The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Ancient Babylon Rebuilt!

At first glance the Babylon site is a strange Disneyland vision of what Babylon ought to look like, with impossibly pristine new brickwork and fanciful towers and ramparts.  Just as though some Wizard has cast a magical “rebuild” spell.  But much of this fanciful reconstruction is built on original foundations.  Our site guide pointed at various pieces of the lowest levels of the walls as original, including the now mostly buried upper arches of old gates.  But while the bricks may be original, even those sections had clearly suffered extensive reconstruction and renovation.

We started at a small scale replica of the original Ishtar Gate.  This is good fun, but it’s a surprisingly low quality painted brick affair and is not a fair advert for the very impressive (albeit aggressively restored) original version now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.  Then we moved to the heavily renovated original gate foundations, mixing old and new bricks.

The grand Processional Way is mostly new, but includes a few old bricks, some with the original Babylonian cuneiform stamps.  The embossed brickwork dragons and lions are entirely modern, plain replicas of the colorful glaze brickwork originals now mostly in Berlin.

Many larger interior sections are similarly reimagined, with a grand new temple and several vast rambling palaces.  But, at least in theory, this is all rebuilt on the original site groundwork.  To add even more confusion, some of the surviving original brickwork sections have been given modern overlays to both protect and prettify them. We saw one spot where the modern plaster had peeled away, revealing ancient bricks.

Our guide led us to a palatial Throne Room and told us this is the exact spot where Alexander died, in 323 bc.  Maybe true, maybe not, but a big “gulp” anyway.

We entered one section that was supposedly a reconstruction of a defensive maze.  Here occasional bricks are grandly stamped in Arabic with Saddam Hussein’s name.

Further in, past the Disneyland rebuilds, there is a large area of (apparently) authentic undisturbed original ruins, with large chunks of mud brick walls and buildings.

On a rise next to the site is one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, with good views over the Euphrates.  This is a finely built palace, now much decayed, with grand reception rooms, now vandalized and covered with Arabic graffiti.  Two of the bigger rooms had been adopted as convenient skating rinks by groups of in-line skaters.


I’m traveling in Iraq on a private tour with Babel Tours. It’s been good fun. I recommend it! (Tour notes.)

Uruk

The Uruk site is well organized, with large explanatory signs, a strong perimeter fence, and (wonder of wonders) an actual ticket office, which doubles as a guard post.  We were the only visitors of the day so it took a few minutes to round up the ticket seller.

Uruk was the first great city, the home of writing (!), prospering from around 4000 bc onwards.  The site was also occupied by many successor civilizations, so there is a wide range of material, from early Sumerian to Seleucid and even Parthian.

Uruk, Red Temple

Red Temple Mound

The site covers about 7 sq km, with many acres of scattered shards, occasional lumps of mud brick, and two major temple mounds.   As we walked, our site guide pointed out a mud brick wall from the time of Gilgamesh; many mud bricks with Babylonian cuneiform stamps; a mud brick with a much simpler early Sumerian cuneiform stamp; and much more.  Frequently Sumerian and Babylonian and Seleucid work is all intermingled.

White Temple (3000 bc)

The most prominent mound is the mud brick platform of the Red Temple (around 3100 bc), distinguished by a modern concrete marker pillar on top.  Alas, almost nothing visible remains of the temple itself.

The White Temple aka the Sky God Temple, from 3000 bc is also at the top of a tall mud brick platform.  The temple is now only a few low mud brick mounds, perhaps from pillars or a wall.   But given its vast age, any remains at all are still damned impressive.  I thanked the Sky God for sending me reliable GPS and prayed for better wireless internet.

We also visited Agee Gal, a very large Seleucid Temple.  Only the two ends have been excavated – a long central section is still untouched.  A few of the exposed bricks have the original bright blue glaze akin to the Ishtar gate, but most of the glazed bricks are very faded.

I am in Mesopotamia in placid Southern Iraq (yes this part of Iraq is genuinely safe) on a private tour with Babel Tours.  (Tour notes.) If you are seriously interested in ancient history I recommend a visit!

Ancient Ur

There are very few tourists in Iraq at the moment, so I was expecting the ancient city of Ur to be almost deserted.  But no, as we approached the great ziggurat, we saw about 40 tour buses parked and hordes of teenagers cavorting around the site.  Say what?

It turns out it’s the last month of the school year, and ancient Ur is a favorite site for local school outings.  (This seems like a good thing!)  The younger kids also found a visiting Scot a fine additional attraction, so I had to dutifully pose for some group pictures.

I’m glad they were having fun: drumming, dancing, and maybe even absorbing a little history.  But it was also kind of a relief when the buses moved on and we really did have the site to ourselves!

