Skip to comments.Road trip to Babylon boosts troops' morale
Posted on 04/23/2003 3:04:01 PM PDT by Ligeia
Road trip to Babylon boosts troops' morale
By DENNIS O'BRIEN, The Virginian-Pilot
© April 23, 2003
Last updated: 3:30 AM
|Near the reconstructed arch of Ishtar, Navy chaplains and their escorts begin exploring ancient Babylon to gain perspective for their sermons. Photo by Dennis O'Brien / The Virginian-Pilot.
The Marines were sent on a one-day road trip Tuesday, and what better place to visit when you've conquered ancient Mesopotamia than its legendary capital, Babylon.
The journey at least temporarily soothed their homesick spirits, but there was a legitimate mission behind the assignment as well. The company's light-armored reconnaissance vehicles were to escort the regimental chaplain on a trip that would give him the biblical perspective of having been at the scene where so many Old Testament tales took place -- the Tower of Babel, Daniel and the lions' den, Queen Esther.
The weather was perfect: blue skies, temps in the low 80s. And before leaving the camp site, Capt. Greg Grunwald issued his troops numerous 36-count boxes of Skittles sent by Morale, Welfare and Recreation officers in the rear. The candy is not intended for the Marines to eat; instead, it is designed to boost their morale in another way -- by having them toss the candy to Iraqi children. And seeing those smiling faces is indeed a morale booster.
Mile after mile, it was hard to tell who enjoyed the candy toss more -- the gleeful kids who ran from their fields and up driveways to chase down the red packets lobbed to them, or the combat veterans raining goodies as they passed.
Once in Babylon, about 90 kilometers south of Baghdad, it was clear that the children aren't the only Iraqis glad to see Americans.
``The Iraqi people thank you forever,'' said Alaa Kahdum Saeed, standing outside the reconstructed Gate of Ishtar, a towering arch of blue ceramic tiles and gilded figures that honors the goddess of fertility.
``If we live or we died, we thank the American people,'' Saeed said. ``Iraq was a prison before. Now we see freedom.''
Viewing himself as the inheritor of Mesopotamian glory, Saddam Hussein partially restored Babylon, creating a kind of Colonial Williamsburg built atop original ruins. He capped the project by building himself an enormous palace that overlooks the capital of the ancient ruins; the palace is now the command post of an American general.
Below, Charlie company explored. The famed Tower of Babel was just a large mound, and the legendary Hanging Gardens could not be found, but the sense of history was profound. In this place, Hammurabi composed civilization's first written legal code. Here was the heart of the Fertile Crescent -- still lush in this part, with acre after acre of date palms and irrigated farmland. Here was where Alexander the Great exhaled his last breath in what he made the center of an empire stretching from India to Europe.
``Words can't describe it -- the history of this place is just overwhelming,'' said Charlie Company Cpl. Rey Narvaiz of Houston. ``I stood on Alexander the Great's throne and got a picture of it.''
It was a reconstructed throne, however, one meant to be explored by tourists from around the world. Babylon was rebuilt in the hopes of catering to a thriving tourist trade, but few people actually came to the city, said a local man who identified himself as Hadr, and claimed to be a former official for the ousted regime.
According to Hadr, the excavation of Babylon began in 1979 and the rebuilding started in 1982, while Iraq was in the throes of war with Iran. Then came the war with America in 1991, and then this one. The tourists that did come were from Europe or Japan, Hadr said.
Hadr volunteered to give a guided tour of the ruins to Protestant chaplains Lt. Cmdr. Gordon Ritchie of Battle Creek, Mich., and Lt. Brian Waite of Dallas. The men took him up on the offer and roamed the high-walled alleys and peered into reconstructed temples while Hadr offered commentary that the preachers found a little lacking.
``It was very secular, not much at all about the Judeo-Christian tradition, and most of the presentation focused on the reconstruction, rather than the history,'' Ritchie said. ``As an amateur archaeologist, I was more interested in the real history.''
Hadr's tour ended at the Ishtar gate and the site's looted and burned souvenir shop just inside. Hadr explained that during the war, people from neighboring villages ransacked Babylon's shop, restaurant, museum, classrooms and offices, which they saw not for their cultural value but as signs of the regime.
With the fall of the government and the destruction of the ancient site's offices, Hadr lost his livelihood and the only way he has had to provide for his family. He asked, humbly, if the chaplain's procession could offer him something for his tour.
``Oh, sure, of course!'' said Waite, who pulled out five dollars, as did translator Lance Cpl. Michael Duberry of Albuquerque.
``Whoa!'' said Ritchie, pulling two singles from a wallet fat with greenbacks. ``That's about a month's wages here. You don't want to overdo it.''
(Note to self: There's an idea for a tourist attraction.)
He's a poet, and he don't even know it.
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|Near the reconstructed arch of Ishtar, Navy chaplains and their escorts begin exploring ancient Babylon to gain perspective for their sermons. Photo by Dennis O'Brien / The Virginian-Pilot.|
Better than the movie I reckon...
Agreed. I've enjoyed his dispatches better than any other American embed I can think of. Rex Bowman of the Richmond Times-Dispatch continues to file interesting reports as well even though he's returned home. The calibre of the MadIvan posts are also top notch, and far more imaginative and informative than anything coming from the AP or Reuters.
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Archaeology/Anthropology/Ancient Cultures/Artifacts/Antiquities, etc.