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Story highlights

ISIS has ransacked museums, bulldozed ancient cities, destroying human history

But the ancient city of Babylon is out of their reach in Iraq's Shiite region

(CNN) —  

ISIS has smashed priceless ancient statues in Mosul, bulldozed the ruins of Nineveh and Hatra, and dynamited centuries-old churches, mosques and shrines.

In a battle between Iraqi forces and ISIS over control of Tikrit recently, the tomb of Saddam Hussein was squashed to rubble, though it’s not clear which side did it.

Luckily, the ancient city of Babylon is outside the extremists’ grasp, south of Baghdad. For nearly 5,000 years it has stood as a symbol of the glory of ancient Mesopotamian civilization.

Saddam Hussein renovated the ruins in the 1980s, leaving his own crude personal stamp on the bricks there. They bear his name and describe him as the son of Nebuchadnezzar, who had the reputation of being ancient Babylon’s greatest king.

One of Hussein’s former palaces still peers down over the city.

But it continues to be source of great pride for Iraqis who see themselves as the heirs of the world’s oldest civilization.

Appalling destruction

And many Iraqis know better than to buy the claims of their deposed despot. “This wasn’t Saddam’s,” said Adnan Abu Fatima. “It belonged to our grandfathers, the Babylonians.”

Abu Fatima strolled through the ruins with his family. Saddam’s vain brick inscriptions may annoy him, but ISIS’ destruction appalls him.

“The Mosul museum was destroyed. Why?” he wants to know from ISIS. “That is the heritage of your grandfathers. Why did you do that?”

The defacers’ reasoning? The artifacts, some of the oldest in ancient civilization, are from the “age of ignorance,” ISIS says, before the advent of Islam.

National identity

Antiquity is an integral part of Iraq’s national identity. History is measured there not in centuries but in millennia, and Iraqi’s take such vandalism to heart.

They’ve had to watch since the U.S. invasion in 2003 how artifacts have been stolen. Baghdad’s museum was plundered, during a lapse in U.S. security, and the priceless artifacts were smuggled around the world.

The U.S. State Department has announced it will return more than 60 items on Monday, which had been sneaked into the United States.

Defending antiquity

Safa ad-Din Hassan and other parents took Iraqi scouts on a camping trip near Babylon to teach them about their history and make ancient artwork with them.

Hassan fled Mosul when ISIS overran it last year then later ransacked the museum. “When I saw what happened, I was determined to come her to preserve our antiquities from ISIS,” he said.

Iraq will defend its heritage against ISIS, said Mohamed Hattab from Iraq’s Antiquities Department. “Babylon is our soul.”

It’s a soul under assault by latter day barbarians, who have destroyed much of it in the North, which has been out of the defensive reach of Iraqi soldiers.

Saddam’s tomb destroyed

The military has started a drive to retake Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit from the extremists. After the rage of a battle subsided, they moved in to the outskirt town of Awja to find the former dictator’s tomb flattened.

Video of soldiers standing on top of it was posted to YouTube. They celebrated the posthumous slap against their former tormentor. One man fired shots into the rubble toward Hussein’s grave site.

It was a piece of history they were glad to part with.

CNN’s Ben Wedeman reported and wrote from Babylon, and Ben Brumfield reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Yousuf Basil contributed to this report.