By the time that Paulus Orosius compiled his influential universal history in the fifth century AD, the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar was already a distant memory. The cuneiform script had become completely extinct by the early centuries AD, but the period at which Babylonian chronicles were effectively lost as direct sources is much earlier, since the third-century BC account of Berossus seems to have been the last significant point of direct transmission between the Babylonian and Greek historical sources.1

Orosius’ History Against the Pagans divided history into four epochs: the ages of Babylon, Macedon, Carthage and Rome. The scheme, which was intended to allow comparisons between the epochs, was one of the most influential aspects of the work, and is repeated in other medieval universal histories. So too was the manner in which they were compared, for Orosius was interested above all in the moral significance of his subject matter. The medieval European historical treatment of Babylon – indeed of the entire ancient world – can be characterized in the broadest terms as a process of organization and rationalization of vast quantities of textual evidence. This rationalization was not limited to the resolution of apparent conflicts between sources, but had a religious and moral aspect that frequently required new structures and interpretations to be applied to historical narratives. Nor was the exercise an abstract one. Rather, with the idea of a timeless morality, analysis of past behaviour informed an understanding of political life in the present, and is well reflected in the adaptation of historical legend to contemporary political need.2

In an article focusing on this political aspect of medieval historiography, Gabrielle Spiegel argues that ‘the medieval chronicler utilized a very fluid perspective with regard to past and present. The search for the past was guided by present necessities; but so, too, the historical understanding of the past for its part determined the rhetorical presentation of contemporary events’.3 Thus the past was not entirely elastic, rather perceptions of past and present were intertwined, each understood as bearing upon the other. The practice of attempting a degree of cultural relativism and an understanding of past actions in their contemporary cultural context – a quality valued in modern historians and not unknown in antiquity; witness the writings of Herodotus – is extremely rare in medieval historiography. The nearest approach is to be found in attempts to address the problem for Christian authors of allotting a proper place to virtuous pagans such as Dante’s Virgil, who in the Divine Comedy must ultimately dwell in Limbo, debarred from heaven though spared the pains of hell. More generally, the focus on understanding the past in a manner useful for contemporary morality led to judgements that were more absolute.

The problem of difference in medieval perceptions is a recurring one: models of medieval worldviews as essentially similar or essentially alien to our own both have some validity and have co-existed in a shifting balance in modern historical thought.4 Most treatments of the antecedents of archaeological exploration have fallen into the former category, insofar as the most relevant sources have been assumed to be the accounts of the few European travellers who visited ancient sites in the Middle East. Understood as fieldwork, these reports have been treated in effect as precursors to archaeological studies – a view which, while not entirely misleading, does tend to overemphasize these works’ separation from other medieval approaches to the distant past and to overstate their importance in terms of intellectual history. Most medieval journeys to the Middle East were made either for commercial reasons or as pilgrimages, not for any kind of scholarly research.5 The tendency is to privilege the on-the-spot observations made by travellers and explorers, antiquaries, treasure-hunters and eventually – when is a matter of personal preference, for the division is conceived as a question more of degree than of type – archaeologists. What unites the group is direct observation of ancient sites, and in general it is this element that has normally been sought in looking for antecedents to archaeological work. Later spectacular discoveries and their success in penetrating into the public consciousness have served to reinforce this perspective. As Hudson remarks:

What British archaeology achieved overseas, indeed, was largely responsible for narrowing the meaning of the word ‘archaeology’. In Crete, in Egypt, in Mesopotamia and elsewhere in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean, the great discoveries which caught the attention of the public were made as the result of digging. Sir Leonard Woolley, Sir Arthur Evans, Sir Max Mallowan and others earned their knighthoods and made their reputations by their skill and good fortune in finding wonderful things underneath vast quantities of sand and earth. They were the excavator-knights, the finders of buried treasure, who fired the imagination of their fellow countrymen and brought archaeology to the attention of the popular press and therefore of the man in the street. Since the 1920s archaeology, for most people, has been practically a synonym for excavation.6

The visitors to Babylon do form some kind of continuum, and their personal experiences and different approaches have affected the development of new ways of understanding the past, but taken in isolation do little to explain the later development of archaeological approaches. They are self-evidently not the key drivers for the development of the humanist rational–empirical approach to the past that underpins the modern discipline of archaeology. Our approach must therefore involve two parts: the first a survey of the visitors to Babylon and their accounts; and the second a consideration of the broader spectrum of engagement with the ancient city in European intellectual and artistic tradition.

Travellers and their accounts

The shrinking and final disappearance of Babylon as a settlement is only hinted at in the available historical sources. Perhaps the last reference to a living settlement is that of Ibn Hauqal, who mentions a small village of Babel as late as the tenth century.7 By the time of the earliest medieval European travellers’ accounts, even this village had apparently disappeared, though as today others existed around the fringes of and even on the site. In any case, biblical accounts led medieval travellers to expect a deserted ruin.

