Iraq: Age-old building techniques heal Babylon’s climate scars
Babylon – an ancient Mesopotamian city on the Euphrates river once the center of a sprawling empire
Iraqi archaeologists are using 7,000-year-old techniques to protect the temple of Ninmakh – the Sumerian mother goddess – and the rest of the ancient city of Babylon from salt destroying it from within.
Using carefully made desalinated mudbricks, they are repairing the ruins of the UNESCO World Heritage site, which are being corroded by the intrusion of increasingly salty groundwater – a problem linked to prolonged droughts and soil erosion in climate-vulnerable Iraq.
"Salty groundwater is our greatest enemy," said Ammar al-Taee, an archeologist with the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities who calls himself "the guardian of Babylon.”
The ancient Mesopotamian city on the Euphrates river was once the center of a sprawling empire, renowned for its towers and mudbrick temples. Its hanging gardens – built some 2,600 years ago – were one of the seven ancient wonders of the world.
But problems such as salt intrusion, extreme temperatures, flooding, and soil erosion, connected partly to climate change, threaten heritage sites in Iraq and around the world.
Al-Taee and his team learned the months-long process of making low-salt mudbricks from a local artisan who inherited the age-old technique from his father, and they produced their first batch for repairs this year.
Experts scour the ground to find soil with tolerable salt levels, which they “wash” to make it even less salty, al-Taee explained.
Then the mud is mixed with sand, grit, straw, and water, shaped into a large circle, and left to ferment for a month – producing a white, crystalline fringe. The remaining sludge is shaped into bricks and laid out on locally-woven plaited reed mats, giving the blocks a distinct pattern.
After being stacked in the shade of a tree for a couple of days, the bricks are spread out in the sun to bake for a month before being ready for use.