Ur is very ancient, but the ziggurat, is from only (!) around 2100 bc.  Unfortunately it has suffered aggressive modern restoration.  The ziggurat core is original, but almost all the outer facing and stairs are an imaginative reconstruction.  Near the top, some of the ancient brickwork is visible.  Both old and new brickwork was built with included layers of asphalt for water-proofing and flexibility.

At a few places near the top it’s possible to see the pristine new “restored” walls melding into battered original sections.

There are a number of other excavated buildings, including the Royal Cemeteries of Ur and a large (reconstructed) residential building, rather optimistically identified as “Abraham’s House”.

And here are some overall tour notes.

False Dawn in Murmansk

Murmansk false dawn, in early afternoon.

Murmansk false dawn.

I was in Murmansk for the Winter Solstice.

The city is North of the Arctic Circle, so the sun never actually rises in mid-winter. I had been vaguely expecting that I would be encountering a 24 hour night, but no, the sky was actually a bright twilight from about noon to about 4:00pm, as the sun lurked just over the horizon. In mid afternoon, the rosy fingers of a false dawn even made an appearance to the South, before gently fading out again.

"Alyosha". Still guarding Murmansk.

“Alyosha”. Still guarding Murmansk.

Murmank hosts a fine resolute Lenin, the charming Museum of the Northern Fleet, and a strangely poignant 30 meter high concrete statue of a Soviet WWII soldier, nicknamed “Alyosha”, still resolutely watching the skies for German bombers.

I had arrived by train from St Petersburg and I took a local minibus over the border to Kirkenes in Norway. The Norwegian border officials asked various slightly strange questions (“Where is your Norwegian exit stamp!?”) and did a particularly thorough search of my pack. I only realized later that they had assumed I must be returning from a short trip from Norway into Murmansk and so they became very suspicious when I denied having any Norwegian exit stamp. Sigh. Normally entries to Western Europe on a UK passport are easy, so this caught me by surprise.

Grozny

On my way from Vladikavkaz to Astrakhan, I stopped off in Grozny. I’m not sure what I expected from Chechnya, but it wasn’t this.

Almost all the buildings in central Grozny are new, built after the devastation of the second Chechen War.  But there is now another enormous new wave of construction under way, with several multi-storey towers and many, many blocks of new low rise buildings.  I wandered through what felt like an endless construction zone.  It isn’t all prestige fluff either – there seem to be many well constructed new apartment blocks too.

People in Grozny seemed slightly surprised to see a tourist, let alone a foreigner from exotic “Shotlandiya”, but they also seemed pleased and welcoming.

The city has a very different feel from most of European Russia.  This is definitely an Islamic city, with most women wearing headscarves and many men wearing muslim caps.  And on Friday afternoon there was a large crowd coming out of the grand new mosque.

Chechnya, and Grozny in particular, seems to be going through a relatively stable period at the moment.  (The key word being “relatively”, there are still periodic incidents.)  There is a lot of armed security sprinkled around the city, but it is generally low key.  The city feels bustling and prosperous.

It’s worth a visit.  More Grozny photos.

Practicalities: I came in by marshrutka from Vladikavkaz via Nazran and took the very slow 602C train out to Astrakhan.  (Note that at Nazran the Grozny marshrutkas arrive/leave at a separate bus stand about 1 km South of the main bus station.) I stayed at the pleasant and friendly Hotel Arena City.

Hotel Arena City Security Guards

Hotel Arena City – Night Watchmen

 

I checked out of the Arena City before dawn, so I got to meet two of the night-time security team.  They had stopped in for a quick tea break while two more armed guards patrolled outside.  While Grozny is mostly stable these days, this is still the North Caucasus, so I guess a little extra security isn’t too surprising.

 

Stalin in Vladikavkaz

I’m in Vladikavkaz (“Lord of the Caucasus”), North Ossetia, Russian Federation, where Stalin lurks.

I was visiting the fine WWII memorial park “Monument to Glory”.  And there he was, posed casually in front of a giant historical mosaic.

The most surprising part is that the bust is new, added in 2009 by the local Communist Party.  Presumably with the assent of the city government.

According to the Lonely Planet Russian guide, there are at least a couple of other Stalin busts lurking around North Ossetia.  Lonely Planet asserts that there is a local fondness for Stalin due to ethnic politics: in the 1940s, Stalin left the Ossetians in place but deported their hated ethnic enemies, the Ingush, en masse.  Hmm.  It’s possible, but it seems a stretch.

As it happens, the memorial park also has a small, touching memorial to the 2004 Beslan tragedy, when Ingush and Chechen terrorists attacked a North Ossetian school.

Also in Vladikavkaz I spotted an unexpected billboard.  At first I thought it must be an advert for the Russian equivalent of the History Channel, or suchlike.  But no, it’s quite serious.  It’s from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the message is “He was a communist!  Come join us!”  Interesting!  No hint of ambiguity or historical reticence there.