Marines encounter history in Babylon
Stars and Stripes June 6, 2003
BABYLON, Iraq — On the walls of Nebuchadnezzar’s 2,600-year-old palace, every sixth brick has a cuneiform note thanking the god Marduk for letting the king of Babylonia subdue his enemies.
In 1987, Saddam Hussein built his own palace on a hill overlooking the great king’s ruined capital. He ordered part of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace renovated and added his own bricks. They, too, thank god, in Arabic, for allowing him to subdue his enemies.
Saddam’s inscription, Navy Chaplain (Lt. Cmdr.) Thomas Webber said, usually gets a pretty good guffaw from the sailors and Marines touring the ruins 10 times a day.
Babylon, the 4,000-year-old city in the heart of Iraq, now serves as headquarters for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. The 1st MEF fought its way into Iraq in early March and now controls the southern half of the country. It arrived in Babylon on April 21.
The site was chosen not because of its deep history. It happens to sit in the middle of the nine Iraqi governances the Camp Pendleton, Calif.-based 1st MEF controls.
As a side benefit, Webber said, Marines protect the grounds and museum from looting. And sailors, Marines and any other military member can visit the second-most named city in the Bible. The first is Jerusalem, Webber said.
“The Corps loves their tradition, but now we’re walking through something that’s 10 times older,” said Webber, 46, of Leslie, Mich.
In some sections of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, original walls extend high overhead. One passageway is decorated with reliefs of gods of the time, including the fearsome Marduk, who had a dragon head, a snake tail tipped by a scorpion stinger, a lion’s front paws and an eagle’s rear legs.
Other walls show a seascape of original bricks at their base, topped by the concrete and cement blocks installed 20 years ago.
Webber walks the group down the Procession Way, known for being the route taken by ancient Babylonia’s political and religious leaders in official ceremonies.
Its entrance is through the Ishtar gate, decorated with gold, bronze and ceramic blue tiles.
The Germans, however, unearthed the gate in 1904 and took it to the Pergamom Museum in Berlin. They tried to take the Lion of Babylon as well, but the 500-ton statue was too heavy to float down the nearby Euphrates River.
What is left is impressive, Marines said. But they wish there were more.
“I think the Germans raped the hell out of this place,” said Marine Pfc. Kevin Schopen, 19, of Jefferson, Wis., after his tour. “I feel like I have to go to Berlin to see Babylon.”
Schopen provides security in the religious city of Najaf, about a 90-minute drive south of Babylon. He and several Marines took a break to tour the historical site.
“Being Catholic, my grandmother talks about this place all the time and said I just had to come see it,” Schopen said.
Most of the Marines and sailors passing through the ruins have some inkling of its historical importance. Bible studies or high school social studies about Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, gradually resurface.
Others need a little refresher course.
For instance, Capt. Neil Murphy, a 1st MEF spokesman, read “The Idiot’s Complete Guide to Iraq” before arriving.
Marine civil affairs units are helping museum managers to open the ruins to the general public again, but it’s not safe enough yet, Murphy said. They’re also doing an inventory of artifacts to find out which ones were stolen.
They hope for an additional archaeological study of the site.
“There’s a lot of digging to be done,” Webber said.
Webber said he spends most his time ministering to the troops and the rest leading the Babylon tours.
The chaplain’s cadence echoes off the walls of Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room when he tells the story of the Biblical Daniel, of the lion’s den fame, who ultimately became the king’s trusted adviser after interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams.
Webber said he enjoys relaying the tales written in the Bible, written in the ancient stones.
“It’s a dream come true,” Webber said.
Stripes reporter Sandra Jontz contributed to this story.