Persian racism that had been a part of state historical rhetoric since the time of Sati‘ al-Husri.98

The site of Babylon was to be a major focus for activity. Beginning in 1978, the State Organization of Antiquities and Heritage embarked upon an ambitious programme of reconstructions.99 Nebuchadnezzar’s Southern Palace, the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way, the Ninmakh temple and the Greek theatre (as the name suggests, a Hellenistic-era rather than Neo-Babylonian building) were all restored (Figure 24), and work continued on the reconstructions despite the colossal drain on resources of the Iran–Iraq War. 1987 saw the first Babylon International Festival, with work on the reconstructions greatly sped up (to the detriment of quality) in order to be ready in time.100 These large-scale events, intended to celebrate the glories of the past and the leadership of Saddam Hussein in the present, continued annually until 2002, save for the interruption of the 1990–1 Gulf War.101 Unfortunately the reconstructions, carried out directly on top of the actual walls of the ancient buildings, were in many respects very far from ideal. Famously, Saddam Hussein echoed Nebuchadnezzar by having his name stamped on bricks in the reconstructions (Figure 25). They read, ‘In the era of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, the protector of Great Iraq and reproducer of its reawakening and the builder of its civilization’ or ‘In the era of Saddam Hussein, protector of Iraq, who rebuilt the royal palace’.102 The modern yellow bricks themselves have also been criticized as an inappropriate building material for the reconstructions. Other works carried out at the site were not reconstructions of any kind: three artificial lakes and three extremely large artificial mounds were created at the site, upon one of which was built a palace for Saddam Hussein (Figure 26). This mound may also be the most damaging of the three archaeologically since its site, now on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, lies directly over the ancient course of the river and encroaches upon some of the most important remains of the city’s Neo-Babylonian centre. The modern village of Qweirish also stood here; Koldewey’s team had used a house here as their headquarters, and many workmen on excavations at Babylon then and since had come from the village. It was demolished and its population displaced when the mound was built.103

Other initiatives under Saddam Hussein were deliberately destructive. Perhaps the most dramatic example is the draining of southern Iraq’s marshlands, areas that had long acted as refuges for political dissenters and opponents of the government. For thousands of years their environmental conditions had effectively rendered them remote and difficult of access, harder to monitor than the rest of the country. This changed in the 1990s, when Saddam Hussein began the systematic destruction of this environment. Following the Shi’ite uprisings in the wake of the Gulf War, which did not receive the foreign military support they had been led to expect,104 and which the government punished with massacres:

Some of those who eluded capture and death escaped into the marshes of southern Iraq, where they were given haven by the marsh Arabs, a group of some 200,000 Shi‘as whose culture traces back to the ancient Sumerians. The retaliatory responses of the government have included draining up to two-thirds of the marshes and exterminating several Marsh Arab tribes. The government has cut off the tributaries that feed the marshes, blocked the entrance of food and medicine, and shelled the reed huts in which the people live. In September 1993 a government campaign forced tens of thousands of Marsh Arabs to flee to Iran. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that some 7,000 Iraqi refugees entered Iran in one year, June 1993 to June 1994, and SAIRI [the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq] reported that another 6,000 severely malnourished Shi‘as entered Iran in late 1994.105

Variants on the phrase ‘whose culture traces back to the ancient Sumerians’ occur in almost all popular references to the persecution of the marsh Arabs. Heritage was an important part of rhetoric against the marsh drainage, even when the humanitarian crisis was on the scale described by Wiley. As the journalist Robert Fisk put it, ‘The man who rebuilt Babylon in his own image was destroying Sumeria’ (sic).106 The accusation of cultural barbarism was thus linked rhetorically to far more serious crimes.