Benjamin of Tudela

A key medieval source for European knowledge of Asia is the Itinerary of Rabbi Benjamin ben Jonah of Tudela, a Spanish merchant whose travels, begun around 1160, probably lasted until 1173.8 The Itinerary, unpublished until 15439 and known to us only in abridged form, covers a vast area, including most major cities and holy places of the Middle East and extending as far east as China, its primary aim being to record the situation of Jews across the world. The Itinerary describes Babylon first, then al-Hillah and finally the Tower of Babel (in fact the site of Birs Nimrud, ancient Borsippa).10 Benjamin’s account of the Tower records that local people were afraid to venture near the site as it was infested with snakes and scorpions.11 He also describes an ancient but functioning synagogue, and the site of the Fiery Furnace of Daniel:

Near at hand, within a distance of a mile, there dwell 3,000 Israelites who pray in the Synagogue of the Pavilion of Daniel, which is ancient, and was erected by Daniel. It is built of hewn stones and bricks. Between the Synagogue and the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar is the furnace into which were thrown Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, and the site of it lies in a valley known unto all.12

There is some doubt as to whether Benjamin actually visited Babylon, or indeed ever travelled as far to the east as the scope of his account implies. The preface, written later and apparently by a different author, describes the Itinerary as the account of ‘what he saw’ and ‘what he heard’. Introducing his translation of the Itinerary, Asher argued that these were to be understood as two distinct sections of the work.13 The account includes the names of the principal Jewish leaders and elders in towns until the journey reaches Baghdad, after which these are almost entirely absent. According to Asher, this is where ‘what he saw’ ends and ‘what he heard’ begins. If this is strictly true, it would seem that he saw Mosul and Nineveh (Mosul’s principals are listed, and it appears in the itinerary before Baghdad), but not Babylon, Hillah or the Tower of Babel. It is true that once in Iraq there were good reasons to stop at Baghdad:

Bagdad, at his time the seat of the Prince of the captivity [a Jewish leader claiming descent from King David, whose description forms a large part of Rabbi Benjamin’s section on Baghdad], must have attracted numerous Jewish pilgrims from all regions, and beyond doubt was the fittest place for gathering those notices of the Jews and of trade in different parts of the world, the collecting of which was the aim of R. Benjamin’s labours.14

All this said, if we are less strict about the division of the book into two parts there is nothing to prevent the supposition that Benjamin might have made a trip to Babylon from Baghdad. The information given is plausible and certainly does not fit with the more fantastic accounts of his travels in the far east that, in any case, may have been introduced into the account by later compilers.15

In terms of Rabbi Benjamin’s experiences in Iraq, it is worth noting Signer’s comment on his written Hebrew:

A reading of the Hebrew text of the Itinerary reveals more about Benjamin. He writes in a rather formal medieval Hebrew. His Hebrew is suffused with Arabic forms. This would certainly indicate that Benjamin knew Arabic. It was probably his mother tongue. Arabic gave Benjamin the linguistic key to the world he set out to explore in Asia and Africa. Benjamin’s knowledge of Arabic also opens up a path toward a deeper understanding of his intellectual milieu.16

In this respect Benjamin was atypical of European travellers to the Middle East. Despite the long history of European orientalism, the field has never been large, and until at least the nineteenth century was so dominated by the study of classical Arabic effectively as a dead language that European speakers of Arabic were at all times extremely rare.17 Arabic would not have been the only available channel for communication, but Benjamin’s account does contain intriguing fragments of folklore and local tradition relating to the places he visited in Iraq, including Babylon. His inclusion of a site understood to be the location of the Fiery Furnace is a prime example. On the other hand, this biblical connection is representative of another characteristic of Benjamin’s account: that although based on first-hand observation its description is inevitably informed by scripture and religious interest. Thus his inclusion of the detail that the site of the Tower is now filled with snakes is liable to be the product not only of experience (whether direct or via an informant) but equally of Benjamin’s noting a striking confirmation of the prophecy of Jeremiah.

Marco Polo and Baghdad as Babylon

Some travellers identify Baghdad as modern Babylon, or New Babylon. Marco Polo gives the impression of assumed continuity between the two cities, describing ‘the great city of Baldach or Bagadet, anciently called Babylon’.18 His late thirteenth-century account is therefore of Babylon’s heir, which in a sense Baghdad was. The conflation of the two cities is a mistake, but as the last in a succession of powerful cities dominating the political landscape of the Middle East from central Iraq Baghdad was indeed the political legatee of Babylon and, as Marco Polo’s description made clear, a worthy successor:

In Baghdad, which is a very large city, the Caliph of all the Saracens in the world has his seat, just as the head of all the Christians in the world has his seat at Rome. Through the midst of the city flows a very large river, by which travellers may go to the Indian Sea.

