Wonders of the Ancient World…

15th November 2008

A new British Museum exhibition reveals the reality behind the legends of Babylon, a civilisation whose true story is still being unfolded by archaeologists and historians. Jack Watkins explores the show as it opens.

Taking a pop at the US suddenly looks, in modern parlance, ‘so last month’, following the election of Barak Obama, but there is good reason for having a last fling at the British Museum’s new Babylon exhibition. How’s this for an example of the crass insensitivity of the Coalition forces in the Iraq War? Since the birth of that nation in 1918, the ancient civilisation of Babylon had been a symbol of pride for the emergent culture, its iconography used on stamps and bank notes. Saddam Hussein built himself up as an inheritor of the traditions of the old kings and erected a – by most accounts, pretty awful, and damaging – palace for himself using its motifs. But when the British and Americans invaded, where was a military camp parked but right in the middle of one of the most important archaeological sites in the world – the centre of the ancient city of Babylon. John Curtis, keeper of the British Museum’s Middle East department, has compiled a report into the destruction caused by the troops. He likens it to building a camp next to Stonehenge, or within the shadows of the Great Pyramid.

Discussion of this cultural barbarity is kept to the last room of the exhibition. Several early reviews of the show have scarcely mentioned it. But the guilty shouldn’t be allowed to get off lightly. Military vehicles ripped though what remained of the Processional Way that once led to Nebuchadnezzar’s palace; helipads and fuel spills created further damage. Trenches were dug, and potentially valuable archaeological deposits unceremoniously stuffed into sandbags. Souvenir hunters appear to have taken the opportunity to extract bricks from reliefs of decorative lions and dragons along the Way.

The British Museum is now working with the UN and Iraqi archaeologists to assess the damage, and the area has been nominated for World Heritage Status. But much has been lost that can never be regained or restored, and for this disgrace ‘the allies’ must be expected to make full reparation.

It’s a surprise – or perhaps it isn’t – that this modern sacking and looting of Babylon has not been more fully reported. But perhaps the intangibility of Babylonian culture has something to do with it, a feeling that its past is as much rooted in myth as reality. The exhibition sets out to prove that what actually happened is as interesting as the fable. If it doesn’t quite succeed, it’s a great tale just the same.

The focus is concentrated on the period of King Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 BC) – in reality the Indian summer of an ageing empire – at a time when it stretched from the Persian Gulf in the east, to Gaza in the west, and from Armenia in the north to the Arabian deserts in the south. The city itself was not far from modern Baghdad, but for centuries all we knew about it came from the Bible and the descriptions of Greek writers.

The story of the Tower of Babel is one of the Book of Genesis’s most recounted chapters, and the structure really did exist. The people themselves called it Etemenanki – ‘the foundation platform of heaven and earth’. Traditional, stepped tower-temples, or ziggurats, had dominated the skyline of ancient Iraq for hundreds of years, but Nebuchadnezzar’s seems to have been on a mightier scale, to judge from a wooden model here – at least seven storeys, or steps, rising 70m high from a 91m sq base, with great stairways and battlements. It was so well made that its high quality baked bricks were recycled in the centuries after the fall of the city for other buildings. The last remains were removed by locals digging a well in the 1880s. As you walk into the exhibition rooms, a small aerial photo on your right shows all that can be seen today, a dark square marking its footprint, ‘a few ditches filled with murky water’.

Genesis does not actually describe the collapse of Babel, but as a symbol of man’s hubris it’s proved irresistiblefor artists ever since, and the absence of an idea of what it actually looked like allowed imaginations to run riot. Pieter Brueghel took the Colosseum in Rome as a model, but one of the most memorable depictions is an etching by Cornelis Anthonisz from 1547 showing its edifice splitting and crumbling under a divine bolt of lightning. Even today the idea of Babel inspires artists. One oil canvas here by Michael Lassel, painted as recently as 2001, shows it as a tower of shoes.

Another of the great architectural set pieces was the Processional Way, leading to the Ishtar Gate. Much of this was excavated years ago and recreated by German scholars in Berlin. All we have here is another scale model but, flanked by some of the original enamelled wall panels, it’s a striking indication of its grandeur. Nebuchadnezzar passed down this route on ceremonial processions. The panels show lions and ‘angry snake’ dragons, whose bodies combined elements of serpents, lions and eagles. The whole ensemble has echoes of later Arab architecture and design motifs that have been marvelled at by Western visitors – as opposed to armies – to the East for centuries.

The Greeks were in awe of Babylon because they built little on the same scale for their own, much smaller, cities. Herodotus wrote that the Walls of Babylon were so large they built houses on top, with enough space between each to turn a chariot. Archaeologists have since confirmed their extent, in some places 8m thick.

Then there were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Of the Seven Wonders of the World listed by the Greeks, the Gardens are the only one whose location has never been found. What on earth could they have looked like, and how could they have been watered in such arid terrain? Greek accounts differ, but they were described as suspended, or raised on terraces to simulate hillside. Once again it was carte blanche for verdant artistic imaginings. One engraving shows them with the classical arches, terraces, fountains and formal gardens of a Renaissance palace.

The picture of Babylon as a den of lust and debauchery stems from the Jews’ hatred of their conquerors. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem in 586BC, carrying off into enslavement the tribes of Judah – the Babylonish Captivity – and actually forcibly deploying them on the construction of many of the marvels encountered in this exhibition.
The king eventually went mad, according to the Book of Daniel, reduced to eating grass like a beast of the fields. William Blake’s depiction of him as part man, part beast, a picture of confusion, fear and despair, rather than of evil, is here, but so too is a Dead Sea Scroll tablet that suggests it was actually a later king, Nabonidus, who suffered from insanity.

According to Daniel, the fall of Babylon (539BC) was prophesied by Belshazzar at a feast, just before the dramatic storming of the city by the Persians occurred. It was fantastically dramatised in a compelling painting of the massive pillared city by John Martin in 1820. At a time when London itself was being likened to a corrupted modern reincarnation of Babylon, this image had immense currency. The truth, again, has been shown to be different. Alexander the Great used it as his capital as late as 323BC; only after his successors moved elsewhere did it fall into slow decline.

Babylon’s real legacy was not excess. Our 12 part Zodiac derives from its ideas, our division of hours and minutes into 60 units is a direct descendent of its system of counting and measurement. Greek astronomers built their own theories upon their Babylonian predecessors. The clay tablets, carefully incised in cuneiform lettering, many of whose secrets remain to be uncovered through translation, give further hint of the richness of this culture, one with which archaelogists and historians are still grappling to come to terms.

Babylon: Myth & Reality continues to 15 March 2009; see www.britishmuseum.org

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