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UNESCO Names Babylon A World Heritage Site


In its heyday about 2,500 years ago, the city of Babylon was the biggest in the world. Some 200,000 people lived there. You may have heard of King Nebuchadnezzar II, credited with the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, or the Tower of Babel, from the Bible, believed to be based on a real Babylonian temple. Well, Babylon is still there, 50 miles or so south of Baghdad, in what is now modern Iraq. And for today, at least, Babylon is back in the headlines. UNESCO has just officially named it a World Heritage Site.

NPR's Jane Arraf is in Iraq. She joins me now. Hey, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: I have to start with my amazement that Babylon was not already a World Heritage Site. Why not?

ARRAF: Yeah. Well, the main reason is that it hasn't been treated very well. So if you look around at houses in neighboring villages, they used to be made of bricks that were actually removed from the site of Babylon. And then there were really big projects. The British built a railway through it in the 1920s. Recently, there have been oil and gas lines laid through it. The Saddam Hussein era, he inscribed his own name in some of those bricks. And then we have to mention that in 2003, the U.S.-led coalition put a helicopter landing pad in there. So a lot of damage done to that site. But the argument has been now that you should see that as a part of its history and not as an argument for not listing it as a World Heritage Site.

KELLY: It sounds like so much damage done to the original site over the years. I mean, you've been there. What does it look like when you visit Babylon today?

ARRAF: OK. I've got to be honest here because it is one of those sites where you really have to use your imagination because it's huge, and only 10% of it has been excavated. So you can see the original walls - not all the way down because it's been built on layers. But you can see these very high walls. And on weekends, it's packed with Iraqis. But if you go other days, it's kind of desolate and empty. But here's the magical thing. You walk through that processional entryway, and you can still see the original bricks from more than 2,000 years ago with those figures of the dragons with the serpents' heads. And you're walking on 4,000 years of human history. And that in itself was absolutely magical.

KELLY: How do modern Iraqis view it? They are surrounded by so much history, so much of it so ancient. I mean, what has been the reaction to the news today?

ARRAF: Well, there's been quite a lot of jubilation. I reached American conservationist Jeff Allen by phone in Babylon tonight. He's with the World Monuments project, and he's working on a U.S.-funded project to help restore Babylon. And I asked him how people were celebrating.

JEFF ALLEN: There were a fair number of people around the entrance of Babylon tonight who just wanted to be near the place. There was a bus full of local government officials who showed up to get their picture at the site. And tonight, they're having a bit of a celebration in the streets. People are out and about town, riding in their cars, being happy and glad that they're Iraqi. And that's a wonderful thing that this is doing for them.

ARRAF: You know, Iraqis are just really happy that for once they're in the news for something good instead of, like, chaos and car bombs.

KELLY: And just briefly, Jane, what will this listing mean for Babylon? Does this mean more resources to go in and - you said it's only a fraction of it that's actually been excavated.

ARRAF: It probably will not mean more resources for excavation, but it will mean potentially more resources to protect what they have. It will give the Department of Antiquities more power against ministries like the oil ministry that builds oil pipelines there. It might free up some other Iraqi government money. When I went there a few months ago, there was no museum open. There was no gift shop. You have to have a gift shop. There's no cafe. But mostly, it will give it more publicity. And Iraq is really hoping that tourists will start to come, you know, for the first time in decades.

KELLY: NPR's Jane Arraf talking there about the ancient city of Babylon, which UNESCO named today as an official World Heritage Site. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.
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