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Alas Babylon
January 15, 2005 12:45 AM   Subscribe

The damage wrought by the construction of an American military base in the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon must rank as one of the most reckless acts of cultural vandalism in recent memory. And all the more so because it was unnecessary and avoidable... but given that it was, the US authorities were very aware of the warnings of archaeologists of the historic importance of the site. Yet, as a report by Dr John Curtis of the British Museum makes clear, they seem to have ignored the warnings. Dr Curtis claimed that in the early days after the war a military presence served a valuable purpose in preventing the site from being looted. But that, he said, did not stop "substantial" damage being done to the site afterwards not just to individual buildings such as the Ishtar Gate, "one of the most famous monuments from antiquity", but also on an estimated 300,000 square metres which had been flattened and covered in gravel, mostly imported from elsewhere. This was done to provide helicopter landing places and parking lots for heavy vehicles that should not have been allowed there in the first place...

Cultural vandalism. Months of war that ruined centuries of history. American graffiti.
posted by y2karl (62 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
2000 posts. One agenda. So little time.
posted by orange clock at 1:12 AM on January 15, 2005


The shame of it is, this is the first time in the history of man that anything like this has ever, EVER happened.
posted by Witty at 1:51 AM on January 15, 2005


I just don't care.
posted by kjh at 1:55 AM on January 15, 2005


This makes me very very sad.
posted by TwelveTwo at 2:09 AM on January 15, 2005


shame of it is, this is the first time in the history of man that anything like this has ever, EVER happened.

sarcasm aside, it is more likely yet another instance of how to the average iraqi, the americans are no better than saddam hussein.

Saddam Hussein installed a huge portrait of himself and Nebuchadnezzar at the entrance to the ruins. He also had part of the ruins rebuilt, to the dismay of archaeologists, with his name inscribed in an imitation of Nebuchadnezzar, on many bricks used. One frequent inscription reads, "This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq." The bricks became sought after collectors' items after the fall of Saddam, and the ruins are being restored to their original state.

the torture chambers of abu gharib, the mass murder of iraqi civilians, and cultural destruction of ancient babylon... the only difference is color of the flag worn by the people doing it.
posted by three blind mice at 2:10 AM on January 15, 2005


I just don't care.

That is precisely why we get into these predicaments - people just don't care.
posted by caddis at 3:02 AM on January 15, 2005


Let's join hands.

We are the world...

{sways}
posted by Witty at 3:05 AM on January 15, 2005


Who cares in the slightest? Even if every mefi citizen cared and one of their friends it would make absolutely no difference. Cry about it?
posted by Dean Keaton at 3:28 AM on January 15, 2005


We've already started an illegal war based on lies, killed 100,000 Iraqi citizens, pissed off the world, refused to properly plan for the fixing of Iraqs infrastructure, tortured innocents, and given the seal of approval to all of it through an election. In the great scheme of things that we've done in the last 2 1/2 years, I'd call this a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10 of the atrocities that the United States has brought upon the world.
posted by Arch Stanton at 3:38 AM on January 15, 2005


That's right Dean. Who cares anyway? Wouldn't you rather just go shopping? I mean when trying to find a good price on a new iPod why would anyone want to bother worrying about cultural devastation?
posted by caddis at 3:59 AM on January 15, 2005


Dr Curtis claimed that in the early days after the war a military presence served a valuable purpose in preventing the site from being looted. But that, he said, did not stop "substantial" damage being done to the site afterwards not just to individual buildings such as the Ishtar Gate, "one of the most famous monuments from antiquity", but also on an estimated 300,000 square metres which had been flattened and covered in gravel, mostly imported from elsewhere. This was done to provide helicopter landing places and parking lots for heavy vehicles that should not have been allowed there in the first place.

everybody! sing along!

