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Volume 40, Number 3May/June 1989

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A Rebirth

Written and photographed by William Tracy

It is dusk as the international throng of diplomats, musical performers, scholars and journalists disembarks from the cavalcade of cars and buses, funnels through a metal gate at the edge of a parking lot and walks, through gathering shadows, into the past.

Blazing torches, in the hands of sturdy young men in knee-length tunics, beckon the visitors forward. Ahead, more flames, flickering atop a crenelated parapet, mark the line of the dark fortress walls. The path winds gently upward, dips momentarily through a cloud of incense, and passes beneath a massive arch. Onward, between two towering yellow-brick walls, the unearthed processional way of twice-great Babylon stretches dimly golden toward the Gate of Ishtar, named after the mythical goddess of war, fertility and love.

It is the opening night of Iraq's Second Babylon International Festival, held last fall among the ruins of two ancient empires some 90 kilometers (56 miles) south of Baghdad. The pomp and ceremony unfolding before the dignitaries and guests along the brick and bitumen pavement of the processional way are worthy of the romantic setting and its long and resplendent history.

A fanfare of trumpets, the Iraqi national anthem, a reading from the Qur'an - then only the whir of cameras and the stentorian voice of a narrator impose the present on the pageantry of past glories. Files of sandaled warriors in red headbands and red-hemmed white tunics pass by, some carrying spears, others with torches, still others bearing golden ram's horns. A bearded king in red and gold strides forward to meet a princess riding a man-drawn chariot topped with a tasseled parasol. To the sounds of flutes and drums march maidens draped in blue, young men bearded and bewigged, foot soldiers in leather tunics and conical hats, youths with bows and quivers of arrows, young women wearing robes of ruffled orange and carrying graceful lyres. Row upon row they parade by: boys beating stately drums, girls in yellow-fringed togas, small children with tall candles and others with feathery fronds of palms.

The assembled crowd has seen these classic costumes, these noble ancestral faces, before, in schoolbooks and museum friezes. But tonight - on this street, between these walls, before these guttering flames reflected in precious metal and sparkling eyes, surrounded by these rhythms from an earlier age and the scent of perfumed smoke - tonight, for one magic moment, ancient Babylon comes alive again.

In view of the long and tragic war which has beset Iraq and neighboring Iran in recent years, with its staggering human and economic costs, it might seem surprising that Iraq should choose this moment to stage an international festival of music, dance and theater. Indeed, peace talks under the auspices of the United Nations were still under way as the 1988 festival took place. But the First Babylon Festival had been held a year earlier while fighting still raged, and, in fact, throughout the entire tumultuous war the Iraqi government had striven determinedly to keep before its citizens the goals and the fruits of the eventual peace.

From the time of the Mongol invasion in the 13th century until its independence from Ottoman and British rule in this century, Iraq was not in control of its own destiny. Perhaps that is why the nation's vision of itself now seems to reach beyond security and prosperity to a role of cultural prominence. Combining stringent management of its economic assets - petroleum, water and fertile soil - with substantial financial support from regional allies, this nation of some 16 million people, slightly larger than California, sought during the war not only to continue building its health, education, housing, irrigation and transportation infrastructure, but also to maintain its long-time public support of the arts.

Other nations have attempted to balance a guns-and-butter budget with mixed success; with a cease-fire finally in place and peace negotiations continuing, history will judge whether Iraq's resilience can match its will. But it is also history, in this case, which provides the inspiration for Iraq's ambitious, multi-faceted policy.

"The Land Between the Rivers," Mesopotamia, the fertile alluvial plain watered by the Tigris and Euphrates, believed by some to be the site of the Garden of Eden, is almost certainly where civilization was born. Here, by the fourth millennium BC - shortly before similar developments in Egypt's Nile Valley - religion, art, complex political systems and codified law had evolved. Iraq's very name is derived from the Arabic for "origin."

Among the facets of civilization that Mesopotamia originated or developed are writing and mathematics, the potter's wheel, wheeled vehicles, systematic irrigation, astronomy, medicine, currency, the arch, roads, the postal system and libraries. From the time of Sumer, about 3000 BC, to the Islamic Abbasid Dynasty (seventh to 12th centuries of this era), at least five powerful and inventive cultures flourished in this broad valley astride the trade routes between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. Two of the empires, the Babylonian and New Babylonian, or Chaldean, were centered in Babylon (See Aramco World, November-December 1984).

