2011
04.10

SYNOPSIS:

We started on our southern loop and visited Kish, Babylon, Borsippa and another one of Saddam’s palaces.  At the end of the day our bus broke down but all is well.

We knew something was not right since our driver had stopped at various car supply stores throughout the day and finally picked up a small package.  But we only found out how serious the problem was when, at the big check point at the outskirts of the Holy City of Kerbala (you do not refer to it around here as just Kerbala), the bus would no longer start.

Accompanied by the laughter of all the police officers and bystanders we were pulled out of the check point.  For the first time, our police escort came in handy.  They volunteered to tow us.  A rope was tied between the cars and off we went.  But the rope was so short that within minutes the two cars had bumped into each other.  Despite that, they kept going.  But then they kept a distance that ripped the rope off.  Lucky, the front of our car did not go with it.  This was not going to work.

There we were, in the middle of the road in one of the more vulnerable cities in Iraq, stranded on the highway as night was approaching.  I was wondering how this would pan out.  The police escort of four men split up.  Two armed men were left with us and the two others in the car sped off to get help.  Within minutes a minibus returned and we were moved away from our big bus and from our trusted driver to a small bus.  The main point was to get us off the road before total darkness.  We were not far from our destination, a comfortable hotel near the famous Kerbala Shrines.  There, dinner was ready and the evening proceeded almost according to plan.

We had a long day behind us.  I am not even complaining anymore about 7 AM departures.  They are just a given.  Without Rosalyn, my Chinese room-mate, I would not make it out of bed, but she is up sprite and spiffy and makes sure that I am up at least half an hour after my alarm clock rings which I have not heard in days.

We went deep into the past today.  Our first stop was Kish, one of the most powerful cities of the 3rd Millenium BC.  Since it was located at a spot where Tigris and Euphrates were only 40 km apart, they were able to irrigate the entire plain and control commerce on both rivers.  Location, location, location… it’s the key to success.  What is pitiful to see is how little remains.  Coming from Egypt, the point is certainly driven home that aside from location building materials are another key to success, at least eternal success.  It takes so much imagination to see palaces, throne rooms, etc. when you are looking at a few crumbling mud hills.  But it is very meaningful to see exactly this difference.  As I have a high respect for any archaeologist, the ones who have to deal with mud bricks in deserts rank highest to me.

On the extreme opposite of the spectrum ranks Babylon.  There, already under Saddam, a total rebuilding program has practically resurrected a site which was nothing but crumbling hills.  It is so fake that I was perfectly turned off.  The entire central palace of Babylon shines in 20th century fired bricks and yes, it is impressive to walk through these vast courts and to think that on the reconstructed platform of the throne room Alexander the Great died, surrounded by his mourning generals, but he certainly did not die on this platform.  Just on the one that used to be here.  Oh well…

Where the hanging gardens and the foundation of the famous tower of Babel used to be, there is now a barbed wired fence barring visitors from entry: a military base the Americans erected there to the chagrin of the world, right over the ancient ruins.   But they knew it and were a lot more mindful than the current Iraqi government implies.  From what Geoff told us, they are asking for millions in reparation for damage to ancient sites, but can hardly point to a crumble.  Still…

The Germans, of course, have to be quiet when it comes to Babylon:  The famed Ishtar Gate is displayed at the same Pergamon Museum in Berlin as the Zeus Altar from Pergamon.  In this case, there was a lot more dismantling going on.  Still, the archaeologist of the site who led us around was very pleased to hear that there was a German in the group and he pointed out a lot of useful excavations done by German teams.  But according to legend, the Germans also broke the big lion of Babylon which still stands in situ with a crack in it supposedly when trying to remove it.  Who knows?  Overall, Babylon is a bit like archaeology Disneyland.  Not my cup of tea.  I prefer the crumbling mud hills ideally combined with a nice 3D digital reconstruction and a good floor plan.

Right behind Babylon with gorgeous views over the Euphrates and the ruins towers another Palace of Saddam.  This one is open for people to roam around in.  It has been looted to the last light bulb and filled with graffiti.  The sheer size and cost of this palace and the fact that he most likely never ever even was there, indicates the magnitude of his madness and waste.

Borsippa was perhaps the most interesting stop of the day.  But since I am once again running out of time, I will have to stop here and fill in the rest of this blog tomorrow.

Good night.

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  1. I was hoping that you would have a “wow”moment in Babylon instead of finding a fake reconstruction. What a disappointment. I’ve sung “Belshazzar’s Feast” with the U of M Choral Union and can in my mind still hear “Babylon the great, has fallen”. (The music is wonderful)