It is in Baghdad that most of the pearls are pierced that are imported from India to Christendom. Here too are woven many fabrics of cloth of gold and silk, known as nasich and nakh and and cramoisy, very richly decorated with beasts and birds. It is a great centre for the study of the law of Mahomet and of necromancy, natural science, astronomy, geomancy, and physiognomy. It is the largest and most splendid city in all these parts.19

Others realized that Baghdad was distinct from the site of Babylon, but still referred to the former as New Babylon (John Eldred) or simply Babylon (Anthony Sherley, Johann Schiltberger, Robert Coverte). Given the apparent tendency of Greco-Roman writers to refer to Nineveh as Babylon or Old Babylon, we can appreciate that the identification of Babylon with multiple sites involves more than the misidentification of ruins such as Birs Nimrud and ‘Aqar Quf (of which more below) as the Tower of Babel.

St Odoric

Friar Odoric of Pordenone travelled from Venice to China’s Pacific coast in the early fourteenth century. The journey was so remarkable that Odoric, who was eventually beatified, gained a reputation for having had divine protection, and stories of miracles associated with him began circulating during his own lifetime.20 His account, probably dictated upon his return, includes many strange and fantastic peoples, but much of its geography is sound and he is generally agreed to have actually made the journey he describes. The account was in any case the by-product rather than the goal of his journey. He travelled as a missionary, and states explicity that he ‘crossed the sea and visited the countries of the unbelievers in order to win some harvest of souls’.21 His description of Iraq is minimal but does include the Tower of Babel, which he describes as four days’ journey from Baghdad. He passed it, according to his own account, on the way northwest from Yazd, although his translators and editors have suggested that this may be a mistake on his part, the route appearing in effect as a massive detour westward in his itinerary; the alternative proposed by Chiesa is that he came into Iraq via Soltaniyeh in north-western Iran.22 The distance given from Baghdad is credible for Babylon and thus makes the ruined ziggurat visible at Birs Nimrud a plausible candidate for the site Odoric believed to be the Tower of Babel. He makes no comment on the site to give us any clue. Although he discusses Baghdad Odoric never mentions the city by name, either as Baghdad or Babylon. He describes ‘Chaldea’, meaning either the vicinity of Baghdad or Iraq more generally, as ‘a great kingdom’, and notes that its people have ‘a language of their own’. He also describes reversal of gender norms for dress:

The men are comely, but the women in sooth of an ill favor. The men indeed go smartly dressed and decked as our women go here, and on their heads they wear a kind of fillet of gold and pearls; whilst the women have nothing on them but a miserable shift reaching to the knees, and with sleeves so long and wide that they sweep the ground. And they go barefoot with drawers hanging about their feet, and their hair neither plaited nor braided, but in complete dishevelment; and as here among us the men go first and the women follow, so there the women have to go before the men.23

This puzzling inclusion does not seem to accord with any known tradition. The best explanation, as with some customs described in the more fantastic Far Eastern parts of the narrative, is that Odoric simply uses a reversal of European norms in order to express the difference of this strange land.

Johann Schiltberger

In 1396, at only 15 years old, Johann Schiltberger of Bavaria was captured at the battle of Nicopolis. He spent the next five years as a prisoner of the sultan Bajazet, and in 1402 both slave and captor fell into the hands of Timur (Timur-e lang, Tamerlane). Schiltberger provides a mixture of first- and second-hand accounts of Timur’s campaigns, but his personal experience was enormous: he travelled with Timur’s army and court to Siberia, Central Asia, Egypt, Arabia (where he is claimed by his modern editors, P. Bruun and J. Buchan Telfer, to have been the first Christian visitor to Mecca and Medina),24 and of course Mesopotamia. On his eventual escape and return to Bavaria, where he arrived in 1427, his narrative was recorded. As extraordinary as any aspect of his story is the testament this account offers to his powers of memory. Schiltberger was apparently illiterate, and ‘The various incidents of his career in the East are recounted without method, and were evidently related just as the recollection of them occurred to him’,25 yet the content of his account, or at least that part of it based on first-hand experience, is remarkably ungarbled and factually accurate. Schiltberger’s illiteracy seems almost an advantage in this respect, since he is not subject to the burden of reconciling his own experience with that of his predecessors or literary tradition. Babylon, however, is an exception to this general rule. Telfer believes that Schiltberger’s relation of the dimensions of the walls of Babylon, clearly from Herodotus, is the one and only indication of a literary source in the entire account.26 This may be going too far, since even within the description of Babylon itself there is the almost obligatory reference to Jeremiah and Isaiah: ‘none can get there because of the dragons and serpents, and other hurtful reptiles, of which there are many in the said desert’.27 This is far from clear-cut, however: an intimate knowledge of the Old Testament is itself no indicator of literacy in fifteenth-century Europe, and while it does seem strange that he chooses the same biblical reference as his literate forebears, it is conceivable that the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy may have struck Schiltberger in such a way as to cause him to include the added detail in the same manner. We could even believe that this is straightforward observation, with no intentional reference to a source at all. In terms of the specific reference, however, the coincidence would be remarkable.