"they paved paradise and put up a parking lot!"
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:31 AM on January 15, 2005


grapefruitmoon, They didn't put the trees in a tree museum though, they just paved those too.
posted by Arch Stanton at 4:35 AM on January 15, 2005


In the distant future, the compacted gravel will show the archaeologists of that time how yet another empire tried to impose itself on Babylon.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 4:50 AM on January 15, 2005


Good link y2karl, albeit on a depressing subject.
posted by davy at 5:42 AM on January 15, 2005


KJH I can't wait until the wheel of history turns and some other culture comes and destroys an important part of your country without even noticing.

I might not be alive then but I hope my great grandson gets to tell your great grandson how he just doesn't give a shit.

I don't mean to be snide KJH (Or should I call you Kevin?) but are you yourself American? I mean, the only sort of person to not care about history would be someone who doesn't have much of his own to care about.

Let's face it, 6000 year old ancient cities built by your ancestors, 12th century cathedrals and the like are a bit, well, thin on the ground where you are.
posted by fingerbang at 5:54 AM on January 15, 2005


Hey now. There's plenty of history on this side, just not white people history.
posted by sonofsamiam at 6:20 AM on January 15, 2005


Yes, and we destroyed all that shit too.
posted by cyrusdogstar at 6:38 AM on January 15, 2005


One might argue that they're rebuilding Babylon.
posted by jimfl at 6:47 AM on January 15, 2005


I care.

Thanks karl.
posted by LouReedsSon at 7:13 AM on January 15, 2005



In Germany, they first came for the communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Catholics and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Catholic.

Then they came for me -- and by that time there was nobody left to speak up.

-Martin Niemoller
posted by elpapacito at 7:20 AM on January 15, 2005


How can it be that someone with the brains to join MeFi, international smorgasbord of culture that it is, can be such a Phucking Philistine (tm) to have such unmitigated gall as to dismiss deliberate damage wrought to Babylon? Witty, do you not give even one faecal coliform bacterium for the destruction of the Ishtar Gate? Does no molecule of your being weep that the historical provenance of Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, has been irretreivably diminished by the feckless action and inaction of the United States of America? You are a dead soul, even if you still can walk.
posted by rdone at 7:32 AM on January 15, 2005


Compassionate conservatism at work.
posted by nofundy at 7:34 AM on January 15, 2005


"Message: I care" -poppy Bush
posted by nofundy at 7:36 AM on January 15, 2005


Who cares in the slightest? Even if every mefi citizen cared and one of their friends it would make absolutely no difference. Cry about it?

So what do you care about? If the destruction of the cradle of human civilization doesn't bother you, what does? What would have to happen for you to give a shit?
posted by octothorpe at 7:39 AM on January 15, 2005


Great links. y2karl.

(Ignore the dickwads.)
posted by digaman at 8:07 AM on January 15, 2005


So THIS is how if feels to be a horde of barbarians...

History will not be kind to the United States. Nor should it be.

:::feels sad:::
posted by rushmc at 8:07 AM on January 15, 2005


...What would have to happen for you to give a shit?
Defacing a Dale Earnhardt poster?
posted by Thorzdad at 8:11 AM on January 15, 2005


I cannot believe that people are so interested in protecting their myopic (yet warm and comfortable) reality and agenda that they can't even muster the stones to be pissed off at the (metaphorical and literal) steamrolling of thousands of years of human history.
posted by absalom at 8:13 AM on January 15, 2005


Psssh. Why do people care so much about old rocks and shit? And I'm not trying to be a flamebait. There are other, more important issues to worry about. Yes, it sucks that the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas and all that, they were certainly nice works of art, but that's all they were. One of the main problems with humans is that we ascribe too much meaning to shit that doesn't mean anything - like religion, ethnic "identity", art, cultural artifacts, etc. They mean "something", but nothing to go to war over.