The name Babylon comes from the Akkadian phrase bab ili, translated as "gate of the god" - hence the Biblical name Babel. It referred to the city on the Euphrates in the central plains of Mesopotamia whose patron god was Marduk Bal. Gradually the name Babylonia was applied to a unified empire which included Sumer in the south, with its river delta and its port cities. For much of the period between 2000 and 300 BC Babylon flourished as a religious, administrative and cultural center.

The first Babylonian Empire's most famous ruler, Hammurabi, who ruled for 42 years from about 1800 BC, was noteworthy because of his concern for the welfare of his people. He reformed taxes, improved the network of irrigation canals and systematically organized Babylonian law into some 300 provisions based on the premises that individuals had rights which were to be protected by the authority of the law, and that the strong should not injure the weak. His code of law covered such areas as wages, prices, loans and debts, medical malpractice, false accusation and family rights.

Known today as the Code of Hammurabi, the 3,600 lines of cuneiform writing, first inscribed on a black diorite column some 4,000 years ago, have influenced legal systems throughout the world, and still do so today. The security and prosperity established by the great ruler endured until about 1600 BC.

Babylon's second great period of glory came some 1,000 years later, after the fall of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire to the north. Under the Chaldean King Nebuchadnezzar II (605-563 BC), a descendent of the Arabian Kilde clan, the new Babylonian Empire prospered. Cities were rebuilt and fortified and canals repaired. Trade and industry mushroomed. Nebuchadnezzar II is mentioned in the Old Testament in his political and military roles; in his own records, however, the ruler focused on his exploits as peacemaker, builder and creator. Armchair archeologists remember him as builder of the legendary Hanging Gardens, which the ancient Greeks considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World (See Aramco World, May-June 1980).

During Nebuchadnezzar's reign Babylon achieved its greatest splendor. The Euphrates flowed through the city, whose two sections were joined by a bridge of bricks and tar. Babylon was rectangular, with straight streets crossing at right angles. It was surrounded by two sets of walls, three and four meters (10 and 13 feet) thick; the outer was about 18 kilometers long (11 miles) and the inner about eight (five miles), with ample space between them for the cultivation of food crops in the event of siege. The inner wall was protected by a water-filled moat and bronze gates. Babylon was a city of palaces, with perhaps as many as 53 main temples and many smaller shrines.

Nebuchadnezzar was said to have erected the Hanging Gardens on the flat Mesopotamian plain to console his queen, homesick for her native Median hills. A similar aspiration to reach above the monotonous plains may have accounted for the prominence of the ziggurat in Babylonian religious architecture, stepped towers built of baked bricks with bitumen mortar. Some experts believe the ziggurat at Babylon may have climbed in seven stories to about 91 meters (300 feet) in height, the inspiration for the story of the Tower of Babel.

Little remains of either the famous gardens or the ziggurat in Babylon today, but the past is always present in the Middle East, and the government of present-day Iraq continuously evokes the unparalleled cultural legacy of the Land Between the Rivers to inspire and challenge its citizens: If bitumen - asphalt - was the mortar which 6,000 years ago bound together bricks and paving stones to build the city, let modern petroleum resources rebuild the modern nation as well. As Iraq's Minister of Information and Culture, Latif Nassayef Jassim, said in his welcome address at the 1987 festival, "Those who contribute to civilization will be recorded in the brightest pages of history."

And beyond the additional motivations of domestic stabilization and international image-building implicit in a splendid festival - as valid now as 3,500 years ago - lies the fact that music, dance, theater and art have always been the abstract building blocks humans have used to build towering moral ziggurats above the plains of international conflict.

The guiding hand behind the Babylon International Festival was Munir Bashir, a 58-year-old Iraqi musician described in The New Yorker as "acknowledged world master of the 'ud," comparable as an artist to the late Andrès Segovia, the virtuoso and, in a sense, inventor of the classical guitar. The 'ud, progenitor of the lute and relative of the guitar, originated in seventh-century Iraq. Bashir's travels with it as a performing musician gave him exposure and experience; his enthusiastic support of traditional music and music education in Iraq led to his appointment as director of the Department of Musical Affairs in the Ministry of Culture.