Schiltberger also refers to Baghdad as Babylon, and describes Timur’s conquest of the city in 1401 (to which he was not a first-hand witness). Schiltberger’s testimony often emphasizes the violence and cruelty of Timur, and here he describes the destruction of Baghdad:

Tämerlin besieged it for a whole month, during which time he undermined the walls, took the city and burnt it. Then he had the earth ploughed and barley planted there, because he had sworn that he would destroy the city, so that nobody should know whether there had been houses or no.28

His account of the Tower of Babel includes a description of Baghdad (this time called ‘New Babylon’ to distinguish it from the ‘great Babylon’),29 and there is no reason to think that he did not visit the city. Schiltberger describes Baghdad as a grand city in which Persian as well as Arabic is spoken, with an enormous hunting ground or menagerie. He also tells us that Great and New Babylon are separated by a river called the Schatt (Tigris).30 This is hard to interpret: the ruins of Babylon lay far downstream on the Euphrates. Perhaps, like some later travellers, he refers to what are actually the ruins of ancient canal systems between Falluja and Baghdad. The tower that Schiltberger found was Birs Nimrud, confirmed both by his description of distances, which Bruun demonstrated are correct for Birs Nimrud,31 and in a name we encounter for the first time here: ‘Marburtirudt’, which Bruun reasonably suggests stands for ‘Marbout Nimroud’, or prison of Nimrod.32 Schiltberger understood the whole name to refer to the king who built the tower, and was therefore nearer than he apparently knew to the biblical view that the builder was Nimrod.

John Mandeville

In these early travellers’ accounts of Babylon we can see the strong effect of writers’ expectations and religious convictions on personal observation. Biblical references framed as observation abound in most accounts: the claim that the ruins of Babylon are filled with snakes and other dangerous creatures is found in Benjamin of Tudela,33 Friar Odoric,34 Johann Schiltberger,35 Leonard Rauwolf36 and Anthony Sherley,37 and is apparently based on various translations of Jeremiah and Isaiah’s prophetic descriptions of the city’s fate. One measure of this influence is the mid-fourteenth-century account of ‘Jehan de Mandeville’, better known as Sir John Mandeville, in which both the author and the journey described are probably fictitious. Even if the narrative is authentic in the sense of referring to a real journey, it was nonetheless constructed almost entirely by compiling and embellishing existing literature. Despite this limitation Mandeville, whose real identity remains unknown, gives an account comparable in detail and content to that of Rabbi Benjamin (whose Hebrew description he could not have read), mainly by describing the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. Whether or not readers believed the more fantastic elements of the narrative (in the tradition of Pliny’s monstrous races, see below), ‘Mandeville’s Travels was certainly the most famous travel text, and generally one of the most popular works of prose of late medieval Europe’.38

This is not to say that Mandeville did not make errors. His Babylon, for example, is conflated with another great Eastern city: Cairo. In the Middle Ages one of Cairo’s several names was Bab al-Yun, retained by Coptic Christians and remembered today in the quarter of the old city known as Babylon. (There is also an Egyptian tradition that the name derives from Nebuchadnezzar’s military adventures, which in reality never reached this far.) As a result, Mandeville’s Babylon was the destination of the holy family on their flight into Egypt; and of Joseph, sold by his brothers; most importantly it was the seat of the present Egyptian sultan. At the same time it was the city of Nebuchadnezzar and the story of the Fiery Furnace. To further complicate matters, Mandeville was aware of another city, located further to the east:

Do understand that the Babylon which I speak of at the moment, where the Sultan lives, is not Babylon the Great, where happened the Confusion of Tongues, when the Tower of Babilon was being built. The walls of it were sixty-three furlongs high, and it is in the deserts of Arabia as you go towards the kingdom of Chaldea. But it is a long time since anyone dared approach that wretched place; for it is waste, and so full of dragons and snakes and other venomous beasts that no man dares come near it.39

Mandeville knew something of the location, combining biblical and classical information – ‘That same city of Babylon the Great was set in a fair plain, which was called the field of Senaar, on the River Euphrates, which ran through the city at that time’40 – but his geography drifts into talk of more distant and legendary realms: Cathay (China) and the mystical, mythical kingdom of Prester John:

From that Babylon where the Sultan dwells [i.e. Cairo] to Babylon the Great is forty days’ journey, travelling north-east through the desert. And Babylon the Great is not subject to the Sultan but to the King of Persia. He holds it of the Great Caan [Khan], who is a great emperor – indeed the greatest in the world, for he is lord of the great land of Cathay and many other countries, and a great part of India. His land marches with Prester John’s land; and he has such great lordships that he knows no end of them. He is greater and beyond comparison mightier than the Sultan. Of his great state and majesty I intend to speak later, when I come to it.41

Leonard Rauwolf

The sixteenth century saw a substantial rise in the number of accounts of Mesopotamia and its ancient sites, and a gradual increase in detail. In an excellent review of these, Ooghe observes that ‘printed Mesopotamian travel narratives jumped from being virtually non-existent prior to 1530 to numbering at least 19 in the second half of the century alone’.42 A good example of this flourishing interest is the account of Leonard Rauwolf, a Bavarian physician who travelled from 1573 to 1576, coming to Baghdad in October 1574. His account of the journey was first published in 1583. He describes Babylon, ‘The oldest capital in Chaldaea’ lying to the east of ‘Elugo’ (Falluja).43 He found it,

