Iraq’s Babylon listed as World Heritage Site by UNESCO

Iraq had been trying since 1983 to have the site recognised by UNESCO.

site of Babylon
Babel's Lion at the ancient archaeological site of Babylon [File: Hussein Faleh/AFP]

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has voted to list the sprawling Mesopotamian metropolis of Babylon as a World Heritage Site after three decades of lobbying efforts by Iraq.

Iraq had been trying since 1983 to have the site – a massive 10sq-km complex of which just 18 percent has been excavated thus far – recognised by UNESCO.

Straddling Iraq’s Euphrates River, about 100 kilometres south of Baghdad, the city was the centre of the ancient Babylonian empire more than 4,000 years ago.

“What is the world heritage list without Babylon? How to tell the history of humanity without the earliest of old chapters, Babylon?” said Iraq’s representative to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee before the vote.

The committee met in Azerbaijan’s capital of Baku to consider Babylon and another 34 sites, including in Brazil and Burkina Faso, for the World Heritage List.

After the successful vote, Iraq’s delegation clasped hands and invited all delegates “to visit Babylon, the cradle of civilisation”.

Babylon developed as a walled city of mudbrick temples and towers, known internationally for its hanging gardens, the Tower of Babel, and the Ishtar Gate.

Excavation began in the early 1800s and artefacts were sent abroad, including parts of the Ishtar Gate which remain in museums across Europe.

“Babylon is the largest populated city in ancient history,” said Qahtan al-Abeed, who heads the Basra Antiquities Department and led efforts to get the site listed.

“The Babylonians were the civilisation of writing, administration and science,” he told the AFP news agency. Putting Babylon on the World Heritage List “will encourage research and development of the site”, and would “be free publicity for tourists”, he added excitedly.

Eleven ‘tentative’ sites 

Babylon is one of 7,000 archaeological sites across Iraq, many of which were destroyed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIS or ISIL) or ravaged by lucrative artefact smuggling.

Several Iraqi antiquities were also looted after the US invasion in 2003, and according to a report by the British Museum, the invasion caused widespread damage and severe contamination to the remains of the ancient city. 

Other sites in Iraq have also been listed by UNESCO, including the Erbil citadel in northern Iraq and the southern Mesopotamian marshes.

After decades of back-to-back conflict, the country declared victory against ISIL in 2017 and is now basking in a period of relative calm.

It has sought to attract both international investors and tourists, and hopes its prominence on UNESCO’s lists can do both.

 Ishtar Gate
The Ishtar Gate at the ancient archaeological site of Babylon, south of the Iraqi capital Baghdad [Hussein Faleh/AFP]
Source: News Agencies