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By Andrew Jack

LONDON, 12 MARCH 2009 — They came, they conquered, they crushed. Time and again over the centuries, new rulers imposed their own might and myths alike on Babylon, one of the most powerful, mystical and elusive of ancient cities. 

Two exhibitions — one at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the other at London’s British Museum — provide new insights into the power and reach of ancient Babylon, while proving rather more coy in commenting on the sensitivities of the more contemporary events for which their two countries were instrumental. 

Partly perhaps for practical and logistical reasons, the Met’s Beyond Babylon (through 15 March) does precisely as the title suggests, highlighting the extraordinary riches and reach of Nebuchadnezzar’s rule 2,500 years ago everywhere but in the city, through the lens of its interconnections with Egypt, Syria and the Mediterranean.

Kneeling worshipper
Old Babylonian, ca. 1760 B.C.
Bronze, gold, silver; H. 7 3/4 in. (19.6 cm)
Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Antiquités Orientales, AO1570

Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The result is a striking insight into the artisanship it fostered, illustrated with objects borrowed from museums of the region and around the world. There are superb examples of craftsmanship such as the inlaid rosette from the Royal Tomb in Qatna (photograph exhibit number 130), the Epic of Gilgamesh (117) in cuneiform or the gold bowl with hunting scenes (catalogue number 146) from Ugarit.

In that ancient world of Art, Trade and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium BC, (the exhibition’s sub-title), there was a culture of amazing openness, with powerful kingdoms, large territories and social elites fuelling a trade and level of contact that fostered stunning artefacts.  

Pendant of Ip-shemu-abi
Byblos, Royal Necropolis, Tomb II
Middle Bronze Age, early 2nd millennium B.C.
Gold, semiprecious stones; H. 3 in. (7.5 cm); W. 2 3/4 in. (7 cm); D. 5/8 in. (1.5 cm)
Direction Générale des Antiquités, Beirut, Lebanon, 16235

Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

That era deserves far greater public attention and is a perfectly legitimate focus for an exhibition in its own right. But there is an awkward absence from the exhibition and the back-breaking 500-page accompanying catalogue alike of the modern antithesis of that past "open world": the past couple of decades of ostracism, isolation and then destruction in Iraq on a vast scale.

Standing figures
Byblos, Temple of the Obelisks, Champ des Offrandes
Middle Bronze Age, early 2nd millennium B.C.
Copper alloy, gold; H. from 4 to 9 1/8 in. (10.1 to 23 cm)
Direction Générale des Antiquités, Beirut, Lebanon, 11346, 16560, 22049, 22390, 22400, 22403
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The BM’s Babylon: Myth and Reality (until 15 March)takes a bolder sweep at the sensitive core of the subject, proving somewhat more willing to brave the delicate aspects of recent events in Iraq that have proved as tumultuous as any of the dramatic ones of the past, and have done more to destroy future understanding of ancient history.

Despite its recourse to concepts as much as objects, there are some incomparable objets in the exhibition, none more impressive than the blue and yellow bricks of the Processional Way and Ishtar Gate of Nebuchadnezzar II’s Palace (notwithstanding their piecemeal presentation in a fashion that fails to convey the scale of the original —  or its reproduction in its current home in Berlin).

Dragon Relief, 6th century BC
Glazed brick panel
(SMB - Vorderasiatisches Museum, Inv. VA Bab 4431)
Olaf M. Te mer / SMB-Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin
Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum

Other masterpieces include the Babylonian map of the world (catalogue fig. 4), the oldest known map to survive today; the old Babylonian Code of Hammurapi (fig. 51), enshrining the city’s ruler one thousand years before Nebuchadnezzar as an early drafter of laws; and the craftsmanship of the bronze and iron dragon (fig. 36).

Map of the World
Babylonian, about 700-500 BC
Probably from Sippar, southern Iraq
Height: 12.200 cm; Width: 8.200 cm
Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum

But just as interesting are the attempts to dig into the myths and artistic inspirations and reinterpretations of the city and its culture. The exhibition explores at length the Hanging Gardens of Babylon; Daniel and "the writing on the wall;" and the Tower of Babel, immortalised by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in his sixteenth century masterpiece widely reproduced today. 

With a prophetic gesture towards subsequent events, Escher’s reworked Tower of Babel (1928), showing confused figures on a variant of his usually visually arresting and physically impossible constructions, is best described in his own words: "Some of the builders are white and others black. The work is at a standstill because they are no longer able to understand one another."

More recently, Michael Lassel’s eponymous version in 2001 has become even more poignant since, given last year’s journalistic attack on George W. Bush during his valedictory tour of Baghdad: the Tower is reconstructed out of shoes, insultingly pointing sole-wards towards the viewer.  

Michael Lassel (Romania b. 1948): Tower of Babel/Der Turm Babel, 2001
Oil on Canvas
Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum

Perhaps the BM’s curators feel bolder than those at the Met, as Britons who are arguably slightly more removed from the vanguard of the attacks on modern Iraq, and as cultural champions a little less obsessed with things political and military. Happily, they were able to form a valuable alliance in the exhibition with their counterparts from countries far more critical of the invasion, in France and Germany.