I think considering the situation in Iraq, the current military and economic needs far surpass in importance the need to keep archeological sites "pure". If they need helicopter landing pads, well, you have to build that shit. But I guess the history is so important we should ignore the pressing issues at hand, like I dunno, security? Would we rather have a brutal dictator like Saddam, rather than the US forces who don't care about art, but are working on (gasp!) securing the area for a democratic election?
posted by aerify at 8:23 AM on January 15, 2005


As one who majored in history, I care deeply; when the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan were destroyed by the Taleban, I was devastated; I still am. To see our own countrymen so callously destroying the world's cultural heritage to further the aims of a few warmongering oil barons is extraordinarily disheartening. Of course, this happens everywhere, all too frequently; the Three Gorges Dam is proof of that.

What of the human cost? Yes, that is horrible also - horrible beyond reckoning. However, willfully destroying the works of our ancestors that have lasted for generations upon generations - merely to further utterly shortsighted and worthless greed - is an abomination. It is as demeaning to our ancestors and their accomplishments as it is to our descendants and their now-inability to appreciate those accomplishments. We demean ourselves by perpetrating this destruction.

y2karl: Thank you for the links, even if they are a real downer.

Item: Thank you for keeping the jerks in line.

Jerks: If you have nothing but jack-assed comments to make, then please - take it to Something Awful or Fark, since that seems more suited to your empathy and intellect.
posted by bwilliams at 8:40 AM on January 15, 2005


So, was it just about the bases?

On the other hand...
/// "And if a new government asks U.S. troops to leave?"
/// "We would leave. Period."
posted by jaronson at 8:54 AM on January 15, 2005


Aerify: The reason to care for the destruction of pieces of art and ancient history (such as the city of Babylon) is because in learning about their history, we learn about ourselves. At the Oracle at Delphi the Greeks put the words "Know Thyself." What they meant is that you have to know your history to know who you are, to be a human civilization is to have the hundreds, or thousands of history behind you. By looking to the past we can better understand how and why we got to where we are, learn from the mistakes of the past, maybe even learn what they did right, and improve upon it. That's the difference between humans and all other animals, we have the ability to learn from our ancient past, put it in abstract and use the knowledge that we've built up for centuries to develop something new.

As my Western Civ professor made us write on every single exam: "I can write this because of the Agricultural Revolution." And one might be able to say "I can write this because of the developments of Babylon."

y2kari: thank you for a sad, but informative post.
Satyagraha
posted by thebestsophist at 8:59 AM on January 15, 2005


The argument for not caring, seems to be based on the idea that there are many worse things in the world. This may be be true but is irrelevant. One doesn't need to think that this is the most awful thing ever to have happened in order to appreciate that it is a great and largely unnecessary loss
posted by devon at 9:02 AM on January 15, 2005


Whether or not you can make a difference is irrelevant. The destruction the US gub'mint has wrought is horrendous.

Or what rushmc said.
posted by deborah at 9:07 AM on January 15, 2005


And there's that small matter of a hundred-thousand dead. Do you care about that Witt?
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 9:13 AM on January 15, 2005


One of the main problems with humans is that we ascribe too much meaning to shit that doesn't mean anything - like religion, ethnic "identity", art, cultural artifacts, etc. They mean "something", but nothing to go to war over.

You could easily throw "freedom" and "democracy" into that list. People wage war over economics, but rationalise or propagandise it using various cultural or moral pretexts. The protection of the ministry of oil whilst the museum was being looted says pretty much everything anybody need know about operation iraqi oil freedom, really. Any claim to any sort of high ground was irretrievably lost in that instant. This snippet only throws more oil onto the fire.

disclaimer: generalisation with heavy marxist overtones
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:24 AM on January 15, 2005


Truly a sad story if what's said is true. However, I think this story deserves as much scrutiny as any other.

First of all, we have no knowledge of the military significance of the installation. An archeologist who was against the war to begin with probably doesn't either. Would he be in favor of it if it saved one life? Ten lives? A hudread? How many lives is an archeological site worth?

