BABYLON, Iraq — After decades of dictatorship and disrepair, Iraq is celebrating its renewed sovereignty over the Babylon archaeological site -- the "liberation" of it and other archaeological sites, one official said -- by fighting over the place, over its past and future and, of course, its spoils.
Time has eroded the sun-dried bricks that shaped ancient Babylon, the city of Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar, where Daniel read the writing on the wall and Alexander the Great died.
Colonial archaeologists packed off its treasures to Europe a century ago. Saddam Hussein rebuilt the site in his own megalomaniacal image. American and Polish troops turned it into a military camp, digging trenches and filling barricades with soil peppered with fragments of a biblical-era civilization.
Now the provincial government in Babil has seized control of much of Babylon -- unlawfully, according to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage -- and opened a park beside a branch of the Euphrates River, a place that draws visitors by the busload each day.
It has begun to charge a fee to visit the looted, grandiose palace that Saddam built in the 1980s, along with the hill it stands on. And it has refurbished a collection of buildings from the Saddam era and rented their rooms out as suites. For $175 a night, Iraqis can honeymoon in a room advertised as one of Saddam's bedrooms -- in truth, almost certainly a mere guest room.
"Our problem, in terms of archaeology, is that we actually deal with ignorant people, whether in the Saddam era or the current era," said Qais Hussein Rashid, acting director of the Board of Antiquities, which has legal authority over Babylon but apparently not very much power. "Most of the people and some officials have no respect for heritage. They think archaeological sites are just a bunch of bricks that have no value at all."
Now, with the support of some officials in Baghdad, the local government has reopened the excavated ruins of Babylon's ancient core, shuttered since the U.S. invasion in 2003. It has done so despite warnings by archaeologists that the reopening threatens to damage further what remains of one of the world's first great cities before the site can be adequately protected.
Rashid's board, part of the Ministry of Culture, is at odds with the newly created State Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's government made control of ancient sites a provision in the security pact with the United States that took effect in January.