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
Two exhibitions one at New Yorks Metropolitan Museum, the other at
Londons 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 Mets
Beyond Babylon (through 15 March) does precisely as the title
suggests, highlighting the extraordinary riches and reach of
Nebuchadnezzars rule 2,500 years ago everywhere but in the city, through
the lens of its interconnections with Egypt, Syria and the
Babylonian, ca. 1760 B.C.
Bronze, gold, silver; H. 7 3/4 in. (19.6
Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Antiquités Orientales,
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 exhibitions 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
Pendant of Ip-shemu-abi
Necropolis, Tomb II
Middle Bronze Age, early 2nd millennium
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,
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.
Byblos, Temple of the Obelisks, Champ des
Middle Bronze Age, early 2nd millennium B.C.
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,
Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The BMs 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 IIs 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
(SMB - Vorderasiatisches Museum, Inv. VA Bab 4431)
Te mer / SMB-Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin
Photo: © Trustees of the
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 citys 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
Sippar, southern Iraq
Height: 12.200 cm; Width: 8.200 cm
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
With a prophetic gesture towards subsequent events, Eschers 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 Lassels eponymous version in 2001 has become
even more poignant since, given last
years 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
Michael Lassel (Romania b. 1948): Tower of
Babel/Der Turm Babel, 2001
Oil on Canvas
Trustees of the British Museum
Perhaps the BMs 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 Museums department of the Middle
East, has little sympathy with Saddams attempts to interfere with Babylon
for his own egocentric purposes, criticising the tasteless reconstruction
of the city in the middle of Iraqs 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 Nebuchadnezzars successor.
But if that was "bad," in Curtiss 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
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
inscription on this brick translates: 'Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon,
who cares for Esagila and Ezida, eldest"
Neo-Babylonian dynasty, about
From Babylon, southern Iraq
Length: 32.500; Width:
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
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 childrens 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 Mets version unnecessarily
narrated by the actor Martin Sheen.
with an erotic scene
Old Babylonian, around 1800 BC; From
Height: 8.900 cm; Width: 7.200 cm
Gift of Major Burn
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
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 Culturekiosque.com and last wrote on the
Museum's exhibition Hadrian: Empire and Conflict.
Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and
Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C.
Until 15 March
Metropolitan Museum of Art
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.
Hardcover: 548 pages
Yale University Press
Babylon: Myth and Reality
Through 15 March 2009
WC1B 3DG London
Tel: (44) (0)20 7323 8000/8299
Edited by I. L. Finkel and M. J.
Oxford University Press (March 2009)
240 pages; 200
color; 9 X 12;
Title image: Nude female figure
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.
Jeremy Deller: It Is What It Is:
Conversations About Iraq
Through 22 March
New York, NY 10002
(1) 212 219 12 22
External News Link
shoe-thrower Muntazer al-Zaidi
sentenced to three years in jail
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