Then there's the issue of the actual damage done. The damage to the Ishtar gate was caused by someone trying to remove a brick. The gravel was placed over an already existing parking lot and expanded over sites containing no known ruins. Dr. Curtis says this is the worst damage: making it difficult to explore for new possible ruins.
posted by b_thinky at 9:30 AM on January 15, 2005


did somebody say "good price on a new iPod ?!" WHERE?!?!?!?
posted by keswick at 9:44 AM on January 15, 2005


Would he be in favor of it if it saved one life?

This is a US military institution. Your number should probably be a negative one.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:52 AM on January 15, 2005


It seems that this is the actual report about Babylon [Word file], referred to in the Guardian article, from the British Museum's web site.

Yes, this is not unprecedented...
posted by talos at 10:02 AM on January 15, 2005


Why do people care so much about old rocks and shit? And I'm not trying to be a flamebait. There are other, more important issues to worry about.

Good point! Don't worry about anything since there's always something more important to worry about. Campaign finance reform isn't as important as global warming which isn't as important nuclear proliferation which isn't as important as something that might come up tomorrow.

Don't Worry--Be Happy!
posted by leftcoastbob at 10:38 AM on January 15, 2005


thanks for the post, y2karl. I care. A lot of people care. I also care for those who don't care. I hope they will change.

Ottoman Turks used Parthenon to store explosives. An explosion destructed more of it than the 21 centuries the monument had already endured. And then Lord Elgin came to steal the fallen pieces...

Oh! the glory of the western -so called civilized (!!!!)- world.
posted by carmina at 10:48 AM on January 15, 2005


....and what talos said.
posted by carmina at 10:52 AM on January 15, 2005


As bad as this might be, that site has lasted thousands of years unprotected. It's a safe bet, I think, to say that it will probably outlast the Americans just fine. Also, history did not stop 6000 years ago. The fact that US troops are stationed there now is also a part of history. Relax, people.
posted by c13 at 10:57 AM on January 15, 2005


Thanks y2Karl, keep it up. Please ignore the jerks.

Jerks? Please stop. Actually, no. Keep it up. Go crazy with the poop. I'll just wait and patiently look forward to the banhammer.
posted by loquacious at 11:00 AM on January 15, 2005


Witty and company must think they are in good company, I guess.
posted by substrate at 11:51 AM on January 15, 2005


But I guess the history is so important we should ignore the pressing issues at hand, like I dunno, security?

Yes, it is.

I don't want your "security." Particularly given the cost. It's an impossible dream, bolstered by lies, which becomes a nightmare in the light of reality, and you and your ilk are destroying the civilized world in its name. Keep your freaking "security" and crawl back into your hole.
posted by rushmc at 1:17 PM on January 15, 2005


Aerify: One of the main problems with humans is that we ascribe too much meaning to shit that doesn't mean anything - like religion, ethnic "identity", art, cultural artifacts, etc.... I guess the history is so important we should ignore the pressing issues at hand, like I dunno, security? Would we rather have a brutal dictator like Saddam, rather than the US forces who don't care about art, but are working on (gasp!) securing the area for a democratic election?

If we're looking for one of the 'main problems with humans', i might point out the absurd but consistent tendency to insist on the seperation between ideas like 'security' and 'democracy' and the cultural context in which such values are created and reinforced. The point is not that the artifacts are valuable in and of themselves. If one acknowledges, however, a tendency (and, arguably, a sociological/psychological need) for humans to care about such things as culture, history, heritage, and identity, such actions immediately become meaningful, aggressive actions in the battle over identity.

The significance of building a base in the ruins of babylon is evident, and it certainly is not the result of the US army's blindness or insensitivity to history and the value of culture. It is the opposite. Those in power fully understand and have chosen to build the base there -- doubtfully for tactical reasons. Rather, it is largely a symbolic act, in terms that conquerors (and the conquered) have long understood, exclaiming that history is ongoing and that to hang on to any idea of cultural or historical purity is to lose one's ability to participate effectively in the now.