Iraq's initial festival, in September and October of 1987, ran for a full month and featured performing companies from some 30 countries, reflecting both Iraq's geographic position at the intersection of Europe, Asia and Africa and its desire to bridge traditional and modern cultures. But Iraq's most innovative contribution to the Middle Eastern festival scene was the scholarly International Music Symposium on ancient music and musical instruments, held in counterpoint to the public performances.

The selection of Babylon as a historically symbolic and physically suitable site was only possible because of restoration and preservation work carried out in the ancient city since 1978. The wisdom of extensive reconstruction of antiquities is a topic certain to stir debate among archeologists, but in Babylon the need to halt the continuing deterioration of the ruins settled the argument a decade ago.

The earliest Mesopotamian builders lacked metal, timber and, unlike the Egyptians, even stone. They built with the alluvial valley's most abundant resource: mud. Although lengthy excavations by German archeologist Robert Koldeway determined the general plan of Babylon and its principal buildings early in this century, little then remained of the city but its foundations. Erosion caused by wind, rain and the changing course of the Euphrates over two millennia, combined with a high water table and water-borne mineral salts, had crumbled mud-brick structures into dust. Moreover, the more lasting baked bricks of later periods had been "quarried" over centuries to build the homes of nearby villagers, and the famous blue-glazed bricks and molded lion bas-reliefs which once decorated the Ishtar Gate itself had been carried off to East Berlin's Pergamon Museum by their discoverers.

With the impetus of the festival, the pace and scale of preservation and restoration already under way at Babylon increased dramatically. In the past two years, according to The Baghdad Observer, workers have laid some 15 million Babylonian-style baked bricks, slightly larger than today's standard building bricks. Archeological evidence, cuneiform texts and the descriptions of historians such as Herodotus guided the reconstruction, according to Antiquities and Heritage Director Dr. Mu'ayyad Sa'eed. Work focused first on the Processional Way and the Ishtar Gate, the Temples of Ishtar, Nabushakhari and Ninmakh, and the fourth-century-BC Greek-style theater - built during the eastern campaigns of Alexander the Great, who died in Babylon.

Last year, the 5,000-square-meter (54,000-square-foot) Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II was restored. This so-called Southern Palace, from the seventh century BC, includes five major courtyards, 250 rooms and a brick entry arch 30 meters (100 feet) high. The throne room, called Al-'Arsh (Crown) Hall, is a 15- by 50-meter courtyard (50 by 160 feet) that serves as one festival auditorium; the more intimate Ninmakh Temple, honoring the mother goddess, is a second. The Babylonian Theater, used in ancient times for wrestling and public games, was restored to a height of 15 semicircular banks of seats accommodating 2,500 persons.

During the 1988 festival, all three venues were kept busy, with one or two different national groups performing in each on every evening. Again about 30 countries participated, but this year the time frame was condensed to 10 days. Music and dance companies from 10 Arab nations were scheduled, along with 14 East- and West-European groups, performers from Japan, China, India and Turkey and, representing the Americas, guitarist Maria Liva Sao Marcos of Brazil and the United States's Jeff Gardner Jazz Quartet.

Despite the packed schedule, second-time festival visitors commented that organizers had smoothed out many, if not all, of the 1987 inaugural season's wrinkles. Evidence of their planning was apparent. A special train made the Baghdad-Babylon round trip each evening, parking was ample, mobile Red Crescent clinics were set up on the grounds, museum exhibits and cafes were open, numerous kiosks sold iced drinks, and Iraqi handicrafts were displayed and sold in a colorful nomad tent.

Festival managers made the Babylonian Theater's brick seats plushly comfortable by spreading woolen tribal carpets in natural white, blacks and browns over thick cushions. In Al-'Arsh Hall and the Ninmakh Temple the cushions padded handsome palm-frond wicker arm-chairs.