Completely destroyed, and uninhabited it lies still; close behind it stands the high Tower of Babylon, that the children of Noah (who first settled in this land after the great flood) tried to build up to Heaven.44

Rauwolf’s city of Babylon must have been the remains of ancient canals he saw on his journey to Baghdad, and his Tower of Babel must be the ruined ziggurat at ‘Aqar Quf.45 This seems to be the first account in which ‘Aqar Quf, ancient Dur Kurigalzu, is mistaken for the Tower of Babel. Although a long way north of the real site of Babylon and much nearer to Baghdad, there is a logic to the identification: if the ruins of canals en route to Baghdad were taken as the remains of the city of Babylon, the prominent ruined ziggurat at ‘Aqar Quf would present itself as a much more obvious candidate for the Tower than a ruin far to the south that in any case fewer travellers would ever have seen. Moreover, the visible remains of reed matting inserted between courses of mud-brick in the ziggurat’s construction match perfectly the description of Herodotus. These factors, combined with an understanding of Baghdad as Babylon’s direct successor supporting the assumption that the two are located close together, are enough to explain the emergence of a tradition that the remains of the Tower of Babel were to be seen at ‘Aqar Quf.

John Eldred

The Englishman John Eldred was in southern Iraq in 1583, and gives a short account of Babylon. The location he gives is at first a little puzzling:

In this short desert, between the Euphrates and Tigris, formerly stood the great and mighty city of ancient Babylon, many of the old ruins of which are easily to be seen by day-light, as I, John Eldred, have often beheld at my good leisure, having made three several journeys between Aleppo and New Babylon.46

To travel from Aleppo to Baghdad (‘New Babylon’) meant going south-east along the Euphrates, or more likely in parallel to it in the desert at some distance to the west, coming close to the Tigris only as one approached Baghdad, and not travelling far enough south to come near to the site of Babylon at all.47 Budge describes Eldred as coming to ‘Aqar Quf ‘when he was coming down the Tigris from Môsul’.48 He may have had reason to assume that the route was a desert crossing to Mosul followed by a journey down the Tigris, but this is not what Eldred wrote and it is more probably the Euphrates caravan route to which he refers. Hilprecht has it that Eldred, like Rauwolf and the Venetian merchant-traveller Gasparo Balbi, saw ‘Aqar Quf while travelling east from Falluja to Baghdad, and that like them he mistook the ruins of ancient canals for the city of Babylon.49 This explanation seems to accord better with Eldred’s description, the ‘short desert’ presumably being the stretch between Falluja and Baghdad. The description of the Tower is compatible with ‘Aqar Quf:

Here also are yet standing the ruins of the old Tower of Babel, which, being upon a plain ground, seemeth afar very great; but the nearer you come to it, the lesser and lesser it appeareth. Sundry times I have gone thither to see it, and found the remnants yet standing, above a quarter of a mile in compass, and almost as high as the stone work of Paul’s steeple in London; but it showeth much bigger. The bricks remaining of this most ancient monument be half a yard thick, and three quarters of a yard long; being dried in the sun only: and between every course of bricks, there lieth a course of mats, made of canes, which remain sound and not perished, as though they had been laid within one year.50

Eldred’s immediate successors give similar accounts: Anthony Sherley51 and John Cartwright52 both apparently interpreted the ziggurat at ‘Aqar Quf as the Tower of Babel. Jean Baptiste Tavernier, visiting in 1652, also believed ‘Aqar Quf to be the Tower, although he also recorded a local tradition that the tower was built by an Arab prince to protect his subjects in time of war.53 In common with other travellers he gives detail of the bricks and reed matting used, though there is no explicit statement of their excellent correspondence with the description of Herodotus.

There is one other potential ‘Tower of Babel’ deserving of mention here. It is often assumed that the enormous – and still standing – ninth-century Malwiya minaret of the Great Mosque at Samarra was another presumed Tower of Babel, or at least that its shape influenced depictions of the Tower in European art, to some of which it bears a quite striking resemblance. Nothing in the European travel accounts, however, suggests that this might be the case. The earliest known European description of Samarra is that of Anthony Sherley, who with his brother, Robert, made a celebrated trip as an emissary of Queen Elizabeth to the court of Shah ‘Abbas of Persia at the close of the sixteenth century.54 The site does not seem to have been much visited by European travellers, and none mistook the Malwiya minaret for the Tower of Babel. John Newberry, visiting in 1580, did refer to its area as Eski (old) Baghdad,55 but this does not suggest the site of Babylon. Baghdad did, after all, succeed Samarra as a capital and the name reflects this. Most importantly, illustrations of the Malwiya minaret do not seem to have been in circulation in any form, making it unclear how the image could have passed into European art.56