We must also consider the impact of Saddam Hussein’s rule on the intangible heritage, a term which can be misleading, and whose tangible qualities are easily appreciated in the Iraqi case. It denotes those aspects of cultural heritage that are harder to legislate for on the basis that there is not necessarily a material or clearly definable object to protect.107 Most commonly this means the cultural practices, memories and identities of living people, and so the suggestion that legislation to protect this form of heritage does not or has not until recently existed is inaccurate – protection of what we now call the intangible heritage is implicit in the most fundamental human rights legislation. The protection of cultural heritage in this form consists principally in a person’s right to live and in their freedom of expression. This is not to say that the problem of such protection is a simple one, or that a concern for cultural heritage does not raise important issues that concern for the other basic freedoms of water and food, shelter, physical safety, status in law, democratic rights and education would not in themselves include; only that the intangible heritage is already a part of this package, and that the most effective legislation in this field will always be that which protects human life and freedom of expression, since it is in these that this heritage primarily exists.

If not completely suppressed, cultural works carry their own survival mechanisms, and there is significant interdependence between memory, cultural identity and freedom in the present. Exposure to diverse cultural sources, and ideally to critical treatment of those sources, engenders the ability to consider a world outside one’s own present-day reality, to be aware of the possibility – the certainty – of change and difference in the world, and to experience the humanity of someone else, particularly someone whose outlook differs substantially from one’s own. All of these capacities are anathema to political dictatorship, to the denial of human rights, and to the oppression of others based on a perceived inherent inferiority. For this reason most aspects of heritage termed ‘intangible’ could more accurately be described as aspects of cultural rights or cultural freedom. This view carries with it the implication that policy relating to them ought to be treated in these terms, which perhaps helps to explain the feeling that they are not adequately treated in cultural heritage legislation: the latter was originally intended to preserve objects whose very stasis was perceived to be their most important characteristic. Rights and freedoms, by contrast, are performed actively and in need of constant renewal. Without the capacity for cultural expression, the ability to resist propaganda or the will of the state is greatly reduced.

How, then, to speak of the damage to cultural rights and freedoms that Iraq has undergone, both very recently and under Saddam Hussein, whose ability to prevent freedom of speech and expression underpinned his rule for over two decades? Kanan Makiya’sRepublic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq describes the mechanisms through which Saddam Hussein’s control became so complete.108 Despite the subject matter, the author’s approach in describing the rise and consolidation of the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi president’s secret police, of torture as routine, and of the establishment of an all-pervading culture of fear and distrust is sober and academic. Only rarely does Makiya allow himself to lament the impact of these changes in general terms:

Authority used to be the butt of popular jokes, anecdotes, and satirical poems, cultural safety valves that provided relief from the traditional oppressiveness of the state. But all that is gone now. No one dares ridicule authority any longer in Iraq because everyone is afraid. The tone of political culture has become Kafkaesque: saturated with a sense of the impersonality of sinister and impenetrable forces, operating on helpless individuals, who nonetheless intuit that they are being buffeted about by a bizarre, almost transcendental kind of rationality.109

Such a climate of fear and repression destroys cultural life, especially where, as with the marshlands of southern Iraq, economic and environmental change have been absolutely inseparable from change in cultural practices.110 Human rights should in any case take precedence for their own sake, but we should also make the point that no amount of state-funded excavation or research can outweigh serious political and cultural oppression in its long-term impact on the study of a country’s past. Equally, in the years following 2003 a climate of fear generated by lawlessness reinforced ethnic and religious divisions to such an extent that Baghdad’s once mixed neighbourhoods are now firmly segregated and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, again impoverishing Iraq socially and culturally.

Babylon in the present

In 2003 a US-led coalition invaded and occupied Iraq, deposing and ultimately arresting Saddam Hussein and many other senior Ba‘th party figures. Saddam Hussein himself was executed in December 2006; others, including his sons Uday and Qasay, were killed rather than captured.