France and Hungary sent ballet companies to the festival, as did the Soviet Union, whose Leningrad Ballet presented a daring interpretation of Valery Gavrilin's modernistic Duel, followed by a bubbling dance production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night by Donizetti, which choreographer Boris Eifman likened to a sparkling toast. Austria sent pianist Paul Moser; Poland presented chamber music. Sudan was represented by a troupe of acrobats, The Netherlands by Slagwerk, an avant-garde percussion group, and Norway by the Glamos Folk Group, whose period-costumed dancers and fiddlers smiled their way through lively routines with flushed pink cheeks: Even in late September the brick walls of Al-'Arsh Hall radiated back a day's accumulation of solar heat into the night.

The Opera of Rome presented Rossini's Barber of Seville to an enthusiastic audience and England changed the pace with the rock group Hurrah, which played the Babylon Festival as part of a British Council-sponsored Middle East tour, accompanied by a BBC reporter and a writer-photographer team from Britain's hip, upscale magazine Sky.

Egypt sent both a folklore ensemble and a theatrical troupe, the Arab Theatrical Union, with popular screen actor Mahmoud Yasin starring in Wa-Oudsah, a highly stylized drama about Palestinian aspirations and the only overtly political note on the festival program. Accompanied by the Tariq Farid Orchestra, the Alexandria Folklore Troupe, directed by Hassen Abu Shanab, presented a colorful and contagiously light-hearted program which idealized village friendships and camaraderie like a Middle Eastern adaptation of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. In one delightful dance a fisherman wound up hooked, after proper - but token - resistance, by a winsome village maiden.

Tunisia's Mahadat Rashidi Troupe featured a chorus dressed in tuxedos and white evening gowns and accompanied by violins, cellos and bass viol - but with a classically Middle Eastern sound. Two young female soloists were warmly received and male vocalist Lutfi Bushnak set the audience alight. But it was Shbelia Rashid, like an Eastern Ella Fitzgerald, who had the crowd swaying and clapping to her rhythms. In the Babylonian Theater a little girl in a yellow dress danced unselfconsciously in the aisles, then dashed up the steps onto the stage. To the cheers of her fans, Shbelia bestowed on the child a kiss to remember for a lifetime, shooed her good-naturedly off the stage - and never skipped a beat.

Host Iraq presented various traditional music and dance groups in all three theaters on six different evenings, but foreign visitors were most surprised by the Iraqi National Symphony, now in its fourth decade and conducted at Babylon by Soviet maestro Yuri Aliev. The 60 men and women of the orchestra included conservatory students and their teachers; in a concert at the Ninmakh Temple they played "Greeting to Babylon," by Azerbaijani composer Ali Sade, Joseph Haydn's Concerto for Oboe, featuring soloist Leis Abdul Remy, and Beethoven's Second Symphony in D major.

In the international audience, on opening night as on other nights of the festival, a few blue berets stood out - the headgear of off-duty officers and men of the United Nations truce observation and support forces. Above their heads in the southeastern sky the waxing moon, like Ishtar emerging from the underworld, was rising above the proscenium, and beside it, orange Mars. The Romans, first stirring in Babylon's latter years, had identified the planet with their god of war, and fittingly, on this very night, Mars had begun to pull away from its closest approach to Earth in 17 years. Surely this was a portent - though few in the packed theater but romantics and poets thought such thoughts as television cameras began to carry the show live to a nationwide Iraqi audience - and record much of it, too, for rebroadcast throughout the Gulf states and the rest of the Arab world.

There were encores for all the opening-night performances, but the term "encore" takes on new meaning in ancient Babylon. As the Babylon Festival continues into its third and subsequent seasons, these ruins beside the Euphrates, witness to a civilization over 6,000 years old, echo again to the sounds and sights of music, dance and drama. For a few glittering weeks each year, Babylon the splendid is reborn.

William Tracy, a lecturer on Islam and Middle Eastern affairs, is a former assistant editor of Aramco World and remains a frequent contributor.

Marjorie Krebs Tracy is a research librarian living in Austin, Texas.

Notes on a First Encounter
Written and illustrated by Marjorie Krebs Tracy

The warm smiles of the Iraqis, their courtesy and their vivid, living sense of history were the strongest impressions of my first visit to the Middle East.

