03 May 2009

Babylon to Reopen

The Babil provincial government plans to reopen Babylon to visitors, as the New York Times reports today:

Colonial archaeologists packed off its treasures to Europe a century ago. Saddam Hussein rebuilt the site in his own megalomaniacal image. American and Polish troops turned it into a military camp, digging trenches and filling barricades with soil peppered with fragments of a biblical-era civilization.

Now, the provincial government in Babil has seized control of much of Babylon — unlawfully, according to the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage — and opened a park beside a branch of the Euphrates River, a place that draws visitors by the busload.
It seems that Iraq, like several other Mediterranean nations with lots of tourism potential, has created a single Ministry that deals with antiquities and tourism. While in theory such a move can provide more resources and better planning to archaeological sites, in practice there are serious conflicts of interest. Dollar signs start dancing in the heads of local governments and tourism operators, who don't necessarily have any interest or expertise in the absurd amount of conservation and maintenance that a site like Babylon requires.

In Iraq, it seems like the new Ministry overlaps to some degree with the functions of
the Ministry of Culture:

The agencies clashed over the reopening of the National Museum in Baghdad in February, and then as now, the tourism ministry, which favored reopening, prevailed. Its power stems not from the Constitution, but from proximity to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who has pressed for reopening historic and cultural sites as symbols of the country’s stability and progress. His government made control of ancient sites a provision in the security agreement with the United States that took effect in January. Next month, the American military will turn over the last of them, Ur, the ancient Sumerian capital in southern Iraq.

“Our goal is that these sites will be tourist attractions — to convey the real, civilized image of Iraq and to bring as many tourists as possible,” said the tourism ministry’s director, Qahtan al-Jibouri. “Iraq needs another source of funding in addition to oil.”
Mr. al-Jibouri is entirely correct. But "as many tourists as possible" will not be a sustainable source of income without good site management planning and stable political institutions to ensure it. At the moment, Iraq appears to have neither.

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