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What is known about Babylon, the original city of sin, and one of the world’s most iconic ancient sites? The British Museum seeks to unravel the myths from the realities.

Where were Babylon’s famous Hanging Gardens? Was its Tower of Babel a mere fantasy? And exactly how decadent was this hoary ‘city of sin’? Such are the stories about Babylon, located c.85km south of modern Baghdad, that it can be hard to disentangle facts from fiction. However, the latest exhibition at the British Museum does just that. The result is a curatorial triumph.

The realities and the myths
The new exhibition focuses on the most dramatic era in Babylon’s history – the period of King Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BC) and his successors – an era that includes the construction of Babylon’s most famous buildings, the sack of Jerusalem and the deportation of the Jews, the Persian conquest under King Cyrus in 539 BC, and Babylon’s supposed Fall.

On display are some 100 archaeological and other objects loaned from Paris, Berlin, and from the British Museum’s own collection. The first gallery opens with a selection of breathtaking glazed brick reliefs measuring c.1m high by c.1.5m wide from Babylon’s Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way. These vibrant works of art have been crowd-pullers at Berlin’s Vorderasiatisches Museum since their discovery by German archaeologists at the turn of the last century. This is the first time they have been shown in Britain and, in the words of curator Irving Finkel, they are items that everyone should see at least once in their lives.

The archaeological material in the remaining galleries is dominated by cuneiform clay tablets, the more crumbled examples of which Finkel once amusingly dubbed ‘dog biscuits’. However, what you see is prime archaeological steak. Thus, from Paris comes a famous tablet describing the dimensions of the Babylonian ziggurat – the stepped tower that provided the inspiration for the ‘Tower of Babel’ as described in the Book of Genesis (11:4). This is the troublesome tower that caused the languages of the world to be imposed on humanity as punishment for our arrogance at building such a mighty structure for the glory of men. Of similar interest is the Babylonian cosmic map of the world, pictured right, with (tellingly) Babylon placed at its centre.

However, realising that cuneiform tablets do not an exhibition make, the curators tell the city’s story by presenting numerous important western works of art alongside the ancient material. Thus, beside the ancient documents describing Babylon we are presented with famous depictions of the Tower of Babel by Lucas van Valckenborch, and other 16th century artists of the Flemish and Dutch schools.
This combination of archaeology and art is a splendid method of exploring the city’s myths and realities. For example, the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon – one of the wonders of the ancient world according to the Classical writers – still elude archaeologists, many of whom suspect them to be little more than fantasy. Art fills this lacuna (for example with the colourful representation by Mario Larrinaga). As for Babylon’s reputation as the original sin city, this was never a matter of archaeological reality, but comes from the writings of the Old Testament. We are shown how such stories have sparked imaginations and permeated the work of artists including William Blake, Dürer, and Degas all of whom have left us iconic depictions of famous figures from Babylon: Semiramis, Nebuchadnezzar and the Whore of Babylon.

From fictions we move back to facts towards the close of the exhibition. Pause awhile at the narrow, rather battered, strip of Greek papyrus. This gnarled scrap provides proof that Greek astronomers copied their tables from Babylonian tablets, illuminating the oft-forgotten extent to which the ‘West’ has borrowed intellectual ideas from the ‘East’. Some of these concepts are still valid in astronomy and indeed the exhibition reveals how various ancient Babylonian achievements remain part of our lives today. For example, our mathematical 60-part division – as used in the minute and the hour – comes from them.

On a less scientific level, we discover how we have (almost totally) borrowed their 12-part zodiac, complete with familiar signs such as Leo and Libra. The exhibition also touches on the impact of Babylonian stories and ideas on modern art, music and film. With skill, the curators thus bring Babylon’s relevance right up to date. But what of the ‘real’ Babylon today?

Babylon today
Oh the horror of the final gallery entitled ‘Babylon Today’. Here we are reminded that it was Saddam Hussein’s aim to make Babylon into a state icon. Saddam wheeled out its image on Iraqi money, and continually likened himself to King Nebuchadnezzar, even to the extent of stamping his name onto the bricks of his palace built overlooking Babylon – just as Nebuchadnezzar had stamped his name onto the bricks of Babylon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Americans set up their military camp, replete with 2000 soldiers, at Babylon Itself.

In 2004 the archaeologists reported ‘extensive and irreparable’ damage at the site: ‘a military camp of this size… is tantamount to establishing a camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or at Stonehenge in Britain’, to quote the British Museum’s John Curtis. However, the exhibition ends on a positive note, with a short film of the site today, outlining how British Museum experts are working with Iraqi archaeologists, the military, and UNESCO to protect and preserve the site from any further damage.

Recently, independent exhibitions on the theme of Babylon have also been shown at the Musée du Louvre in Paris and the Vorderasaitisches Museum in Berlin. The innovation with which the British Museum curators have presented their material here makes this a fascinating and must-see exhibition.


This article was published in Current World Archaeology Issue 33. Click here to subscribe

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