Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

Building Babylon

Art An exhibition at the British Museum explores the multiple ways in which the legendary city of Babylon has been imagined and re-imaged - mostly by Westerners. Kanishk Tharoor visits in search of a city.
Lucas van Valckenborch's <i>The Tower of Babel</i>: In harking back architecturally to Rome, van Valckenborch's painting makes the Tower of Babel wholly European.
Lucas van Valckenborch's The Tower of Babel: In harking back architecturally to Rome, van Valckenborch's painting makes the Tower of Babel wholly European.

An exhibition at the British Museum explores the multiple ways in which the legendary city of Babylon has been imagined and re-imaged - mostly by Westerners. Kanishk Tharoor visits in search of a city.

Among his many sins, Saddam Hussein sought to defy history. The ruthless dictator milked all the resources of his country, making no exception for its past. While waging war with Iran, he visited the site of Babylon, about 50 miles south of Baghdad. Unimpressed by the stubbly remains of the once great city, Saddam rebuilt a version of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II - Babylon's most famous ruler - over the ruins. He even styled himself as Nebuchadnezzar's heir, mimicking the Babylonian monarch's inscriptions on bricks that were time-stamped, "in the era of Saddam Hussein, protector of Iraq, who rebuilt civilisation and rebuilt Babylon." Saddam's posturing was meant to remind Iraqis of their glorious heritage, their abiding link to a vigorous and sophisticated empire that held sway over the Middle East nearly three millennia ago.

But if there is one lesson to be drawn from the Babylon of history and myth, it is that hubris begets decline and doom. Folklore, the Bible and countless artists and writers tell the story of Babylon as that of demise. Blind to these cautionary tales, Saddam forgot that Nebuchadnezzar's city was eventually conquered (and his dynasty severed) by the Persians, a footnote equally ominous and inconvenient in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war. Stuttering from bloody war to bloody peace to bloody war again, Saddam was finally toppled by the Americans. The writing, as King Belshazzar realised too late in the Book of Daniel, was already on the wall. And like the tower of Babel, Saddam was bound to come crashing down.

Saddam followed, perhaps unknowingly, in the footsteps of countless Westerners who sought to build real arguments upon Babylon's mythological foundations. Babylon: Myth and Reality, a brilliant exhibition on at the British Museum in London, explores the multiple ways in which Babylon has been imagined and re-imagined, measuring the reveries against what is known about the real city. While Babylon stood at least as long ago as the 24th century BC, the exhibit focuses solely on the tenure of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626 to 539BC). It is in this particularly redolent period of Babylonian history that the Old Testament - and Western scholars and artists thereafter - roots its depictions of the city. At its height, the Babylonian state under Nebuchadnezzar II stretched from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, skirting the hump of the Arabian Desert to include the irrigated plains of its old enemy Assyria, the bustling Phoenician ports of the Levant, and Israel, where Nebuchadnezzar achieved biblical infamy after the destruction of Jerusalem (586BC) and the subsequent captivity of the Jews. Only decades after Nebuchadnezzar's death, Babylon was swallowed by the Persians under Cyrus in 539BC. The ancient city would never again be an independent political power.

The exhibition marks the joint collaborations of the three powerhouses of European collection, as the Louvre in Paris, the Pergamon in Berlin and the British Museum combed their cavernous basements to pool artefacts. With images of the looting of Baghdad's national museum still fresh in our minds, one of the sad, unintended effects of the show is to remind the visitor of how much of Iraq's past had been pilfered and torn from its native soil long ago. But perhaps it is fitting that Mesopotamian antiquity should live vibrantly in the old imperial capitals of Europe. Though a great power in its day, Babylon has long since been a site of continual trespassing and theft, a city more symbolic than historical, routinely invaded by mythographers and colonised by fantasies. Its abiding place in the Western imagination owes little to dusty archaeological fact, and much to its eternal ability to inspire fable.

The Babylon of legend - from the collapse of the ambitious and impious Tower of Babel to the prophetic doom of Nebuchadnezzar's dynasty in the Bible - is the ideal demonic city, a place defined by hollow grandeur and creeping doom. The invocation of Babylon is a constant in western arts and letters, bridging the Greeks in the years before Christ to 20th century painters and film-makers, like DW Griffiths, whose sprawling Babylonian epic Intolerance (1916) remains a seminal moment in film. Babylon is curiously within and without the West, located in remote Mesopotamia, but nowhere else so imagined and as turned to as within the western canon.

