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Iraqis Are Getting To Know Historic Site Of Babylon Better Through Tourism

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Some Iraqis are getting to know their country better through tourism. A prime site for them is one that's intrigued the world for millennia - Babylon. The vast expanse of mazelike walls, monuments and crumbling stone mounds is on the banks of the Euphrates River. NPR's Alice Fordham joined a tour to see who was going to check it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in Arabic).

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: The palace of Nebuchadnezzar has seen a lot over the millennia. Empires have risen and fallen. Foreign archaeologists and generations of looters have carted off its treasures. The late dictator Saddam Hussein rebuilt many of the walls with bricks bearing his name on top of the sprawling ruins.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in Arabic).

FORDHAM: Today a tour group with a musician is visiting.

FURQAN FOUAD: It's, like, great. It's my first time coming here. And I'm very interested in history because I'm a novelist.

FORDHAM: Furqan Fouad is 21, one of a busload down from Baghdad to enjoy the mild winter sunshine and learn more about the Babylonians who feature in her sci-fi fantasy novel.

FOUAD: They were like, very, very smart. Like, you think, oh, 3,000 years ago - that's, like, long ago. But no, they are, like, cultured and smart. And they, you know, in astronomy and all the science, they were good. So I like it, and I'm very happy to be here and to know more about my country.

FORDHAM: The group is guided by someone from the Tourism Ministry who says he needs permission to speak to media but can chat if I don't use his name.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking in Arabic).

FORDHAM: He remembers with a wince when American forces, in the wake of the 2003 invasion, built a base on part of the site, their heavy vehicles damaging the palace.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking in Arabic).

FORDHAM: Ali Makhzomy is the founder of Bil Weekend, the tour company taking people around the ruins.

ALI AL MAKHZOMY: My family started this, like, feeding me with books, feeding me with love of heritage and culture.

FORDHAM: He tells me by phone he wants all Iraqis to appreciate their history.

MAKHZOMY: We inherited this pride. We inherited this treasure, and I feel it like a responsibility for me to continue to complete this somehow.

FORDHAM: His company also goes to Ur, believed to be the birthplace of Abraham, and to marshlands where people live on islands and sleek buffaloes swim through grasses. As more people visit, new hotels have opened, though their numbers go up and down. There's been the pandemic and intermittent security concerns, but Makhzomy says it's worth it.

MAKHZOMY: Something new, something needed, you know? Like, the young generation - again, the turning point of Iraq is the young generation, which is now, like, all 20s and early 30s.

ABDULLAH AL KHATEEB: I'm 25 years old now, and it's like - I feel like it's a pity that I didn't come here because when I came, it was, like, magic - really, really, I liked it so much.

FORDHAM: Abdullah al Khateeb says people would put off day trips like this because the area saw so much violence, but it has improved now. He's here with his friend Sultan Ali. They took selfies in front of the garish replica here of the famous Ishtar Gate, with its blue tiles and fabulous beasts. But Sultan has visited the original in a German museum.

SULTAN ALI: I have been there, and I saw this gate - how huge it is. I felt actually sad because this is our thing, our history, our civilization, our everything.

FORDHAM: But he thinks security here isn't quite good enough for it to be returned anytime soon.

ALI: It's like a twist. I want this. I don't want it at the same time. I know if they will bring it back, it will be destroyed or it will be stolen because, you know, here, the safety things are still not in the highest level. So we have to wait.

FORDHAM: After the ruins, the group picnics by the Euphrates River and takes a little boat ride. They wander around the shell of another palace, the one Saddam Hussein built for himself here. A guide writes their names in Babylonian on clay tablets. Instantly, photos of the ancient script glow bright on their Instagram feeds.

Alice Fordham, NPR News, Babylon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.