Visions of Babylon—and beyond

A clutch of books and two international exhibitions explore the famous ancient city, its culture and art

The word “Babylon” conjures up highly evocative imagery and symbolism. The traditional western view of Babylon, as inherited from Biblical and Classical sources, evokes the monumental Hanging Gardens and Tower of Babel, the captive longing of the Jewish exile, Nebuchadnezzar’s might and descent into madness, and the Whore of Babylon. It can be argued that the continued allegorical and moralistic reinvention of Babylon throughout history and into modern times has much greater symbolic resonance than the very real ancient city of Babylon in southern Iraq. The latter is known through excavations from the 19th century onward revealing its walls, palaces and temples, colourful glazed brick friezes of lions and dragons, and among other treasures, clay prisms and cuneiform tablets.

Babylon in London

The exhibition “Babylon” opens at the British Museum this month (13 November-15 March 2009), marking the third and final stage of this year’s highly ambitious and successful collaboration with the Musée du Louvre and the Réunion des Musées Nationaux, Paris (“Babylone” at the former museum, 14 March-2 June), and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (“Babylon: Mythos und Wahrheit” at the Pergamonmuseum, 26 June-5 October). The British Museum exhibition catalogue Babylon: Myth and Reality and its counterpart gift book Babylon: City of Wonders, are co-edited by exhibition curators Irving Finkel and Michael Seymour. The catalogue contains contributions by Julian Reade, Andrew George, Joachim Marzahn, Jonathan Taylor and John Curtis. The books are slickly produced and well-illustrated, and the co-editors should be congratulated on their work in preparing books both accessible to the general reader, yet not short on fascinating detail and insight into the world of Babylon—its discovery and excavation, mythology, and legacy.

The catalogue is divided into four main sections entitled “The City of Babylon”, “Life and Letters”, “History and Legend”, and “The Legacy of Babylon”. Other than the exhibited pieces, the books draw upon art and artefacts from the partner museums, as well as previously unpublished British Museum objects. This gives a sense of the structure and size of the exhibition. The format differs markedly from the chronological approach in Paris, and the division between themes of myth and reality in Berlin. London’s show will be much smaller, more selective and by consequence much clearer in its melding of myth and reality. At its heart is Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BC), great builder of Babylon and ruler of an empire stretching from the Persian Gulf to Egypt. The book demonstrates how his city and the legacy of the neo-Babylonian era inspired countless historians, travellers, writers and artists over the centuries, from Herodotus to Rembrandt. In the section entitled “Legacy of Babylon”, Dr Finkel and Dr Seymour highlight the core elements of the catalogue and exhibition: “Firstly…what features embedded in our present world may be attributed to ancient Mesopotamian society: ideas, conventions and even scientific discoveries…Secondly, there is the name itself—living, evolving, and ever the substance of image and icon”.

“History and Legend” unravels the integrity of stories and myths as illustrated by oil paintings, engravings and illuminated manuscripts. These famous images are compared and contrasted with the archaeological reality of ancient text and image.

The catalogue has a significant focus on the process of rediscovery and the development of scholarly interest on Babylon from the Middle Ages to the present. As shown by Julian Reade, explorers, treasure hunters and antiquarians have all been drawn to the site over the ages. In the 19th century, British or British-sponsored investigations at Babylon were limited compared with their activities in North Mesopotamia, which resulted in the acquisition of Assyrian palace sculpture now in the British Museum. Early investigators were unable to make real sense of Babylon because they lacked the technical skills to unravel the city’s mud-brick ruins. It wasn’t until the arrival of German archaeologist Robert Koldewey in 1898 that Babylon’s systematic excavation began. It was also through Koldewey that the Vorderasiatische Museum in Berlin acquired the famous glazed-brick friezes from Babylon’s Ishtar gate and ceremonial way—elements that will be exhibited at the British Museum for the first time.

Auf dem Weg nach Babylon celebrates Koldewey’s life and career in detail. It explores the process by which he applied his architectural and engineering skills to archaeology, first at classical sites in Greece and Turkey, and subsequently achieving his crowning glory of two decades of work at Babylon and the reconstruction of the glazed brick friezes in Berlin. The book includes evocative photographs, architectural drawings and watercolours, and is enlivened with pages reproduced from the Babylon dig-house visitors’ book, filled with amusing cartoons, doodles, poems and witticisms of a bygone era.

In the British Museum’s Babylon catalogue, Michael Seymour leaves a very creative mark in his selection and discussion of paintings, prints and drawings. Well known works featured include John Martin’s Belshazzar’s Feast, and William Blake’s Madness of Nebuchadnezzar. Contemporary works include Julee Holcombe’s Babylon Revisited; a digital montage of buildings from ancient temples to modern skyscrapers, dragging the Tower of Babel into the modern age.

