For close to a decade, the Future of Babylon project has worked to conserve the archaeological remains of the most famous Mesopotamian city. As part of the World Monuments Fund, the project seeks to redress decades of neglect and damaging interventions during the 1980s. Jeff Allen reports on the project’s latest work at the Ishtar Gate.
By Jeff Allen
Since 2008, World Monuments Fund (WMF) has been working with Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage (SBAH) to conserve the fragile archaeological remains of Babylon. There are many challenges: repairing the damage caused by military occupations, countering the effects of the twentieth-century reconstructions at the site, halting illegal new building encroachments, and helping the Iraqi authorities make the site ready for visitors to once again enjoy the wonders of this site in the cradle of civilization.
In partnering with SBAH on the Future of Babylon project, WMF assembled a values-based site management plan for Babylon (BSMP) and implemented selected aspects of that plan focused on emergency stabilization and site cleanup. Among those activities, the Lion of Babylon — a statue that was at risk of falling over until we intervened — was stabilized and design measures to reduce vandalism were introduced. At several other sites, such as Ishtar Temple, Nabu-sha-Khare Temple and the inner city walls, SBAH and WMF have teamed up to prevent collapse until conservation work can be undertaken. The primary visitor route has been thoroughly cleaned, with broken and inappropriate modern buildings and hardscape elements removed. World Monuments Fund also produced the site management plan to address issues such as site boundaries, areas where future excavations might take place, identifying economic opportunities for local communities, and considering ways to accommodate tourists effectively at the site. Since 2016, the Future of Babylon project, seeking to exemplify BSMP conservation principles, has been comprehensively intervening at one of the priority monuments, the Ishtar Gate, and recently began assisting the Iraqi antiquities authorities in formulating a World Heritage Site nomination.
An integral aspect of the Future of Babylon project is the need to strengthen the capacity of SBAH and its partners to manage Iraq’s cultural heritage. Deprived from institutional access to the larger world, global and domestic politics in the recent past left SBAH wanting in skills to fulfill its enormous mandate to protect Iraq’s heritage. World Monuments Fund has stepped in and helped by providing training courses, equipment and field visits to other regional sites and antiquities agencies. We also reach to the surrounding communities to form our work team. These are mainly young men with agrarian and limited building trade experience; nonetheless, several have demonstrated commitment and talent, and are now ready to be conservation technicians.
The rehabilitation of priority monuments
As part of the Future of Babylon’s early planning process, members of SBAH prioritized five sites for general maintenance and conservation actions. The Ishtar Gate, Nabu-sha-Khare Temple and the inner city walls between the palaces are classified as the highest priority. All are standing monuments with substantial amounts of original fabric that have preserved their authenticity and integrity despite the 1980s interventions and subsequent years of neglect. The Ishtar Gate is considered Babylon’s most important monument, due to its history and the amount of in-situ fabric. Owing to its fame and material composition (fired brick), and as a result of initial condition assessments, the Ishtar Gate was chosen from the priority sites by SBAH as the first monument to undergo full conservation.
Thankfully for planning purposes, the Ishtar Gate is the best documented of the priority sites. Robert Koldewey’s excavation reports and archival photos constitute baseline data. Unfortunately, comprehensive restoration reports from the 1980s and subsequent work, including architectural drawings, are missing. To counter these shortcomings, the Future of Babylon project embarked on a lengthy and detailed documentation program. The entire monument was laser-scanned and more than 50 detailed, brick-by-brick condition assessment AutoCAD drawings were produced—a first not only for the monument, but all of Iraq as well. A monitoring program was put in place charting structural crack movements, and gauging moisture content in masonry and depth measures of groundwater in correlation with weather patterns and similar well locations around the site and at the Shatt al-Hillah. Studies covering the historical evolution of the monument, surface water movement, structural integrity and visitor usage have also been undertaken. Based on detailed laser-scanning documentation, drawings, surveys, monitoring and analysis, all undertaken in partnership with SBAH, WMF has developed a set of conservation priorities for Ishtar Gate.