What is interesting is that though such symbolic occupations and demolitions have many precedents, they often result in backlashes -- sometimes centuries later. Look at the fight over the Babri Mosque in Ayhuda in India -- where the central battle ground has shifted from the street to the pages of archeology journals as 'ethnic groups' with entirely contemporary political agendas seek to rewrite history and make claims of 'origin' and 'purity'.

What is infuriating about such ignorant statements as those by Aerify is the implicit insistance that somehow liberal values like democracy and 'individual freedom' which underly the 'pragmatic' or economical/material view of such matters are themselves divorced from ethnic and/or national identity, and that such identity is itself divorced from received (and largely manipulated) understandings of history based on who won and who built monuments (or military bases) where.
posted by milkman at 1:42 PM on January 15, 2005


The Taliban blasting the twin Buddhas into desert dust struck flakes of ice into my veins.

I had been following the desperate international negotiations to save them, and when I awoke one morning to read that the Taliban had gone ahead with their destruction I turned to my mate and said, "This is very bad. I have a feeling this is a sign of something worse to come."

Not very many weeks after the Buddhas were brought down, affiliate agents of the Taliban, in the guise of Al Qaeda brought down two other cultural and symbolic icons that they hated.

Those towers happened to be in the heart of, and part of the heart of, New York City.

Those two icons, however, just happened to have thousands of people in them.

But, to paraphrase kjh, "they didn't care."


    "Whenever i hear the word culture, i reach for my gun."
      -- (Not from Goering or Goebbels, but actually a quote from the German playwright and Nazi Poet Laureate, Hanns Johst.)
    ----

    PHILISTINE
    Phil·is·tine


    PRONUNCIATION: fl-stn, f-lstn, -tn

    NOUN: 1. A member of an Aegean people who settled ancient Philistia around the 12th century b.c.

    2a. A smug, ignorant, especially middle-class person who is regarded as being indifferent or antagonistic to artistic and cultural values.

    b. One who lacks knowledge in a specific area.

    ADJECTIVE: 1. Of or relating to ancient Philistia.

    2. often philistine Boorish; barbarous: “our plastic, violent culture, with its philistine tastes and hunger for novelty” (Lloyd Rose).

    ETYMOLOGY: From Middle English Philistines, Philistines, from Late Latin Philistn, from Greek Philistnoi, from Hebrew Plitîm, from Pleet, Philistia.

    WORD HISTORY: It has never been good to be a Philistine. In the Bible Samson, Saul, and David helped bring the Philistines into prominence because they were such prominent opponents.

    Though the Philistines have long since disappeared, their name has lived on in the Hebrew Scriptures. The English name for them, Philistines, which goes back through Late Latin and Greek to Hebrew, is first found in Middle English, where Philistiens, the ancestor of our word, is recorded in a work composed before 1325.

    Beginning in the 17th century philistine was used as a common noun, usually in the plural, to refer to various groups considered the enemy, such as literary critics. In Germany in the same century it is said that in a memorial at Jena for a student killed in a town-gown quarrel, the minister preached a sermon from the text “Philister über dir Simson! [The Philistines be upon thee, Samson!],” the words of Delilah to Samson after she attempted to render him powerless before his Philistine enemies.

    From this usage it is said that German students came to use Philister, the German equivalent of Philistine, to denote nonstudents and hence uncultured or materialistic people. Both usages were picked up in English in the early 19th century.
posted by Dunvegan at 4:06 PM on January 15, 2005


I just don't care.

Wasn't that Rumsfeld's line when he was appprised of the looting? Nope. sorry.

Rummy said "Stuff happens"
posted by Fupped Duck at 4:16 PM on January 15, 2005


Next up: We're putting a Wal-Mart on top of Stonehenge.

That's cool with you guys, right? I mean, it's just rocks and shit.
posted by fungible at 7:00 PM on January 15, 2005


We were upset that the Taliban blew up those Buddhas, and now we're doing the same.

We were upset that Saddam tortured people, and then we did the same.

What's next? What other outrage will we condemn, and then turn around and commit?

