BBC News

Iraq's clash of old and new: Oil pipelines in Babylon

By Rami Ruhayem
BBC News, Hilla, Iraq

image captionIraq is bidding to have the ruins of Babylon listed as a World Heritage site

Standing on a dusty mound on the outskirts of Hilla, two Iraqi officials have an argument about what lies underneath.

One thing is certain: three pipelines carrying oil products and liquid gas from Basra in the south to Baghdad pass under the hill. Two of them were built in the late 1970s and early 80s, and the third was just completed a month ago.

But according to Hussein Falah al-Ammari of the State Board of Antiquities, there's something more valuable than oil under that hill.

"We're standing on the outer wall of the ancient city of Babylon," he said. "The pipelines penetrate the city from both sides, cutting through the northern wall where we are now, through the city and all the way to the southern wall 1.5km (0.9 miles) south from here."

Facing the antiquities official is Muayyed al-Sultani from the pipeline company in Babylon. Dressed neatly in a suit and tie, he's accompanied by a camera crew from the Ministry of Oil, as well as four soldiers. One of them flaunts a machine gun with a belt of rounds dangling from the bullet compartment.

"With all respect to the antiquities board," he says politely, "our opinion is that there are no ruins here."

The two men debated the powers of their respective ministries, the importance of the oil pipeline, and the value of Babylonian ruins. But the discussion was going nowhere.

image captionOil is a key source of revenue for Iraq

The Ministry of Tourism has already taken the Ministry of Oil to court over the extension of the pipeline, which it says is unlawful because it endangers an archaeological site, and did not have the approval of the State Antiquities Board.

It says that unless the pipelines are diverted, the bid to get Babylon listed as a World Heritage Site will fail.

'Just dust'

On the surface, it's just a hill like any other in Iraq. Situated at the outskirts of Hilla, the modern name for the ancient city of Babylon, it's dotted by thorny bushes and patches of dry grass, and surrounded by palm trees on all sides.

"It's just dust around here," said Mr Sultani, adding that while the pipeline was being extended, no traces of ruins were found.

But Mr Ammari had a ready explanation. "It's the erosion over the millennia," he explained, insisting that about a metre underneath, the remains of the wall stood largely intact, preserved in "architectural detail".

Further in, he said, "we could find military bases, or private housing units or administrative centres".

But even if the court orders a diversion of the pipelines, there's no certainty that the bid to have Babylon listed as a World Heritage site will succeed.

Few would doubt the "outstanding universal value"' of the ancient city, but there are other criteria for being listed as a World Heritage Site.

Among them is "authenticity" of the ruins, and Babylon has already been compromised.

Ancient glory

Within the inner city walls lie the remains of the palace built by Nebuchadnezzar the Second around 2,600 years ago: layer upon layer of reddish-brown bricks, windswept and eroded over the millennia. But piled on top of the ruins are new structures erected during the past decades.

Iraq's former President Saddam Hussein ordered the rebuilding of the ancient city at exactly the spot where the old one stood.

image captionThe reconstructions have compromised the authenticity of the ruins

The result is a mixture of old and new, and it is difficult to distinguish between the two.

The clash of the Iraqi ministries pits the demands of the modern age against the preservation of history. But it could also prove to be an example of history repeating itself.

Iraq's oil sector remains burdened with a variety of problems, but its potential is vast, and so are the geopolitical implications if it fulfils it.

Ancient Babylon was a bustling commercial hub. Merchants carrying goods from places like India, Persia, and Egypt passed through the city, generating wealth for its ambitious kings, and tempting them with dreams of glory.

In today's Iraq, it's the lure of oil that could prove impossible to resist.

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