By The Rivers Of Babylon
issue 316 - September 1999
all photos by NIKKI VAN DER GAAG
Nikki van der Gaag gets a rare glimpse of the temples
and palaces of ancient Iraq, all closed since the Gulf War.
It is easy to forget the other Iraq; the ancient land of Mesopotamia. And yet here is a place which inhabits the collective psyche of the West. A land where the Garden of Eden mythically bloomed. Nineveh, where Jonah is reputed to be buried. The site of Babylon, home to the Tower of Babel, whose Hanging Gardens were one of the World’s Seven Wonders. Here the Tigris and the Euphrates flow; the city of Ur dates back 6,000 years, and people still visit the tomb of St Matthew, hoping for a cure to what ails them.
So many of these places I had always imagined to be purely mythical, and yet here they were, in solid rock and stone, colours shimmering in the blazing heat. The Ishtar Gate at Babylon (see contents page) is perhaps the brightest of all. Bluer than a midsummer sky, the white daisies and golden dragons – part snake, part lion and part eagle – stand in sharp relief next to waving palm trees.
Our guide, Muhammad, greets us just inside the gate in a small dusty shop full of postcards. He is an asthmatic archaeologist, whose knowledge is as extensive as his breath is short. He takes us into the cool of a museum where all the glass cases lie empty, but on the wall is another bright display; an immense mosaic of the Lion of Babylon with ubiquitous daisies smiling up from under its feet.
‘The cases are empty’, says Muhammad apologetically, ‘because we have had to remove everything in case of bombing.’ I find out later that many antiquities, including Hatra, and the golden mosque at Kerbala, one of Islam’s most holy places, were targeted in the Gulf War. Now much of it is in safekeeping in Baghdad.
We stand in front of the lion, which covers all of one wall. ‘This is just one panel,’ points out Muhammad. ‘We have two in Iraq – but there are more than 100 in Germany. You see, when the Germans excavated this site at the beginning of the century, they transported everything back to Berlin.’ He looks resigned but hopeful. ‘Perhaps you could say that we would like them back.’ And he wipes his brow with a white handkerchief and leads us on into the scorching sunshine (it was 47oC that day) to the ruins of the Hanging Gardens and the rest of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace.
Muhammad points out that much of the palace was reconstructed by the Government in the 1980s. ‘But underneath we have preserved all the ancient ruins,’ he says proudly. I’m not at all sure what I think about such reconstruction, but there is no mistaking the care and pride with which it has been undertaken.
Later, we visit the ancient city of Hatra, near Mosul, which was built in the third century BC. Hatra formed part of a chain of cities including Palmyra in Syria, Petra in Jordan and Baalbeck in Lebanon. You can see Hatra from many miles away, a vast neglected ruin in the endless desert. A rusty crane hangs over a temple with carved eagles and a stone Medusa (below). Here too, everything stopped ten years ago. Neat piles of his exquisitely carved stones lie on the ground still waiting to be sorted.
Before we leave, I ask Adnan if I can take a photo and he agrees, but adds embarrassedly that he would prefer me not to take his shoes. I look down. They are white sandals, broken and showing his toes. So I take a photo of him behind a stone block. I am touched by yet another sign of Iraq’s anxiety not to show how it is suffering.
At the Abbasid palace in Baghdad, our guide Nuri Abbas cannot hide his pain, clearly physical as well as mental. His face is dark with sadness and his left arm hangs strangely. But the empty palace works its magic and for a time we forget to ask him his story. We explore the spacious courtyards, and examine in wonder the intricately carved arches and ceilings. It is believed to have been built at the end of the twelfth century by Caliph Al-Naser Lidinillah. The upper floor is a series of tiny rooms which housed his harem. Inside the light slants through the ceilings, giving a mysterious quality and in the silence and the heat it is easy to imagine ancient rulers slipping along its passages.
Then in one room we see broken stones, neatly placed in a pile. They are all carved with Arabic writing. When we ask Nuri Abbas about them, the reason for his pain becomes clear.
Silent until now, the words seem to drag themselves out of him. ‘It was the bombing which destroyed this. And all the glass in the windows.’ He takes us back to the front door which I had noticed had been patched with corrugated iron on one side. ‘This door too. Last December. I was sitting here outside with two friends when it happened. I was wounded.’ He looks at us despairingly; each word seems an effort. Yet as we leave the palace he raises his good arm wearily in a gesture of farewell.
As we leave, Felicity quotes a James Elroy Flecker poem about the plundered statues in the British Museum in London:
‘There is a hall in Bloomsbury that no more dare I tread,
For all the stone men shout at me and swear they are not dead.
And once I touched a broken girl and knew that marble bled.’