Few countries have suffered like Iraq. In the last quarter-century, it has endured three wars, devastating sanctions, and insurgency. Torture and terrorism have been commonplace. Two generations have been scarred if not lost by war and isolation. But despite countless premature eulogies, Iraq and Iraqis of all stripes have been far more resilient than the outside world has predicted or given them credit for.

Saddam Hussein was an egomaniac. Beyond all the palaces, statues, portraits, monuments shaped from molds of his forearms and a Koran written in his blood, Saddam saw himself as the inheritor of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s mantle. Hence, he sought to reconstruct Babylon in his image. From the New York Times in 1989:

For the last three years, over a thousand laborers imported from the Sudan (Iraqi men were away fighting Iran) have worked seven days a week through wet winters and scorching summers to rebuild what archeologists call King Nebuchadnezzar’s Southern Palace – a vast complex of some 500 rooms and the reputed site of the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Walls of yellow brick, 40 feet high and topped with pointed crenellations, have replaced the mounds that once marked the Palace foundations. And as Babylon’s walls rise again, the builders insert inscribed bricks recording how Nebuchadnezzar’s palace was ”rebuilt in the era of the leader Saddam Hussein.” ”We must finish by September,” said Rabia Mahmmood al-Qaysi, Director of Restoration, in his office here. ”It’s the President’s order.” Outside, an immense painting depicts President Hussein standing before the rebuilt towers of Babylon.

The finished product was more kitsch than archaeologically authentic. From the New York Times in 2003:

The Iraqi leader found the squat, khaki-colored nubs of earth and scattered stacks of bricks left over from one of history’s glorious empires somehow lacking, far too mundane to represent the 2,500-year sweep of Mesopotamian history that was to be reborn through his rule. So he ordered one of the three original palaces rebuilt. Never mind that nobody really knows what the imposing palaces looked like. Nor did Mr. Hussein pay much heed to the fact that the archaeological world cried foul — deriding his project as Disney for a Despot — because he was violating their sacred principle of preserving rather than recreating. But as with many moves by Mr. Hussein, the end result garnered great populist appeal and hence he will probably have the last word on the fate of the famous ruins.

What the New York Times got wrong, however, is that it was not Saddam who will have the last word on the fate of the famous ruins, but rather the bureaucrats of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, better known simply by the acronym UNESCO. When UNESCO isn’t straying from its mission to dabble in politics and polemics, it maintains a list of world heritage sites whose protection it aids.

Iraq has just four UNESCO-listed World Heritage Sites: Hatra, Ashur (Qal’at Sherqat), Samarra Archaeological City, and the Erbil Citadel in Kurdistan. That puts it alongside such countries as Belarus, the Côte d’Ivoire, Congo, and Kazakhstan, far from the prominence of its true cultural cousins. Such famous archaeological sites as Ur, Nineveh, and Babylon itself are missing from the UNESCO ranks. That could soon change if Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi’s government and the governorate administration in nearby Hilla have their say. From the Iraq Daily Journal:

Iraqi Minister of Tourism and Antiquities on Monday said that his country is seeking to restore the ancient ruin city of Babylon onto the UNESCO world heritage list. “We have finished our part and prepared a dossier to be sent to the UNESCO tomorrow, and so we met our obligation to prepare this dossier on February 1,” Adel Shirshab told a press conference in Baghdad. Earlier, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Iraqi government and the government of Babil province, in which the Iraqi side has to prepare a dossier by some Iraqi archeologists and tourism experts to assess the damages and situation of the site…

The site is the remains of a Mesopotamian capital that flourished for centuries, it was home to Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) who introduced the world’s first known set of laws, and Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 B.C.) who built the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Under the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the city was terribly damages when he decided to rebuild Babylon with modern bricks inscribed with his name, right atop the original walls. Then the 4,000-year-old city became military “Camp Alpha” soon after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. UNESCO earlier said that the U.S. troops and contractors inflicted considerable damage on the historic Iraqi site of Babylon, driving heavy machinery over sacred paths, bulldozing hilltops and digging trenches through one of the world’ most important archaeological sites.

UNESCO’s complaints with regard to the American (well, actually, Polish) military presence were guided more by knee-jerk opposition to the Iraq war rather than real damage to the site. The U.S. military wasn’t without mistakes, but it had consulted archaeologists and was quite careful. (I had toured Babylon in 2003 while still within the boundaries of the Polish military’s contingent alongside an Iraqi archaeologist). Having the ruins within the confines of a military camp may actually have protected it, by preventing looters and scavengers from picking over its artifacts.

Regardless, When it comes to Iraq, if there’s one thing most of the world can agree upon (well, with the exception perhaps of sectarian states like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran), it is that policies which bring Iraqis together rather than tear them apart are long overdue. Likewise, almost every senior Iraqi official and foreign diplomat will acknowledge the need for Iraq to diversify its economy, a need made more acute by the drop in the price of oil.

The Iraqi government’s application to list Babylon as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is wise. It helps bolster Iraq’s fledgling tourism sector, an industry that will be crucial in the future if and when Iraq stabilizes.

UNESCO, however, seems ambivalent. Perhaps the reason is political, or perhaps it is sincere concern over previous damage to the site. But, Saddam’s megalomania is hardly the fault of Iraqis; they were its chief victims. Regardless, while archaeologists might lament what Saddam did to portions of the site, large sections remain untouched. For UNESCO to refuse to extend its support and protection because of Saddam’s ill taste would effectively continue the destruction which Saddam began.

There is a further irony here as well. Prior to the “Shock-and-Awe” campaign which marked the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, there was some discussion about targeting statues of Saddam and key Baathist monuments. U.S. forces had the precision to conduct such operations, and destroying such Saddam kitsch would signal that Coalition action was against Saddam rather than the Iraqi people. However, U.S. government lawyers said that such a strategy would be illegal since those statues and monuments were Iraq’s cultural heritage. How sad it would be if Saddam’s cultural heritage became the reason to allow Iraq’s real cultural heritage to erode further.

If the international community is serious about allowing Iraq to pick up the pieces, and if UNESCO is sincere in its mission to protect endangered archaeological sites and country’s cultural heritage, then it should both fast-track and work with the Iraqi government to get Babylon the UNESCO designation it needs and deserves.

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