In the immediate aftermath of the Iraqi government’s collapse and the occupation of the country by coalition forces, several days of looting saw most government buildings stripped. This was entirely predictable, and indeed predicted not only by experts concerned with the safety of cultural sites,111 but also by the coalition, who had drawn up a list of buildings to protect in the city. On this list the Iraq Museum was ranked third.112 This list, however, apparently did not reach the commanders responsible for planning and executing the occupation of Baghdad itself. At a public forum held at the British Museum on 15 June 2004, Peter Galbraith, former US Ambassador to Croatia, stated that he believed the list, approved by Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, had disappeared ‘just above the uniformed military’.113 As a result the Iraq Museum was not protected. This explanation differs from that of Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, the US investigator into the Museum’s looting, who asserts that for much of the time such protection was impossible and that delays in responding to appeals for protection resulted from inevitable battlefield confusion and an advance into Baghdad whose speed, Bogdanos argues, outstripped the expectations and ability to keep up of military planners.114 Compounding this, the Museum itself was caught up in the fighting.115 There is also disagreement in detail between Bogdanos’ account and that of another key eyewitness, Dr Donny George of the Iraq Museum, in whose view it would have been possible for the US Army safely to secure the Museum and prevent the looting.116 Whatever the case, failure to protect the Museum from looting came to symbolize for critics the ignorance of and indifference to history and culture represented by, particularly, the attitude of the American government. At the same time, many of Iraq’s other museums and libraries, including the national library, were similarly victims of looting and its attendant damage, but it was the Iraq Museum itself that came to represent them all in global media coverage. Some information about Iraq’s cultural and historical importance had been conveyed through the media during the build-up to war, and so public awareness was at least sufficient to provoke a global outcry when the looting actually occurred.117

Inevitably, the high level of attention initially focused on this crisis waned, and the subsequent looting of sites across Iraq received far less coverage. This looting, however, is of greater concern to archaeologists than even the damage done to cultural institutions such as the Iraq Museum, because the looting of sites represents an even greater loss of information. As is easily appreciated when faced with the aerial photographs of low tell sites in southern Iraq, now peppered with the marks of hundreds of small-scale illicit excavations;118 the damage done means that it is not only the material that is actually removed from the site that loses its context, but a much larger category of disturbed material. The loss to humanity’s knowledge of its own past this represents will be felt only gradually, as future researchers at critically important sites find their ability to analyse and interpret material permanently handicapped by the disruption. In sum, the looting of museums, libraries and archaeological sites in Iraq represents a catastrophic destruction and devastation of heritage.

The site of Babylon itself suffered no such looting, although the site’s two museums and the offices were ransacked. The artefacts stolen and damaged from the museums were copies, but a far more significant loss was the burning of the library and archives in the site offices.119 Sadly, however, Babylon suffered great harm of another kind. A coalition army camp built on the site in the aftermath of the occupation has itself damaged the site irreparably. Initially small, the camp expanded to cover 150 hectares in the centre of the ancient city; at its height 2,000 soldiers were based there.120 Among the main problems that emerged once archaeologists were able to assess damage at the site were: the passage of heavy vehicles across much of central Babylon, including the ancient paving of the Processional Way; the use of material from the site in sandbags; the importing, when this practice had ceased, of material from other archaeological sites for use in sandbags, which becomes mixed with that of Babylon as these sandbags biodegrade; the spreading of chemically-treated gravel over large parts of the site; the use of part of the site as a helipad; the placement of toilet blocks on the site; and the surface disruption attending any occupation on the scale of a large military camp. Full reports are now available on the details of this damage.121

For the present, the only part of the site of Babylon itself most people are likely to see is that section of it that has been reconstructed in Berlin. Andrae’s vision has remained a defining one in terms of archaeology’s presentation of Babylon to the public. At one time this looked set to change: among their several purposes, the reconstructions at the site of Babylon were originally conceived as a potential international tourist attraction. At the time of writing, the prospect of such tourism, or even of a full return to normal life in Iraq, remains distant. The work of rehabilitating the site is only just beginning and the conservation demands immense. Preparations for a formal application for United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage status are under way (the site is at present on the tentative list), while planning for the future of research and tourism remain at the very earliest and most tentative stages. On the other hand, the site is a high priority for the Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, who have been working independently and with the World Monuments Fund on site management, documentation and conservation programmes.122 It is hoped by all that the work now underway at Babylon will lead in time to its revival as a centre for research, education, cultural events and tourism. Whatever the uncertainties, it is clear that the site will continue to play a significant role in Iraq’s national cultural life.

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