Pietro Della Valle

Accounts of the sixteenth-century kind contain some basic information on routes and curious sights, but basically focus on contemporary concerns (naturally, far more detail was recorded of the living city of Baghdad than anything relating to the ancient past), and treat ancient sites such as Babylon only incidentally. A significant shift in emphasis comes with the visit of Pietro Della Valle, whose role as a methodological precursor to archaeological study of the area has been emphasized by Blunt and more recently Invernizzi.57 An Italian nobleman abandoning Rome for travel to soothe romantic disappointment (successfully: he was to marry in Iraq), he is best known for what, in hindsight, seems an important first:

He is alleged to have been the first person to copy a cuneiform inscription, something he indeed did in Persepolis on October 13th–14th 1621. This claim, however, requires certain qualifications, for his copy is not entirely correct, and a cuneiform line was copied in Persepolis a short time earlier by Don Garcia de Silva y Figueroa, ambassador of Spain in Isfahan from 1617 to 1624, whom Della Valle himself met at the court of Shah Abbas. Nevertheless, it is a fact that, while the report published by the Spanish aristocrat had no particularly strong influence on seventeenth-century European culture, the wider diffusion and uninterrupted success of Pietro Della Valle’s letters over the following centuries give special importance to the copy of the Persepolitan inscription he published.58

He also correctly deduced that the inscription was to be read from left to right.59 This act of recording, however, is not so much an isolated step in itself as a reflection of the extent to and manner in which Pietro Della Valle’s approach to the ancient sites he visited during his travels differed from those of his predecessors. Della Valle copies, sketches, explores, and even:

Probing the remains with his pick at different points, endeavours to get a clear idea of the structure of the unknown monument standing in front of him. In the curiosity of knowledge, we are here confronted with what is apparently the earliest example of an excavation sounding in Mesopotamia, and certainly the earliest recorded such sounding.60

Invernizzi rightly stresses the distinctly empirical and, significantly from an archaeological point of view, physical character of Della Valle’s attempt to find out about the site. Pietro Della Valle does not represent a break from so much as a culmination of the interest shown by his recent predecessors;61 nonetheless the genuinely new aspects of his approach require explanation. Within an existing European tradition of travel writing it seems that leisure, education, inclination and a moment in cultural and intellectual history – more of Della Valle’s native Rome than of the Middle East – combined to facilitate an account that was not only more detailed than its predecessors, but which derived in part from close physical examination, demonstrating in the process that there was indeed something to be learned from the study of the ruins themselves.

The most remarkable products of Pietro Della Valle’s visit to Babylon are visual. Among his retinue was a Flemish artist, who produced sketches that were intended to form the basis for a future painting.62 Although the painting seems never to have been made and the sketches themselves have not survived, they were the source for three images in Athanasius Kircher’s Turris Babel63 (of which more below), where their naturalism contrasts sharply with the fantastic images making up the bulk of the illustration. They are recognizable depictions of Tell Babil, the northern mound at Babylon and site of Nebuchadnezzar’s Summer Palace, to which the ancient name of the city still attached. The images show ruined and formless mounds totally unlike any previous European depiction of Babylon. Kircher’s work also contributed to Pietro Della Valle’s influence in another way, including a Latin translation of the account of Babylon (the primary sources are in Italian, letters to Della Valle’s friend Mario Schipano)64 thereby making the description accessible to a larger European readership.

Another notable development of the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is the beginning of (known) collecting of ancient material from Babylonia by European travellers. This was nothing on the scale of later export of Mesopotamian antiquities, just as Della Valle’s investigations at Tell Babil bore no resemblance to the huge excavations of the nineteenth century. Della Valle himself brought back souvenirs: inscribed bricks from Babylon and Ur. (A curious Babylonian stamp seal, to which has been added a Hellenistic-era head in profile, is also known to have been in Italy as early as the seventeenth century. Understandably, prior to the era of modern excavations the later portrait was misinterpreted as that of Nebuchadnezzar.65) Still, he was not the first: the Austrian Georg Christoph Fernberger, visiting in the late sixteenth century, collected a brick from the ‘Tower of Babel’, though this is long since lost.66

The changing role of observation

It would not be quite true to say that Pietro Della Valle worked from observation where others did not – the value of seeing something for oneself is implicit in any travel account – but we could perhaps say that his observation resulted in an account that was critical in a way that those of Rauwolf or Sherley were not. These travellers, to read their narratives today, give the impression of trusting the Bible far more than their own eyes, and indeed this may very well have been the case. There is still great value in the classic characterization of a medieval model of the universe given by C. S. Lewis in The Discarded Image:

They [medieval writers and thinkers] are bookish. They find it very hard to believe that anything an old auctour has said is simply untrue. And they inherit a very heterogenous collection of books […]. Obviously their auctours will contradict one another. They will seem to do so even more if you ignore the distinction of kinds and take your science impartially from the poets and the philosophers; and this the medievals very often did in fact though they would have been well able to point out, in theory, that poets feigned. If, under these conditions, one has also a great reluctance flatly to disbelieve anything in a book, then here there is obviously both an urgent need and a glorious opportunity for sorting out and tidying up.67