Conditions of the Ishtar Gate
After the Koldewey excavations ended, decades of erosion and exposure of the archaeological remains without maintenance and conservation occurred. Then additional decades passed with intermittent interventions, revealing more of the gate and replacing damaged masonry, but without an effective maintenance and management approach. Inadequacy culminated in the late 1980s with a massive and dramatic partial reconstruction that included backfilling and re-contouring areas inside and surrounding the Ishtar Gate. As part of that work, new flooring was established. After installing subgrade rain runoff collection tanks, thick concrete paving and a singular drainage channel were added inside the gate. Further, outside of Babylon changes in irrigation technologies elevated river levels, which in turn intensified and raised groundwater movement passing through the monument. The actions of the 1980s only hastened decay and damage, especially considering they occurred absent of an effective routine maintenance program. Conditions were exasperated during military occupation, the culmination of a lengthy period of political and economic upheaval that undermined the antiquities department’s resolve.
In addition to the action of humans — or, in some cases, inaction — the harsh climate posed problems for the archaeological remains. Seasonal fluctuations, exposure from the sun, varying wind, and intense periods of rain and groundwater movement is, for any building material, a durability test. Throughout its modern history as an archaeological site, damage has taken place at Ishtar Gate and human factors have accelerated natural decay mechanisms.
Intervening at the Ishtar Gate
After documenting and assessing its past and current conditions, the second half of the Ishtar Gate work plan is underway. It is composed of four work components, and each has subtasks that require WMF to submit a permission request to SBAH before proceeding. Once approved, the documents form the agenda and schedule for the Ishtar Gate Conservation Action Plan.
Work component 1: water management improvements
Drainage patterns need to be changed so the impact of surface runoff, its associated ground seepage and subterranean groundwater exposure are reduced. The present surrounding topography is driving drainage directly into the core archaeological remains. The project is reversing these movements by reshaping and re-leveling ground surfaces so they transfer water runoff away from the monument. New drainage inside the Gate will be concealed under a gravel evaporative flooring and walkway down the center of the gate. Discharge cisterns will be improved to collect water, and solar-powered pumping systems will move it out of the site. Current monitoring seeks to define seasonal fluctuations; however, given agricultural demands for irrigation in the region, which have artificially raised the surrounding river system, options for intervening further are limited and costly.
Work component 2: architectural and engineering interventions to protect the Gate
Retaining walls at the north and south ends of the Ishtar Gate need to be rebuilt. The current terraced constructions with parts dating back to the 1950s are structurally failing and visually inappropriate. The project will rebuild these modern features in a manner that is more complementary to the archaeological remains and in ways that provide improved visitor access. Although outside of the scope of current funding and activities, the project will explore preliminary designs for constructing a shelter to protect the archeological remains as the most effective long-term solution.
Work component 3: the conservation of historic fabric
Large amounts of inappropriate brick and cement mortars were used in previous interventions. Capping the Ishtar Gate with a modern, cement-based mortar coating hastened surface weathering by stagnating water in some places; in others, it channeled rainwater from the top directly down the structure. The project is introducing changes to the Gate’s top by re-routing water runoff and, where feasible, removing modern masonry when it is contributing to damage.
At the bottom rising dampness has eroded historic brickwork, and twentieth century interventions were inappropriately conceived infills that have only driven dampness higher up into the masonry. Modern fired-brick masonry underpinnings are being removed, section by section, and replaced with compatible, traditional materials and mortars. On the façade, a general cleaning is underway, followed by grouting and re-pointing to reinforce the wall, and damaged bricks are being consolidated to restrict access of moisture and to present a more unified appearance.
Work component 4: presentation of the monument and its context
Currently the gate is wholly lacking in textual explanation, particularly illuminating the meaning of the visible remains — which are a complicated amalgamation of several distinctive time periods and constructions. A visitor interpretive program and script is being developed.
The last time investment was made in presentation of the site was more than 30 years ago. As part of engineering interventions, complementary and consistent hardscape treatments for paving and walkways are being installed, as well as railings, furniture and signage. The new visual vocabulary is cognizant and sympathetic to the historic remains and the realities of routine maintenance.
Although conceived prior to the current crisis in looting and the destruction of antiquities, SBAH and WMF’s Future of Babylon project has become all the more important for Iraq. At the Ishtar Gate, a template for improving conservation throughout the country is being fashioned, and risk management policies comprise comprehensive documentation not only for conservation purposes, but as archival records of a monument at a given point in time.
World Monuments Fund is grateful to numerous donors who have contributed to the conservation, training and management planning activities for Babylon, including the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, the Paul Mellon Estate, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation and the J. M. Kaplan Fund.