Amidst the war, there are efforts to save Babylon

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Last summer, the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities & Heritage in Baghdad invited me to be among the first foreign reporters since Saddam’s day to visit the ruins. About 35 Iraqi archaeologists were at work, backed up by 180 Archaeological Police officers. Most of the site, about 2,000 acres, is surrounded by barbed wire. American forces were there for four months during and after the 2003 invasion, and the directorate is still angry about their alleged treatment of the site. The soldiers poured gravel for a parking lot over ground that might have valuable material beneath it, the director told me when I met him in Baghdad. They used rubble-rich earth for their sandbags and parked helicopters on top of a buried structure.

The Babylon of Hammurabi, a city that flourished around 1800 B.C., is still underground. On top of it is the city of Nebuchadnezzar II, from the sixth century B.C. The southern part is mostly an older version of what was left after about 20 years of meticulous excavation by the Germans between 1899 and 1917: a scruffy graveyard of trenches and crumbling brick walls. In a cool vault 15 feet underground there is a group of chambers believed by the Germans to have housed the waterworks for the city’s Hanging Gardens—the second wonder of the ancient world. The Iraqi archaeologists at Babylon no longer have the time, manpower, or funds for much new digging; their effort is mostly given to maintaining and protecting what has already been uncovered. On a wall underground, a Salvadoran soldier has written his name and the words ZAPATOR DE COMBATE. Nearby there are used packets from the Americans’ ready-to-eat meals, promising delights such as Menu No. 4: Country Captain Chicken. As I turned on my flashlight and moved deeper into the cool vault, one of the excavators cautioned me to go no farther. "Snakes," he said, "and scorpions." Indiana Jones, eat your heart out, I thought. But only a pair of doves flew out past me in a frightening flurry of beating wings.

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