BAGHDAD -- "Babylon hath been a golden cup
in the Lord's hand
That made all the earth drunken;
The nations have drunk of her
Therefore the nations are mad."
-- Jeremiah 51:7
You'd think things would have quieted down in Babylon by now, two and a half millennia after its fall from glory. But modern archaeology gives cities afterlives, not always peaceful ones. And modern archaeology these days is a-grumble over the doings at Babylon -- Babylon, perhaps the best-known of all fallen cities, whose ruins an hour south of Baghdad have been turned into one of the world's oddest tourist attractions.
The Iraqi government is rebuilding Babylon on what it considers the grand scale, as the cornerstone of its effort to attract mass tourism now that the war is over. It's not as farfetched an idea as it may sound -- despite the regime's deservedly nasty reputation -- since this is, in fact, ancient Mesopotamia, cradle of Sumerian civilization and studded with cities like Nineveh and Ur of the Chaldees. But the project is not having quite the desired effect on foreigners. Some, admits a Baghdad archaeologist, "say they would rather have stayed home and read about Babylon than seen it."
Little enough remained to begin with of Babylon's fabled walls and temples and palaces, which had decayed rapidly since their excavation around 1900. The government has now buried these remnants and reproduced the putative monuments on top -- some temples, the Nebuchadnezzar Palace, a Greek amphitheater -- along with a plethora of snack bars and rest areas and a "Lake Saddam" for fishing. Nor is the vision complete. The government hopes to rebuild the perhaps mythical Hanging Gardens, and in 1988 announced an engineering contest to figure out how they were supplied with water.
This new Babylon, complete with jiggly music from the restaurants, is not quite what you expect of the city that rose to prominence in 3500 B.C. -- that gave the ancient world two of its Seven Wonders (the Walls of Babylon and the Hanging Gardens), that nourished one of the first pluralist societies and, according to some theories, inspired the nightmare vision of the biblical Tower of Babel. Alexander the Great came here to die, and Hammurabi, a Sumerian king, promulgated one of civilization's first known law codes on a great black stele that is now in the Louvre. But the incongruity is also fitting, for Babylon's glory always evoked suspicion. Even now it carries baleful meaning for assorted religious millenarians who have been calling up the Iraqi Embassy in Washington to protest that rebuilding Babylon will bring universal disaster. Why should such a place not continue to outrage the pieties -- in this case, that significant ruins ought not be built over in vastly unconvincing playground-style architecture?
The Iraqis proceed stolidly in the face of international dismay. "They tell a pack of lies about us," says the director general of antiquities, Dr. Muayad Said. "This is being done in a very scientific way, perhaps the optimal way." As he notes, the site offered daunting technical problems: unlike the stone cities of Egypt or Assyria, the Sumerians' were of mudbrick, which deteriorates rapidly once dug up. What didn't decay served as a brick mine for area builders over the centuries. The ethics of archaeology being nebulous in 1900, British and German excavators carried off all the best pieces; the massive Ishtar Gate built by Nebuchadnezzar, covered with blue glaze and reliefs of the city gods, is now in East Berlin, with only a fragment or two in the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad to hint at its splendor. The half-size painted copy on the site draws some ridicule.
"As an archaeologist I might have preferred to leave it as it was," says a Baghdad professor. "But if you want to attract people, Europeans, you have to give them something to look at." The conservation field has by no means developed an orthodoxy on this point. Some recommend selective rebuilding, others a minimal holding action. But one principle widely accepted is that tourists should be able to distinguish old from new. Another is that they should get some help in imagining what is gone.
Alas for Babylon, where now, instead of crumbling walls, you come first to a parking lot rimmed by unlikely sand-colored turrets and then, some ways off, to "the historic Marduk Gate," an agglomeration of grayish-yellow brick arches that bear unmistakable signs of having been erected in the '80s. Marduk was Babylon's patron god, and this should be the main gate piercing the outer walls; the map shows chunks of the real wall farther on, but the visitor searches in vain. The rebuilt "temples" are off to the left, a collection of mudbrick arches and courtyards roofed in logs -- authentic materials, says Said, arrived at after much research. A turbaned attendant is at the entrance; for a tip he comes inside and turns on the, yes, lights, and points out the one well shaft and two blotches of colored stone in the wall that are in fact original. I went all over the temple complex, trying to be fair, and could think only that the Babylonians would have come up with something better than the municipal New York City Parks Department buildings of my childhood. This is not so much an aid to imagination as a large foot stomping it flat.
In the much vaster reconstructed Southern Palace -- built of a "scientific" pseudo-brick material called Thermi-stone -- each cornerstone is stamped with the date and the name of the rebuilder, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. As this suggests, there is more going on here than a fantasia upon tastelessness. The regime is at pains to link itself with the previous civilizations that rose and fell in Mesopotamia; directives from the top have addressed themselves with such subtle matters as changing the official designation of Babylon from an "archaeological" to a "historical" site. In Said's Baghdad offices, which sport a small reproduction of the great Bruegel painting "The Tower of Babel," the director makes the point explicit: "It's a Mesopotamian tradition that whenever a new ruler arose, he would rebuild all the principal cities of Mesopotamia." Murals in the small on-site "Hammurabi Museum" show Hammurabi the Lawgiver on one side, Saddam Hussein on the other. In the larger "Nebuchadnezzar Museum," the 2,600-year-old quotations festooned about the entryway are all about the king's exploits in rebuilding the palace of Nabolpolassar his father.
The flaw in the argument, of course, is that the kings rebuilt Babylon and the rest as cities, not as Mesopotamian versions of Harborplace; and that it is as a city that this neo-neo-Babylon comes up a trifle short, although it has attained considerable popularity as a picnic site. An early plan to locate the recreated Babylon across the river from the real one, where it would do no scientific harm, was nixed by orders from "the top"; outside the city boundaries, instead, presidential decree has now erected three giant mounds of earth, to hold the re-engineered Hanging Gardens if a usable plan can be found. In the next few years, Said predicts, the government will also redig and refill the city moat, close the city to all traffic but pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages, and maybe rebuild the ziggurat. Casinos and restaurants will be placed in the verdant Gardens atop the mounds, and tourists, if they can bear it, will look out upon Babylon the Golden. It will be one of the wonders of the world, all right.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.