The 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has spawned some seemingly improbable headlines, like “U.S. establishes base on Babylon” and “U.S. hands back Ur”. Upon reading such titles, I envisioned the army traveling back in time to attack the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar at his Hanging Gardens or helping God himself topple the Tower of Babel.
Though Babylon and Ur have been abandoned for millenia, and long ago fell into ruin, Western culture still reveres the biblical-era myths and stories set in these cities.
Of course, Babylon and Ur aren’t just notable for their antiquity or their place in Western mythology. These sites are located in the alluvial plains of Iraq, in the path of modern human migration out of Africa – this area has seen untold centuries of human movement and occupation. As every schoolchild knows (or should know), they are the likely birthplace of many human “firsts,” including agriculture, writing, and the wheel. Sites and artifacts in this region don’t just represent one culture, they represent major achievements of our species.
It seemed almost sacrilegious for the military to invade Babylon and Ur. Moreover, it seemed too dangerous for them to occupy and risk damaging these fragile places, which are still being excavated.
When U.S. military contractor KBR built a base on Babylon in 2003, they did indeed damage the site. Workers bulldozed tells, dug ditches, built embankments, and carved out roads; in doing so they hopelessly confused the archaeological context and damaged structural remnants and artifacts, which at Babylon are buried relatively close to the surface. Vibrations from helicopters caused the collapse of a temple, and heavy machinery cracked a 2,600 year-old brick road. Ur fared little better.
To Westerners, Babylon and Ur are perhaps the best-known of Iraq’s ancient cities, and the U.S. military’s heedless destruction there communicated an awful message: even here, nothing here is sacred. One imagines it communicated the same to Iraqis.