John Curtis, keeper of the British Museum’s department of the Middle East, has little sympathy with Saddam’s attempts to interfere with Babylon for his own egocentric purposes, criticising the tasteless reconstruction of the city in the middle of Iraq’s war with Iran in the 1980s. Alongside insensitive rebuilding, the dictator oversaw the creation of three artificial lakes and three mounds, one the site for a new palace for the man who saw himself as Nebuchadnezzar’s successor.

But if that was "bad," in Curtis’s words, what followed at the hands of the US-led Coalition was "inexcusable." The invasion may have halted the construction of a cable car and other monstrosities, but far worse vandalism would follow. Participating in a delegation that went to observe the destruction, he describes the impact of the 150-hectare camp the Americans established in the middle of Babylon for 2,000 soldiers in 2003.

Even with the kindest possible interpretation, it demonstrated monumental ignorance and "insensitivity." At worst, it was of near unparalleled cynicism. Heavy vehicles were driven along the Processional Way, breaking many ancient brick paving slabs; a helipad was built, causing damage and cracking to the remains beneath, saturated with leached chemicals; and priceless ancient moulded bricks were cracked by soldiers-turned-scavengers on souvenir hunts.

Curtis poignantly describes the fall-out of multiple anti-tank ditches cut across the site, much of which has never been excavated: "Piled up on the sides of the trench were earth mixed with ancient pottery, fragments of brick with inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar, and ancient bones."

Brick of Nebuchadnezzar II
The inscription on this brick translates: 'Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, who cares for Esagila and Ezida, eldest"
Neo-Babylonian dynasty, about 604-561 BC
From Babylon, southern Iraq
Length: 32.500; Width: 32.500
Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum

"Such was the strength of public opinion around the world that at the end of 2004 a decsion was taken by the Polish army, which had taken over the camp in September 2003, to hand Babylon back to Iraqi authorities. To mark this event a meeting was convened at Babylon in the period 11 - 13 December, for which Polish military authorities commissioned a report from the archeologists attached to the Polish forces. This lengthy and very useful document is entitled Report Concernng the Condition of the Preservation of the Babylon Archaeological Site...the Iraqi minister of culture felt there would be benefit in having further reports, firstly by the Iraqi archaeologists working at Babylon and secondly by myself."

However, much of this depressing detail is only available to those willing to spend £25 on the full British Museum catalogue ($40 in the U.S. from Oxford University Press). Overall, the exhibition is "lite" on context: the children’s activities outside provide more information, encouraging participants in a workshop to do like Saddam (himself emulating Nebuchadnezzar) and immortalise their names on each of a series of bricks to build a modern Processional Way.

Like the Met, the BM glosses over much detail and context that could have been described simply in accompanying text panels. Some is provided in overly verbose audio recordings — in the Met’s version unnecessarily narrated by the actor Martin Sheen.

Terracotta plaque with an erotic scene
Old Babylonian, around 1800 BC; From Mesopotamia
Height: 8.900 cm; Width: 7.200 cm
Gift of Major Burn (1925)
Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum

The New York show also has a curious and somewhat gratuitous video playing of archaeologists at play as well as work, joyfully pushing each other into the sea during an underwater recovery mission.

It may be many years before a definitive conclusion can be reached on the strategic wisdom of the 2003 invasion of Iraq; but it has already long been clear the tactically folly with which it was undertaken. Both shows at least provide something of a taste for the richness of the ancient civilisation of Babylon, and how its modern inheritors have become no more civilised.

Andrew Jack is a senior journalist at the Financial Times and the author of Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform Without Democracy? (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004, 2007). He is also a member of the editorial board of and last wrote on the British Museum's exhibition Hadrian: Empire and Conflict.

Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C.
Until 15 March 2009
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10028
Tel: (1) 212 535 77 10

Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B. C.
By Joan Aruz (Editor), Kim Benzel (Editor), Jean M. Evans (Editor)

Hardcover: 548 pages
Yale University Press (November 2008)
ISBN-13: 9780300141436


Babylon: Myth and Reality
Through 15 March 2009
British Museum

Great Russell Street
WC1B 3DG London
Tel: (44) (0)20 7323 8000/8299

Edited by I. L. Finkel and M. J. Seymour

Oxford University Press (March 2009)
240 pages; 200 color; 9 X 12;
ISBN13: 978-0-19-538540-3
ISBN10: 0-19-538540-3

Title image: Nude female figure
Uluburun shipwreck
Late Bronze Age, ca. 1300 B.C.
Bronze, gold; H. 6 1/2 in. (16.4 cm); Max. W. 2 3/8 in. (6.1 cm)
Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, Turkey, 52.7.95 (KW 3680)
Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art

CALENDAR TIP: chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers and travellers. 

New York

Jeremy Deller: It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq
Through 22 March 2009
New Museum
235 Bowery
New York, NY 10002
Tel: (1) 212 219 12 22

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