‘At his most characteristic’, argues Lewis, ‘medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems.’68 To this extent he denies his subject the creativity of other ages, and this claim we can treat with reasonable scepticism. The emphasis Lewis places on the perceived importance of classification and the resolution of all these auctours or canonical sources, on the other hand, is astute and still widely accepted. The judgement was not, it should be stressed, intended to disparage the medieval scholar (indeed Lewis himself greatly valued a very similar version of intellectual clarity and order).69 The Discarded Image set out to help modern readers appreciate medieval and Renaissance perspectives, and in the case of our sources for these periods the view above does indeed help to do this. We are interested in a particular mode of acquiring and dealing with knowledge, and the crucial observation is that textual authorities play a role in medieval travel accounts quite different to that seen in their modern equivalents, where the value is often seen to lie in being able to supplement, revise or even refute an earlier authority. The modern instinct, perhaps through a combination of the historical experience of later New World navigators and the drive for empirical research which has grown ever stronger in the centuries following the Enlightenment, is to identify the work of travellers to distant lands as discovery of the new, to base their value upon this, and thus to be left if anything a little disappointed by the repeated confirmations of biblical or classical sources we find in earlier travel accounts. At worst, this can leave the reader revelling too much in the curios: for ‘originality’ in the account of Friar Odoric, for example, one might turn to his fantastic descriptions of monstrous races far to the east, dismissing the more practical and indeed accurate geographical content, or indeed the affirmation of scripture that is so important in the account of the more learned Benjamin of Tudela. What if, to adopt the perspective Lewis suggests, we instead identify the work of these accounts as clarification, and their value as the individual’s contribution to a self-referentially complete and harmonized model of the universe? The first step in doing so would be to recognize the strong intellectual imperative for such a project. To turn to a contemporary of Lewis and fellow expert in medieval thought, Morton Bloomfield stated:

[N]o proper understanding of medieval literature is possible without a good knowledge of the Christian categories of thought and beliefs. Yet medieval man was also the heir of late classical antiquity and of barbarian cultures, and their categories of thought, their literary genres, their points of view, were also part of his heritage. He was well aware of a secular tradition which had not been completely transformed by Christianity.70

There were problems to be solved, conflicts and puzzles as well as the important business of collecting together and consolidating the sum of knowledge available from past authorities, and arching over the whole the question of incorporating this knowledge within a single religious framework. From this perspective another kind of contribution to knowledge is apparent, and one that perhaps shows the works of the medieval travellers in a better light. The reward for adopting this slightly alien perspective is that it now becomes easier to identify real intellectual common ground between medieval and Renaissance efforts and later studies of Babylon. The need to place what one learns within a model of the universe, for example, is not itself a goal whose pursuit disappears or even fades; it is the method of that pursuit that changes. What we are really studying is an aspect of the slow transition from a medieval drive to understand a web of great but finite complexity to a present-day pursuit of simplicity that is epitomized in the elegance of contemporary characterizations of physical law, reduced to a handful of forces from whose interaction the variety and complexity of our universe is now believed to derive. This cosmological example is not so far as it appears from changes in the way we know the human past. For scholars in the social sciences, and humanities too, the twentieth century was a time of model-building and the search for underlying principles, albeit that this search met with far less success than that in the physical sciences. Again, what differentiates this effort from the ‘medieval’ work of codification and classification is a shift in emphasis between the careful study of existing sources and the more-or-less empirical acquisition of new data with a view to establishing and refining consistent rules and principles.

To return briefly to the accounts of monstrous races, these too can be seen as part of the incorporation of knowledge into a grand framework. They actually originate in classical geographies, notably the Natural History of Pliny the Elder,71 and we could most accurately say that it is not their existence but their increasingly awkward inclusion next to a more prosaic observed world that is distinctively ‘medieval’.72 A comparable problem – and solution – can be found in the medieval treatment of hagiography and the miracles of the saints. Kendall takes the example of the Venerable Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, in which,

We see a double image. There is the dispassionate, scientific observer, meticulously sifting the evidence of the past, and there is also the child of the Dark Ages, embracing the most superstitious elements of popular legend.73

Arguing that the crucial tool in Bede’s resolution of such diverse material is expert rhetoric, Kendall draws a conclusion as to the nature of his achievement:

[Readers] may be conscious of the juxtaposition of what we can loosely call historical and hagiographical narrative. But once the juxtaposition is seen as an accurate reflection of the discontinuity of the sixth age [i.e. ‘the time of grace extending from the advent of Christ to the second coming and the last judgement’], conditioned by preexisting narrative conventions, the magnitude of Bede’s achievement becomes apparent. The History is a finally unified version of the totality of man’s experience from the mundane to the miraculous, in and beyond time.74

So the process is one of reconciling not merely discordant sources but substantially different types of source and modes of thought. Even putting aside the religious interpretation of this ‘discontinuity’, the historian can appreciate the need to preserve all sorts of sources against a background of great philosophical and theological flux and tension. Medieval travel accounts were subject to the same pressures, and so both a degree of conservatism and a desire to be inclusive rather than sceptical make good sense. As with Pliny’s monstrous races, however, the very preservation of knowledge in new contexts is a form of change in itself.

