Iraq is an ancient land. It’s seen a lot of civilizations come and go and each one has left behind spectacular monuments and rare treasures. On a recent visit, I had the privilege to experience many of these sites. Last time, I talked about the monuments of the Assyrian Empire. Today, I want to talk about three more of Iraq’s ancient wonders.
Perhaps the most famous is Babylon. It was the political and spiritual capital of southern Mesopotamia starting with the ruler Hammurabi (ruled 1792-1550 B.C.), the same king who created the famous law code. The city had its ups and downs but reached a peak under Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled 604-562 B.C.).
Babylon was home to the fabled Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens. Equally impressive were its city walls, which stretched for 8 kilometers. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus said they were wide enough on top to allow a four-horse chariot to turn around.
The story of the Tower of Babel may have been inspired by a giant stepped pyramid called a ziggurat. It was a temple to the god Marduk and stood 300 feet high. It was later quarried for its baked bricks and there’s little left. The Hanging Gardens have also vanished. What does remain are the city walls and the fabulous Ishtar Gate with its glazed brick reliefs of bulls and dragons. It was through this gate that the images of the gods would be taken in procession. The name Babylon means “the gate of the gods.”
The gate was excavated by a German team in the early 20th century and carted back to Staatliche Museen in Berlin. The gate at Babylon today is a modern reconstruction, and it’s not even full size. Far more impressive are the city walls, also reconstructed, and the original processional way, which, like the Ishtar Gate, is decorated with strange beasts.
Part of the original street level of the processional way remains – a flat surface of bitumen, an early form of asphalt. Strange to say, I found this simple stretch of pavement one of the most evocative sights in a country filled with ancient treasures. People walked along here more than 2,500 years ago, and there it was, stretched out before me. I desperately wanted to vault over the fence and stroll down the road, but even Iraq’s archaeological sites have guards and regulations. What a pity.
Babylon’s reconstruction was done under the rule of Saddam Hussein, who fancied himself one of the great kings of Mesopotamia. He got the cruelty part down pat, but missed out on the greatness. He couldn’t even do a decent reconstruction. Against the advice of the archaeological community, he built the new walls atop the originals and obliterated much of the ancient remains. In true ancient style he had bricks bearing his name used in the building. And now in true ancient style, his people have been busy erasing his name ever since his inglorious end. One of Saddam’s palaces stands on a hill overlooking the site – an empty shell.
When Babylon was enjoying its heyday, the Sumerian city of Ur was already ancient. Its foundation is lost in time, stretching back at least seven thousand years. The city grew steadily and became the center of the most sophisticated civilization the world had yet seen. Writing thrived here, with scribes producing countless clay tablets written in cuneiform, a complex script of wedge-shaped impressions.
The first dynasty of Ur, starting in the 26th century B.C., was hugely wealthy and powerful. Some of Sumer’s best-known treasures come from the royal tombs dating to this period, such as elaborately decorated harps, the Royal Standard decorated with scenes of war and peace, and delicate gold jewelry from the queens, princesses and their female servants. The British Museum now owns many of them. Click the link for an amazing slideshow.
The Third Dynasty was even greater than the First and saw a flourishing of the arts and science. It also created the first known law code, the Code of Ur-Nammu, 300 years before the Code of Hammurabi. This dynasty completely rebuilt Ur and also put up the Great Ziggurat, pictured above, which got a modern facelift courtesy of Saddam Hussein.
One archaeologist I met back in the U.S. told me that during the war, Saddam parked some of his fighter planes next to the ziggurat, hoping they’d be safer there than in the nearby air force base. They got strafed by an A-10 and some of the bullets hit the ziggurat. I intended on checking for bullet holes but got so entranced with where I was that I forgot to. Maybe next time.
Zipping forward several centuries we come to Ctesiphon, the capital of the Parthian Empire in the first century B.C. and later the Sassanid Persian Empire. All that’s visible today is the Taq-i Kisra, shown below. This was an iwan, or great hall, built by the Sassanids in the sixth century A.D. The building was a royal winter residence and it was here in the iwan that this king would sit on his throne and rule his kingdom. The giant brick vault soars 110 feet into the air and used no reinforcement. It’s the largest of its kind ever built and despite all the years and wars and invasions, it’s still standing.
All of these sites and many more have suffered from looting and neglect in the tough years since the invasion. Luckily, a dedicated band of Iraqi and foreign archaeologists have been busy preserving them. New excavations have started and hopefully, as more incredible finds are uncovered, Iraq’s ancient past will come to light.
Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.
Coming up next: “The Christian Community Of Iraq!”
[All photos by Sean McLachlan]