The his­tory of the world and a ho­tel in Baby­lon

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

If you have the chance, Austin, make sure you visit Baby­lon,” an IraqiAmer­i­can friend told me a month be­fore I left the States for mil­i­tary duty in Bagh­dad. “We,” he said, mean­ing Iraq and Iraqis, “have so much his­tory.”

We — my friend and I — were drink­ing cof­fee in a book­store. I had a news­pa­per at my el­bow. He’d brought a map of Bagh­dad, to show me the neigh­bor­hood where he’d lived years ago, should I have the op­por­tu­nity (hel­met, flak jacket, es­cort of ar­mored ve­hi­cles) to drive around the city and have a look.

“Well, you can make a case that Iraq, as Me­sopotamia, is the source of his­tory, at least West­ern his­tory,” I replied. “I mean, as in recorded his­tory? Lit­er­acy? Records on clay tablets record­ing goat and sheep trades kept by Me­sopotamian city states?” I tapped the news­pa­per — which, given the war, fea­tured a head­line re­port­ing a string of ter­ror bomb­ings in and around Bagh­dad.

“Sumer and Ur, home of Abra­ham […] Ninevah […] Me­sopotamia — per­haps the south­ern marshes — as the source of the Agri­cul­tural Revo­lu­tion? […] Alexan­der at Gaugamela […]”

Cov­er­ing five or six mil­len­nia in a con­ver­sa­tion over cof­fee is im­pos­si­ble, but with Iraqi his- tory as the topic, that’s roughly the time span avail­able for com­ment and spec­u­la­tion — and we gave it a go, fully aware I’d soon join yet an­other army op­er­at­ing in his­tory’s cra­dle.

Then he said: “Iraq should not make money by only sell­ing oil. “what if” based on hope, not de­spair.

While on duty in Iraq, I vis­ited Baby­lon twice — Ba­bil, the lo­cals call it. I didn’t go as a tourist on a whim, I was un­der or­ders, as a colonel from a higher head­quar­ters vis­it­ing the

On a stump of a hill over­look­ing ru­ins sits a palace playpen Sad­dam built for him­self and his homi­ci­dal sons — a work of cruel mar­ble kitsch. I re­mem­ber telling a sol­dier walk­ing with me that that the place was a hideous eye­sore, but Sad­dam, who

“Yeah, so we deal with it, huh?” I said. Then, think­ing of my Iraqi friend’s en­tre­pre­neur­ial as­pi­ra­tion and know­ing war zones aren’t for tourists, I added, “When some­one turns that palace into a lux­ury ho­tel, you’ll know we’re well on our way to victory.”

That was 2004. It’s 2009. In the last six months, as the Iraqi gov­ern­ment so­lid­i­fies its victory over al-Qaida’s mur­der­ers, Sad­dam’s thugs and Ira­nian-backed gangs, there are tan­ta­liz­ing signs Iraq’s tourist in­dus­try has be­gun to re­vive. In Fe­bru­ary, Iraq re-opened its Na­tional Mu­seum, which was dam­aged and looted when Bagh­dad fell in April 2003. Greece re­cently of­fered fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance and tech­ni­cal aid to help Iraqis re­store and de­velop dam­aged ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites and re­vamp mu­se­ums. In late 2007 — when the Iraqis knew they were winning — the Iraqi min­is­ter of tourism said Iraq needed to in­crease its avail­able ho­tel space by “three or four times” in or­der to be able to han­dle the rise in tourism he an­tic­i­pated.

Ten years was my Iraqi friend’s guess — 2014. But based on mar­ket sig­nals, it’s time he con­tacted a com­mer­cial real es­tate agent in Ba­bil.

Austin Bay is a na­tion­ally syndicated colum­nist.

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