Just one week after our wedding, my husband and I were in restored Babylon to report on the Second Babylon Festival. A young journalist from South Yemen discovered that we were recently married, and playfully quoted, "Shahr al-`asal, shahr al-basal" He explained the Middle Eastern saying, which describes what a honeymoon may be: "A month of honey, [or] a month of onions" Iraq helped make ours a shahr al-'asal.

The first night of the festival was designed to transport us into the past. The ancient roadway was flanked by dozens of men dressed as Sumerian soldiers, holding tall torches against the darkness. As I walked along the torchlit road in a long, white Moroccan cotton dress, I imagined myself a woman of 3000 BC. The pageantry of the festival emphasized the ancient cultures and their value to Iraq today.

The tie between past and present is particularly well portrayed at Baghdad's beautiful Iraq Museum. The museum windows are made of modern glass bricks, but each block is imprinted with what appears to be the cuneiform writing of ancient times.

As I wandered through room after room of relics of some of the most ancient cultures known, I realized that the faces of the museum figures are also the faces of today's Iraqis. We watched a young woman gazing at an ancient statuette; the two faces shared the same large eyes and gentle smile.

Perhaps one can see the value of eye-contact between people more clearly in a country where one doesn't speak the language. I found myself watching eyes more than ever before. Women paint their eyes to emphasize their loveliness; the children's eyes are lively and expressive.

The eyes of an old shopkeeper in the suq were wonderfully kind. We were looking at several misbahas - prayer beads or "worry beads." I knew I could not pay the price he was asking, and I said so. He simply said, "What would you like to pay?" and when I stated a much lower price, told me, "They're yours." He was presenting me with a gift, and I was grateful. His eyes were the same color as the sandalwood of the beads.

On a street corner in the suq another old man sold roughly cut squares of sweet-smelling olive-oil soap. The cakes were stacked in boxes and bags on the sidewalk beside him. He was doing a lively business: People were buying 10 or 12 bars at a time. When he saw us watching him, he smilingly scrubbed at his head with his hands as if to say, "It's good for your hair." He was clean-scrubbed himself - a good advertisement - so we bought a dozen bars. Friends who went to buy soap the next day could not find him; I visualized him at home in his village, making more soap to bring to the Baghdad market.

Boys walked through the narrow streets with trays of hot tea in small, tapered glasses. In one shop where we were buying note cards, the tea-seller had just delivered three glasses to the proprietor and his two friends. The day was hot, and when the merchant saw me thirstily eyeing the glasses he insisted on giving his to me. I have never tasted a better or more welcome drink. Later, when another merchant hailed one of the teasellers and offered us two glasses of the strong, sweet drink, the boy waited politely, looking as if he had all day, while we sat in chairs on the sidewalk, stirred and drank our tea, and finally returned his glasses.

A radio reporter who was interviewing visitors to the festival asked my impression of women's roles in Baghdad. A friend told me later that the interviewer had hoped I would comment on the new freedom of women. I hadn't thought to speak about it because the women I had seen seemed to be very much as women everywhere I've been - working as tour guides, hotel desk clerks, bank clerks, airline stewardesses, or hostesses in dining rooms. On the street, most wore Western clothing; those in black abayas were usually older. Every day a rather jovial young woman in a billed cap and work pants tended the hotel flower gardens.

When my husband spoke his "simplified" Arabic, people responded with amused, but very kind, smiles. We talked one evening with five or six young, off-duty soldiers. "Teach us an American phrase," they said, and he taught them to say, "I play football." It wrenched my heart to think how those friendly boys had been threatened by the war so recently over. They were so open, carefree and handsome.

At the festival's music symposium we talked again with bright teenage boys, students of the 'ud master Munir Bashir. Gently and a little shyly they asked us questions and answered ours. We asked them about their schoolwork and their music, and with proud smiles they generously edged one boy forward: "Here is the best student - he plays the 'ud better than any of us." Their open admiration was refreshing.

We came back from Babylon with photographs of the festival, the dancers and the theaters, but the pictures in my mind are of the warm smiles of the people I encountered in Iraq - the young soldiers, the students, the woman in the garden and the kindly old bead seller in the suq .

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the May/June 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1989 images.