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Babylon's undiscovered treasures threatened by new oil pipeline

Stéphane Foucart

29babylon-archaeological-si-008.jpg

Rich history ... the archaeological site of Babylon, south of Baghdad. Photograph: Ali Al-Saadi/Getty


May 29, 2012

Unesco expresses "concern" after Iraqi oil ministry digs 1,500-metre tunnel under archaeological site

Babylon was probably founded in the 23rd century BC. It was sacked countless times and rebuilt almost as many. It was taken by Cyrus II of Persia in 539BC and by Alexander the Great two centuries later. It slipped into oblivion in the early Christian era before being rediscovered in the 19th century by Claudius Rich. At the end of the 20th century it was spoiled by Saddam Hussein and in the early 21st century damaged by the US army. Now it's bracing for an oil pipeline.

At the end of March, the last sections of this pipeline triggered a letter expressing "concern" from Unesco's deputy director general for culture to the Iraqi minister for tourism and antiquities. In Iraq the pipeline is the subject of dispute between the oil and tourism ministries, and the Iraq state board of antiquities and heritage (Isbah) is challenging the legality of the project. "The oil ministry has caused incalculable damage by digging a 1,500-metre-long tunnel under the Babylon archaeological site," declared Qaïs Hussein Rachid, Chairman of Isbah, to the news agency Agence France-Presse in mid-May.

The new pipeline is not far from two others built in the 1980s and 1990s, one of which is no longer in use. "The pipeline crosses the perimeter of the archaeological site but outside the walls, beneath the so-called outer city," said Véronique Dauge, chief of the Arab States Unit at the Unesco World Heritage Centre. "But even if it doesn't cross the centre of the ancient city, it is in an area that has never been excavated." The site covers approximately 850 hectares, most of which is virgin territory for archaeologists. A spokesman from the Iraqi oil ministry quoted by AFP reported that the land dug up revealed no archaeological remains.

"No one can say right now if the oil pipeline has caused damage," said Lisa Ackerman, executive vice-president of the World Monuments Fund (WMF), a New York-based foundation for preserving architectural heritage, who works on the site with the Iraqi authorities. "But I think it's very likely that it crosses sensitive archaeological zones."

The pipeline is causing a furore in Iraq, said Dauge, because Babylon is still not listed as a World Heritage site, despite being one of the most prestigious archaeological locations in the world. The application was made several times under Saddam Hussein but was always turned down because of the "absence of any management and preservation plans for the site", she explained. That entails preparing the site to receive visitors, demarcating the boundaries, protecting the site, and so on.

"It is very important for Iraqis that Babylon be listed," explained Alessandra Peruzzetto, a WMF archaeologist who specialises in the Middle East. "But the new pipeline will damage the site's integrity, which is an important factor in assessing a site for listing." Dauge confirmed that the pipeline "will be an issue" if a new application is made – which is not yet the case.

Babylon's new scar will be just one more of many – all of which are recent. There were those resulting from Camp Alpha, a military base for the US and Polish armed forces established on the site's perimeter from April 2003 to December 2004. The levelling work carried out for the helicopter landing pads, and the trenches that were dug and later filled with landfill from elsewhere, caused much damage, as did the plundering of engraved ceramics and bricks.

A damage assessment report commissioned by Unesco in 2009 stated: "During their presence in Babylon, the US army and contractors employed by them, mainly KBR [a construction company], directly caused major damage to the city by digging, cutting, scraping, and levelling. Key structures that were damaged include the Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way."

"However," said Ackerman, "even though the armed forces' installation did cause damage, most of the destruction of the past few years has been due to the lack of conservation measures." Runoff, in particular, has devastated the monuments. Since 2007 WMF has been working with the Iraqi authorities to establish a site management plan, and has now begun conservation work on several key structures.

This article originally appeared in Le Monde

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