By the Rivers of Babylon We Sat and Ate

08 January 2004

Our convoy of GMC trucks freed itself from the gnarled traffic of south Baghdad and burst onto the open highway with an ancient destination in mind.  At 90 miles an hour we zoomed through the fertile plain that lies between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  The sun illuminated a clear blue sky that gave warmth to women toiling in verdant fields of juicy melons and colorful vegetables.  It fed the fronds of a million date palms standing shoulder to shoulder in loose regiments as far as the eye could see.  Surprisingly well-kept, handsome houses made of brown concrete commanded pastures populated by cows and sheep and goats. 

Deeper and deeper into the Fertile Crescent we drove; the weariness and dilapidation of Baghdad slipping away with each passing mile.  We were in another Iraq now.  An Iraq of sunshine and date palms, of green grass and stately rivers, of clean air and gentle breezes.  A quieter Iraq where the clatter of Man gives way to the sounds of the good earth; wind in the trees, the chirping of birds, the swaying of grain, and the occasional bark of a collarless dog whose call rolls out along the lush organic green carpet that stretches all the way down to the Garden of Eden, Shatt-al-Arab.

But Eden was not our goal that day.  Instead we were bound for Babylon.  Babylon, where Hammurabi gave the world its first codified legal system.  Babylon, with its proud tower that reached toward heaven.  Babylon, with its wonderful hanging gardens.  Babylon, where Nebuchadnezzar brought the chosen people into captivity from Jerusalem.  Babylon, where Daniel read the “writing on the wall” and was later thrown into the lions’ den, but was spared through the Lord’s mercy.  Babylon, where Alexander the Great breathed his last.

Once the most populated, most important metropolis in the world, hardly anything of the original fabled city remains.  Had not Saddam Hussein built, to his credit, a fantastic, to-scale reproduction, nothing would be in Babylon save for crumbled walls and toppled, empty pedestals; a reminder of what eventually becomes of all great nations.  So many empires have washed across and receded from that fertile Mesopotamian plain; Chaldeans, Persians, Greeks, Arabs, Mongols, Turks, and British to name a few.  The freshest ink now belongs to the Americans and the name “Bush” takes its place among Cyrus the Great and Suleman the Magnificent.

The two main archaeological treasures of Babylon, Hammurabi’s Code and the Ishtar Gate, rest thousands of miles away in European museums.  I was 14 the first time I laid eyes on the black obelisk of Hammurabi in the Louvre in Paris in 1986.  Twice hence have I visited it, in 1992 and 2002; the three pictures show a smooth and polished artifact that always looks the same, and a person, nostalgically, who does not.  In Bablyon, there is a modern painting of Hammurabi’s Code on a wall near the entrance.  This struck me as sad, like a photograph of a lost loved-one kept on a mantle piece.  

At present a Coalition force, led by the Poles, occupies Babylon.  They seem to live quite comfortably in the green grass alongside the Euphrates, beneath the sun and palms.  It is appropriate in the city where God forever fractured the common language of Man, that there are now Poles, Dutch, Spaniards, Brits, and others struggling to communicate with each other in their mess halls and planning tents. 

Before leaving Babylon, we stopped at a Polish army fuel point to top off our vehicles.  No one was manning the gasoline truck, so we got out to work it ourselves.  None of us could figure out how to operate it, and thus we found ourselves in a reverse Polish joke.  How many Americans does it take to operate a Polish fuel truck?  We all got a laugh out of that one.  Eventually a Slavic soldier came to our rescue and we moved out of the city, racing the setting sun on our way back home, the way so many visitors to this land have done before us.