There are two principle sources for the narrative of Babylon's doom, both from the Old Testament: the tale of the Tower of Babel and stories of the captivity of the Jews in the city. The sojourn of the Jews in Babylon is based, at least in small part, on fact. During the Neo-Babylonian Empire, many leading Jewish noblemen were held hostage in Babylon. A clay tablet from 591BC details in minuscule and hurried cuneiform the daily ration afforded to Jehoiachin, the captured Jewish king. The Tower of Babel is, of course, far more shrouded in myth. As the exhibition suggests, the mythical tower may be associated with one of Babylon's principle ziggurats, the Etemenanki - literally meaning "foundation platform of Heaven and Earth" - which Nebuchadnezzar had rebuilt.

Over two thousand years ago, outsiders were already mythologising Babylon. As early as the 3rd century BC, the Babylonian historian Berossus complained about how Greek scholars were playing fast-and-loose with the story of the legendary queen Semiramis. The Greeks idealised Semiramis as the part-divine founder of Babylon, surrounding her with a cluster of fanciful tales. Berossus cut through the myth, insisting that Semiramis was never a Babylonian queen, but was a rather pedestrian 9th century BC Assyrian noblewoman called Sammu-ramat. But the Greeks won the day; the mythical Semiramis persisted stubbornly in European literature and art, featuring famously in a Voltaire tragedy in which she is betrayed and killed by her treacherous son. The exhibition includes Edgar Degas' oil of Semiramis Building Babylon (1861), which depicts the statuesque queen looking mournfully over the haze of the frantic construction of the city, almost as if she knows that her great work will be undone by her Oriental male heirs.

"Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!" cries Revelation 18:2 in the Biblical book of Genesis. Babylon was punished for its crimes of arrogance and cruelty. John Martin's Fall of Babylon (1831) portrays the apocalyptic destruction of the city, a tempest sweeping the sky, robed inhabitants scurrying in terror. But the scene is also distinctly modern. It is of little coincidence that the architecture of Martin's Babylon is a mixture of Indian and Egyptian styles. European powers were establishing themselves in the subcontinent and the Middle East in the early 19th century. Babylon served as a symbol of poisonous greatness, of ancient strength withered by decadence and avarice. No surprise then that the burgeoning imperial mentality of the times should map the rise of the West on to the fall of Babylon.

Subtler, and by far more compelling, are the number of evocations of the Tower of Babel. A manuscript illumination from the French historian Jean de Courcy's Le Bouqechardiere (1460-70) sets the tower amid Islamic minarets and swarthy men holding curved scimitars. But in the bulk of European representations of the tower, its construction and its fall have more to do with Europe than the Orient. Northern European artists in the 16th century took particular interest in the Tower of Babel, producing some of the more stunning pieces in the exhibition. In their series, the tower takes on the aspect of the Colosseum in Rome, with its circle of chain-link arches. The city below the tower appears as a fantasy of Greco-Roman and medieval architecture. In one dark painting from the Dutch school of the late 1500s, a streak of light falls on the tower from a violent glowing rent in the sky, as the city burns dimly beneath. The Flemish school's Lucas van Valckenborch imagines the tower during its construction in a painting as sparklingly clear as its Dutch counterpart is murky. Before the ascending tower struts King Nimrod, its mythical builder, deliberately styled after Philip II, the Catholic potentate of Europe at the time. A devout Protestant, van Valckenborch directed the allusions of the tower to attack the unholy, overreaching ambitions of contemporary geopolitics. In harking back architecturally to Rome while zeroing in on the modern day, van Valckenborch's painting in effect makes the story of the Tower of Babel wholly European.

Whither the real Babylon? Beneath the tower, the captivity of the Jews, and the many other stories of Babylon, there may be a sediment of truth. The curators engineered a small miracle in setting millennia-old clay fragments beside far more recent watercolours and oils. While the latter are somehow familiar in their bald storytelling and mythmaking, the former are much more enchanted, much more alien. Impeccable ranks of cuneiform march across the sacred, barrel-shaped inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar. Audio installations allow visitors to savour the rolling antiquity of Babylon's Akkadian language. Bronze mushhushshu dragons promise to "spatter enemies with deadly venom." In a fish-shaped tablet meant to be a guide for oracular readings, we are told: "If a fish lacks a left fin, a foreign army will be destroyed." Other fragments detail the obscurities of spell-casting and the interpretation of dreams. Perhaps the most suggestive relic on display is a sixth century BC map of the world with Babylon at the centre, surrounded by a circular band of water known as the "bitter ocean". Beyond the ocean lie various triangular-shaped lands meant to stand for both real places as well as sectors of the Babylonian cosmos. Babylon was more than capable of its own fantasies. Even in the last crumbs of the great fallen city, geography mingles with cosmology, myth melds into reality.

Kanishk Tharoor, an editor at openDemocracy, is a frequent contributor to The Review.

Updated: December 19, 2008 04:00 AM