Iraq tourism hangs in balance at Babylon

The words “tourism” and “Iraq” don’t often get used in the same sentence these days, but if a new project to help preserve the historic ruins of Babylon pays off, archaeologists and officials say the country could soon be back on the international travel map.

So far, 2011 has been a good year for Babylon. Work funded by a $2 million U.S. State Department grant to restore two major structures has begun and one of two museums on the site damaged in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion is re-opening.

Home to several other ancient sites, including Ur — the capital of the ancient civilization of Sumeria — Iraq faces a race against time to protect its heritage against looters, environmental hazards and the ravages of modern life.

It is hoped the project at Babylon, whose legendary Hanging Gardens were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, will help foster the skills needed to transform Iraq’s other renowned archaeological sites into a major draw for academics and tourists.

Originally known as Babel, Babylon is mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments in the Bible. The city was the site of the legendary Tower of Babel and features in several Biblical prophecies.

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