Mohamed Fadel led me in the 110-degree heat through the Ishtar Gate, a soaring blue replica of the original made of blue enamel-glazed bricks and covered with bas-reliefs depicting dragons and bulls. We descended a stone staircase and walked along the Processional Way, the main promenade through ancient Babylon. Fifteen-foot-high mud-brick walls dating back 2,600 years lined both sides of the crumbled thoroughfare, ornamented by original friezes of lions and snake-dragons, symbol of the god Marduk, and carved with cuneiform inscriptions. “They brought down the building material for the promenade by boats along the river,” Fadel, an archaeologist, told me, mopping his forehead in the torpor of the July afternoon. The Euphrates cut right through the heart of the ancient city, he explained. Steep embankments on both sides provided protection from seasonal flooding. Just north of the metropolis flowed Iraq’s other great river, the Tigris, joined to the Euphrates by a latticework of waterways that irrigated the land, creating an agricultural bounty and contributing to Babylon’s unparalleled wealth.
It was here, 3,770 years ago, that King Hammurabi codified one of the world’s earliest systems of laws, erected massive walls, built opulent temples and united all of Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers.” Nebuchadnezzar II, perhaps the city’s most powerful ruler, conquered Jerusalem in 597 B.C. and marched the Jews into captivity (giving rise to the verse from the 137th Psalm: “By the rivers of Babylon / There we sat down and wept / When we remembered Zion”). He also created the Hanging Gardens, those tiered, lavishly watered terraces regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. “In magnificence, there is no other city that approaches [Babylon],” the Greek historian Herodotus declared.
Back in Babylon’s prime, this stretch of the river was a showpiece of water management. “In marching through the country of Babylon,” the scholar Edward Spelman wrote, describing the campaigns of Persia’s Cyrus the Great, “they came to the canals which were cut between the Tigris and the Euphrates, in order, as most [ancient]authors agree, to circulate the waters of the latter, which would otherwise drown all the adjacent country, when the snows melt upon the Armenian mountains.” Edgar J. Banks, an American diplomat and archaeologist, writing of ancient Babylon in 1913, noted that “great canals, as large as rivers, ran parallel with the Tigris and Euphrates, and scores of others intersected the valley, connecting the two streams. There was scarcely a corner of the entire country,” he continued, “which was not well watered; and more than that, the canals served as waterways for the transportation of the crops.”