Iraq Seeks To Restore
Glories Of Babylon
By David Blair in Babylon

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, have been reduced to mounds of bare earth, ringed by scattered palm trees.

The great southern palace of Nebuchadnezzar II, once the nucleus of an empire stretching as far as Libya, has almost disappeared beneath the shiny, immaculate walls built under the Iraqi regime's "restoration programme" in 1987.

But Iraqis harbour a burning sense of grievance over another indignity inflicted on one of the greatest sites of classical antiquity. Babylon's Gate of Ishtar and hundreds of other treasures were looted a century ago and now grace the museums of Paris and Berlin.

As well as the lifting of economic sanctions, the Iraqi regime has another demand on the West - the return of these masterpieces to Babylon. The scale of the theft is remarkable.

A German expedition in 1902 dismantled the upper level of the Gate of Ishtar, dating from 600 BC, and transported it to Berlin. The 42ft-high gate was rebuilt, with its blue ceramic tiles and intricate designs of mythical animals.

Babylon's tribute to Ishtar, goddess of love and beauty, now forms the central exhibit of a Berlin museum. The German archaeologists also carried off 118 of the 120 reliefs of lions, which once graced Nebuchadnezzar's Procession Street.

The tablet of Bel Shunnu, forged in 229 BC and bearing the only credible description of the tower of Babylon, has somehow found its way to the Louvre in Paris, along with the Stone of Hamurabi, the symbol of the most powerful ruler from the first Babylonian Dynasty.

All of these ravages have dismayed the archaeologists of Iraq. "I have anger, but what can I do?" said Ahmed Aziz al-Ibrahimi, from the State Board of Antiquity and Heritage.

"I just appeal to the German government to give back our antiquities here to Iraq. All the German visitors I meet say, 'You must make our government return them'."

Yet the looters of Babylon have not all been European. In the last century, a party of Turkish soldiers fixed dynamite to the head of the 2,600-year-old Lion of Babylon and blew most of its face off.

They thought - wrongly - that the five-ton sculpture contained a core of gold. Also, local people have pulled down large sections of the outer walls and built houses with the bricks.

The United Nations has criticised the Iraqi restoration work, which placed new walls on ancient foundations. Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem in 587 BC and tore down the first Jewish temple.

He built the hanging gardens for his wife, Amitas, and brought the city to the peak of its glory. Saddam Hussein makes no secret of his desire to seize the mantle of these achievements.

Yet despite everything, the tiles of Procession Street, running for almost a mile beside the remains of the palace, still survive.

While staring at these masterpieces, it is still just possible to forget the depredations and picture the Babylon that Alexander the Great conquered and Herodotus described.