The British Museum has been at the forefront of the condemnation of the looting of museums and damage to archaeological sites in Iraq since the 2003 invasion. John Curtis writes the final chapter of the Babylon catalogue entitled “The Site of Babylon Today”, including details of damage sustained during Babylon’s extensive military occupation by US and Polish forces. Earlier press reports may have given the impression that the Babylon exhibition will have a greater focus on threats to cultural heritage in Iraq. This may turn out to be the case, but this politicised theme is limited to only a small part of the catalogue. After the Babylon of antiquity and the Babylon of myth, the impact of recent images from Babylon under military occupation will certainly jolt the reader back to reality.

The publication of a new book by Paul Collins, entitled From Egypt to Babylon: The International Age 1500-500 BC, happily coincides with the recent flurry of “Babylonmania”, but is in fact unrelated to the exhibition. The book provides a broad patchwork of history of the Ancient Near East, Egypt, and the East Mediterranean. Intended for the interested layman, it is punctuated with stunning images from the British Museum’s diverse collections. Despite its didactic and authoritative approach, the breaking down of traditional regional boundaries, using the device of a hypothetical traveller, is its best achievement.

Babylon in New York

On a related and highly significant note, New York sees the opening, less than a week after the British Museum’s show, of “Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium BC” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (18 November-15 March 2009). Given the general trend this year for all things Babylon-related, the familiar use of “Babylon” in the title does jump on the bandwagon somewhat. As it suggests, this exhibition promises to go well beyond Babylon. In fact, the seriously impressive catalogue lends an almost taunting element: “So you thought ‘Babylon’ was impressive? Wait until you see this!” The exhibition, overseen by curator-in-chief Joan Aruz, features over 350 objects covering an epic geographical scope from the Caucasus to Egypt, and from Iran to Greece.

The second millennium BC (2000-1000 BC) was the first great era of international trade and diplomacy, seeing the emergence of a shared language of artistic styles and competitive displays of wealth by the rulers and elites of the time. International gift-exchange took place on an epic scale, leaving its legacy in the rich art treasures of the period. Thankfully, a large proportion of the material featured in the exhibition and catalogue comes from archaeological excavations, many of them recent. This makes their display even more significant due to their rich contextual associations. The collection goes beyond art, by contributing considerably to our understanding of relations across political, cultural, and social boundaries. The catalogue includes contributions by over 80 leading scholars resulting in a very mixed arrangement of sections, which are chronological (eg “The Middle Bronze Age”), thematic (eg “The Art of Exchange”), and site-specific (eg “The Uluburun shipwreck”). Up-to-date summaries of objects are provided, and attempts are made to incorporate them into their wider cultural and geopoltical settings through short informative essays on archaeology, art history, and written sources.

Probably the most remarkable feature of Beyond Babylon is material loaned from museums in Syria for the first time, including fabulous gold jewellery, frescoes, statues and other treasures from key sites. These include a unique and stunning assemblage of objects excavated just six years ago from the intact royal tomb at Qatna, Syria. Another notable achievement is the loan of objects from the cargo of the Late Bronze Age shipwreck (around 1300 BC) found at Uluburun off the coast of Turkey, displayed in the US for the first time. Uluburun represents a microcosm of the Late Bronze Age including a wide range of traded goods such as copper and tin ingots, ivory and glass, pottery, a gold scarab-seal of Nefertiti, gold pendants, and weapons belonging to an ethnically diverse crew. The cargo was of such a scale and quality that is considered by many to have been a royal shipment, a uniquely well-preserved example of international gift exchange crossing the East Mediterranean sea.

There is much more to say about Beyond Babylon, as it draws upon the Met’s own collection of ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian art and loans from major international museums, including many recently featured in the Paris and Berlin Babylon exhibitions. Judging by the stunning catalogue co-edited by Joan Aruz, Kim Benzel and Jean Evans, this blockbuster is not to be missed. A pattern is clearly emerging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, especially in the work of Joan Aruz. The exhibition follows the highly successful “Art of the First Cities” exhibition in 2003, which drew upon collections from the third millennium BC. We should presumably anticipate therefore at some point in the near future a third installment in this grand story of art, trade and cultural exchange, this time for the first millennium BC. This will probably bring with it an opportunity to display material from Babylon once again.

John D.M. Green, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford



I.L. Finkel and M.J. Seymour (eds), Babylon (British Museum Press, 2008), 224 pp, £25 (hb) ISBN 9780714111704

I.L. Finkel and M.J. Seymour, Babylon: City of Wonder (British Museum Press, 2008), 96 pp, £9.99 (hb) ISBN 9780714111711

Ralf-B. Wartke, Auf dem Weg nach Babylon: Robert Koldewey—ein Archäologenleben (Philipp von Zabern, 2008), 192 pp, €24.90 (hb) ISBN 9783805339186

Paul Collins, From Egypt to Babylon: the International Age, 1500-500 BC (British Museum Press, 2008), 208 pp, £25 (hb) ISBN 9780714119830

Joan Aruz, Kim Benzel and Jean Evans (eds), Art, Trade and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium BC (Yale University Press with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008), 600 pp, £45 (hb) ISBN 9780300141436

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