‘Babylon the great, Mother of Harlots and the abominations of the earth’, so it sayeth in the book of Revelation in the Bible. The Babylon that has left its imprint on the history of the world is the Babylon from the time of Nebuchadnezzar II onwards – two centuries of glory and decadence when the arts and sciences flourished and when there was an unprecedented boom of prosperity. Babylon was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019.

The site is a large one. It is a mixture of the surviving remains of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon and extensive modern reconstruction and restoration. Saddam Hussein reconstructed huge parts of Babylon, including Nebuchadnezzar’s Palace, until it became the most-restored site in Iraq. Bricks inscribed with Saddam’s name adorn the site. He also built his own palace on a mound overlooking the site and the river.

Babylon Iraq
© Thomas Koch, Shutterstock

The centre of the ancient city is an appropriate place to begin a tour of the site, behind the two-thirds-sized copy of the Ishtar Gate. Behind this gate is a walled quadrangle, adorned with freshly restored murals depicting ancient Sumer. Here also is the restored museum and disused souvenir shop. (Although somewhat tacky, in the 1980s and 1990s, it was one of the few places in Iraq where you could buy interesting cards, stamps and copies of brick tiles, glazed and unglazed. Little did we know then the fate that awaited the site in the future.) Leaving the quadrangle through the facing gate, you come to the steps and path leading to the famous Processional Way. Positioned alongside the rebuilt palace (which is to your left) and high off the excavated ground, it is fenced off by metal railings which have been in place undisturbed for many years (despite what has been said in the press about damage sustained during the recent conflicts, it does not seem to me to have been disturbed over the last 30 years). The original roadway, made of stone slabs coated with bitumen, does not seem to have changed and a few slabs have visible inscriptions on them. The Processional Way continues until it reaches the original Ishtar Gate. To the left of the Processional Way is the vast and amazingly rebuilt Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon. Some of the remaining original palace wall foundations still contain inscribed bricks carrying his name. There is an entrance here into the palace. On the right-hand side of the Processional Way is a temple building dedicated to the mother goddess Ninmahi. Once restored, this building is now in great need of repair again, although even in its current state, it gives a good impression of what a Neo- Babylonian temple would have looked like in this city.

From here steps descend to the Ishtar Gate, the foundations of which are still covered with the original decorations of bulls and dragon-like chimeras (composite animals with the physical attributes of a snake, lion and eagle). These bricks are unadorned reliefs, not glazed or painted. The second gate or upper part on these foundations was originally finished with beautiful glazed-brick panels depicting bulls, dragons and lions (the symbol of Ishtar). However, these were dismantled and taken in thousands of pieces to Germany after World War I by the German archaeological team that excavated Babylon, and painstakingly reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

This notwithstanding, the foundations are still an amazing sight and, in the right light, the terracotta bas-reliefs situated on the walls make for magnificent pictures. As mentioned elsewhere, the high water table has always caused problems here and in 2013 urgent work was carried out on the site to prevent this rising further and damaging the remains. During this work, and some 6m down from what appeared to be the original ground level, archaeologists uncovered yet another bas-relief chimera in line with the others. Could this newly revealed level mean that there is a much older and more extensive gate still waiting to be uncovered?

Babylon Processional Way Iraq
© Mohammad Huzam, Wikimedia Commons

The Babylon site has always suffered a lack of maintenance, with insufficient time and money being spent on it. Now, this is being recognised. It is not easy to identify any actual war damage caused by the American forces. The looting of the museum and the removal of ancient inscribed bricks from the walls of the palace was carried out by gangs of locals.

To obtain the best from the site, read, read and read. There are so many books and so much internet material available about the past and present history of Babylon. They will enrich your visit.