Home > Relevant links > UNESCO names ancient Babylon city a World Heritage Site

The UN body has described the ancient city as a “unique testimony to one of the most influential empires of the ancient world.” After years of damaging interventions, Babylon will now gain protected status.

Babylon (Iraq) – Situated 85 km south of Baghdad, the property includes the ruins of the city which, between 626 and 539 BCE, was the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. It includes villages and agricultural areas surrounding the ancient city. Its remains, outer and inner-city walls, gates, palaces and temples, are a unique testimony to one of the most influential empires of the ancient world. Seat of successive empires, under rulers such as Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon represents the expression of the creativity of the Neo-Babylonian Empire at its height. The city’s association with one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—the Hanging Gardens—has also inspired artistic, popular and religious culture on a global scale.

Iraq had been lobbying since 1983 for the 4,000-year-old site to be added to the United Nations’ prestigious list.

The city was famous for its Hanging Gardens, which were among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The site has suffered in recent years – first from the construction of a palace for Saddam Hussein, and later from being used as a base for US troops.

The UN World Heritage Committee met in Azerbaijan to decide on the latest sites to be given the honour – awarded to areas or landmarks considered important for the whole of humanity and protected by international treaties.

The Iraqi delegation welcomed the designation, seeing it as a recognition of the significance of Babylon and Mesopotamian civilisation.

Lisa Ackerman, interim CEO of the New York-based World Monuments Fund, told the BBC the charity had been working with the Iraqi government for 12 years on Babylon’s pitch.

She said it was “not unusual” for it to take decades of lobbying for a site to be designated a World Heritage Site.

In the early 1980s, former Iraqi leader Saddam razed a large part of the ancient city in order to build a replica on top of some of the original ruins.

After the Gulf War, he also built an extravagant modern palace for himself on another part of the ruins, overlooking the main site.

Then, in 2005, the British Museum warned that US-led coalition forces were causing severe damage to the ancient city.

John Curtis, who was Keeper of the Middle East Department at the museum at the time, warned in a report that sandbags had been filled with precious archaeological fragments, and 2,600-year-old paving stones had been crushed by tanks.

He also found evidence of fuel leaks, and 12 trenches that had been dug through archaeological deposits.

It was “tantamount to establishing a military camp around Stonehenge”, he said at the time.

Four years later, Unesco said that “the use of Babylon as a military base was a grave encroachment on this internationally known archaeological site”.

Groups including the World Monuments Fund have been working for over a decade to protect and restore Babylon and its mud-brick ruins, but the fund notes there have been many challenges, including “repairing damage caused by military occupations, assessing effects of twentieth-century reconstructions, halting illegal encroachments.”

Iraqi authorities have long hoped the treasured historic site could became a go-to cultural hallmark both for Iraqis and for international tourists, part of a push to draw visitors to Iraq’s thousands of heritage sites after the government declared victory over the Islamic State in 2017.

The U.S. State Department cautions Americans not to travel to Iraq, noting “terrorism, kidnapping and armed conflict.”

Large-scale exploration has not been launched in Babylon in a century, and the 2009 UNESCO report says archaeologists believe a great extent of the city’s history remains to be discovered.

“Some parts of the city have been uncovered but much remains buried beneath the earth,” officials wrote. “There is still a great deal to discover about ancient Babylon.”

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