This exhibition brings together a rich and varied treasure trove of nearly 400 works, on loan from collections in 13 countries, with the aim of reconciling the legend of Babylon with its history. Spanning five millennia (from the end of the 2nd millennium B.C. to the beginning of the 20th century), it pays tribute both to the historical and cultural importance of this ancient city and the way in which its reality was later transformed into the mythical Babylon.
The oldest textual reference to Babylon dates back to the period of Sumer’s archaic dynasties: in ancient Akkadian, the governor of a place called Bar-bar—a phonetic retranscription of Ba(b)bar or Ba(b)bal, probably ancient Babylonian script—was described as the builder of a temple to the god Marduk. Thus around 2500 BC there probably existed a city, populated by Akkadians, that was the capital of a principality. Nothing more is known, because these ancient levels of Babylon are inaccessible to archaeological excavation. The temple in question was probably located on the east, or left, bank of the Euphrates, the site of the current ruins.
The name Babylon appears three hundred years later, on a clay tablet, written in Sumerian ideograms, KÁ.DINGIR.KI, to be read in Akkadian bāb-ilu or bāb-ilim, which means “Gate of (the) God(s).” This document refers to the construction of two temples in Babylon. These twin temples, part of the same complex, were dedicated to two warrior deities, namely Anunîtum, daughter of the moon-god, and the Akkadian god Il-aba: “Year in which Shar-kali-sharri laid the foundations of the temple of Anunîtum and the temple of Il-aba, in Babylon.”
After the fall of Ur, almost all trace of Babylon is lost for one hundred years (2000 to 1890 BC). The political situation in Mesopotamia in the late twentieth century BC was marked by a weakening of the power and political influence of the Isin dynasty. A few chiefs of sedentary Amorite tribes took advantage of the situation by capturing towns in northern Babylonia. The leader of one of these groups, Sumu-la-El, seized possession of Babylon in 1894 BC. It was probably his successor who founded the first Babylonian dynasty around 1880 BC.
The great Akkadian monarchs, Sargon and his grandson Naram-Sin, long served as the model of a heroic king. The depiction of Naram-Sin leading his troops to victory over the people of the Zagros Mountains on his victory stela inspired later all-conquering monarchs when it came to pose and military dress (a short garment with long front panel). Old Babylonian royal victory stelae were influenced by the heroism of the Akkadian empire, while the position of the arms and weapons of the king of Akkad were imitated by the heroic warrior-kings depicted on Old Babylonian seals.
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