We're supposed to be a shining example of what again?
posted by amberglow at 7:29 PM on January 15, 2005


Something other than Shinola apparently.
posted by y2karl at 8:20 PM on January 15, 2005


Thanks for the post y2karl. The whole thing makes me sad we're such a destructive species. Really late to the thread but for anyone who happens upon this here is a site that is documenting the destruction in Iraq. (direct link to the archive on Babylon with some images).
posted by squeak at 12:55 AM on January 16, 2005


Nicely put amberglow.
posted by caddis at 7:42 AM on January 16, 2005


All three links I notice courtesy of the Guardian, which is probably not of the best. A tendentious paper, if frequently vital.

Much much better is squeak's link. We live in a visual age.

By the way-

And then Lord Elgin came to steal the fallen pieces...

I thought it was still fuzzy whether he stole, paid for, or simply had permission from the Ottoman's to take them, no? Mind you, the Turks were the best custodians at the time, caring about as much if not less than some of the posters to this thread.

N.B., the Taliban's outrages did not begin with giant buddhas. I recall with near physical pain footage of Taliban faithful putting small exquisite ancient carvings to the grindstone. Makes the petty pilfering of artwork in pre Taliban days seem almost virtuous, and what a tangled moral web that notion raises. Arguments on both sides predictable and I have no answers. I still do not buy antiquities myself, despite a liking for them.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:07 AM on January 16, 2005


We were upset that the Taliban blew up those Buddhas, and now we're doing the same.

We were upset that Saddam tortured people, and then we did the same.

What's next? What other outrage will we condemn, and then turn around and commit?

We're supposed to be a shining example of what again?


while i appreciate and echo the sentiment, amberglow, i think it is not being too literal to take pains to point out that I (and i suspect you) condemned all that you list and perpetrated none of it.

it's dangerous to start discrediting or distrusting the earnest voice of dissent among the populace in the seat of empire simply because of where it sits.
posted by milkman at 9:45 AM on January 16, 2005


"...the implicit insistance that somehow liberal values like democracy and 'individual freedom' which underly the 'pragmatic' or economical/material view of such matters are themselves divorced from ethnic and/or national identity..."

Precisely (and vitally) -- put. I heart da Milkman.
posted by Haruspex at 9:56 AM on January 16, 2005


Indigo,

I thought it was still fuzzy whether he stole, paid for, or simply had permission from the Ottoman's to take them, no?

Err, care to back this up? I mean are there receipts we have overlooked? Sorry for being snarky, but there is no evidence for what you say, perhaps only excuses.
posted by carmina at 8:55 AM on January 17, 2005


I think that chewing out emplacements and leveling out LZs in the mid of a archeologically sensitive zone is not equatable with the willfull destruction of same. The military's actions here are clearly thick-headed but not laden with the same ill intent as one who would launch rockets at statuary in Bamiyan.

A lot of bad things happen in war. It is unfortunate that this is amongst them and that we wage it at all.

As an American I found it odd to live in Etruscan Italy, a land where three empires have flourished one atop another, where modern highways intersect Roman aqueducts and the fingerprints of ancient civilizations are all around. Made me wonder at times how anyone builds anything in such an environment.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:49 PM on January 17, 2005


carmina: Yes, there is evidence, if you would bother to look for it. Here is a detailed discussion of the matter; the fact that the existence of the Ottoman firman authorizing Elgin's activities is dubious does not mean Indigo made it up -- it has generally been assumed in histories of the marbles.
posted by languagehat at 1:34 PM on January 17, 2005


languagehat, thank you for the link. It is chilling and vastly heartbreaking....

It explains, as you mention, that the existence of the firman is highly debatable. Nevertheless, the stripping of the Parthenon marbles is a case of a conqueror (and an opportunist) imposing its deed. To say the least, the marbles return is an ethical vindication and an aesthetic completion.

And true apologies to Indigo -a link like the one you just put on would carry better.
posted by carmina at 8:40 PM on January 18, 2005


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