Although by no means a radical departure, the account of Pietro Della Valle does indeed represent a significant contrast to its predecessors. Its author questioned and tested, and in order to do so he had to have faith in the usefulness of his own observations. The difference in his approach can hardly be seen as a consciously impious or heretical act, but the difference is there nonetheless, and in its very method Della Valle’s account challenges a certain theocratic kind of knowledge. The truth of scripture and the canon, it implies, is not precisely literal and not, as a historical document, complete. The possibility of separating mythos and logos in conceptions of the truth of scripture originates in acts of just this kind. This can hardly have been his own view of the event, but when we see this conflict of authority manifest itself explicitly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we will be reminded of the figure of Pietro Della Valle, tentatively exploring the ruins he believed to be the foundations of the Tower of Babel.

Medieval and Renaissance histories, art and literature

Babylon in Late Antique Christian theology

The great doctors of the Western Church have tangibly shaped all aspects of European religious and intellectual culture. The impact of St Augustine, St Ambrose, St Jerome and Gregory the Great on Christian doctrine and Western philosophy is difficult to overstate. Particularly important for our purposes are St Jerome and St Augustine, two of the most prolific, and later most famed, of all Christian writers in Latin, both of whom contributed substantially to Babylon’s image and place in world history.

In one sense the significance of St Jerome (Eusebius Sophronius) has already been discussed, because his especial importance lies in the translation of works discussed in the previous chapter. His Latin version of Eusebius of Caesarea’s Chronicon kept accessible to scholars a work that preserves chronological information on Mesopotamia from Berossus, Megasthenes and Abydenus.75 As well as transmitting specific information on Mesopotamia, Jerome’s translation of the Chronicon also preserved (and extended, from 327 up to 378 AD) Eusebius of Caesarea’s synchronization of pagan and Christian chronologies for world history.76 Further, the translation helped the work to achieve its status and influence as a key chronicle of history and much-used source on chronology in medieval Europe.77 Jerome’s commentaries on Daniel, Jeremiah and Isaiah are also relevant to the later study and interpretation of these key sources on Babylon. Important as they are, however, all of these achievements are utterly dwarfed by Jerome’s masterpiece of biblical translation, the Latin Vulgate Bible.

The so-called Old Latin version of the Bible began to emerge in Africa and Western Europe during the second century AD.78 Reference to it as a single version is purely for convenience; one could more accurately speak of a heterogenous corpus of Old Latin versions, including multiple versions of books and no single version of them all. Jerome’s work, produced over 22 years c.383–405, was far more than simply a standardization. It was a return to primary sources, since Jerome was the first to translate the Old Testament into Latin from the Hebrew. Previously translators had worked only from the Greek Septuagint, which had its own school of justification as an inspired work and which Jerome’s translation took centuries to supersede.79 Supersede them it did, however, and with profound consequences. Contemporary biblical translations into English take their form not because they are based on those of Jerome, but because they have adopted his insistence on rendering the text as faithfully to the original language of composition as possible.

St Augustine is important to Babylon’s story in two respects: his impact upon what became a dominant Christian conception of history in general, and his location of Babylon in particular within that history. Augustine played a key role in introducing the Judeo-Christian concept of linearity, destiny and finity into Latin historiography with The City of God.80 The same work is significant for its use of Babylon. Developing the role of Babylon from Revelation’s allegory of Rome, The City of God was, ironically, a response to Alaric’s sack of Christian Rome in 410 AD. Composed from 413 to 426, the work addresses the threats to Christendom occasioned by the weakening and collapse of the Western Empire, and by the pagan reaction against Christianity as some Romans held the new religion responsible for the fall of the eternal city.81 These concerns rendered the nature of history and of historical change particularly urgent to Augustine.

Against the prevailing sense of disaster in the Empire, shared by Jerome (the latter, in common with other theologians, identified Rome with the fourth beast seen by Daniel,82 signifying the last kingdom before the Apocalypse),83 Augustine’s work focuses on the argument that the Christian God’s kingdom is not earthly. He looks forward to the Last Judgement as heralding a bright future for Christians in a heavenly Jerusalem,84 reached through the pilgrimage, including trials such as Rome’s, that is the earthly City of God.85The glory of Rome was the Romans’ earthly reward for ‘the virtues by which they pursued the hard road that brought them at last to such glory’, but ‘It was not God’s purpose to grant these men eternal life with the angels in his heavenly city’.86 This could be achieved only through Christian piety and observance.

Augustine takes Revelation’s original allegorical use of Babylon (the Old Testament accounts, whatever their broader implications, do refer to the city of Babylon itself) and develops it, explicitly removing its geographical ties and situating it instead in human hearts. In philosophical terms, Augustine is even able to move beyond the Christian context in his distinction between the two cities:

[N]otwithstanding the many great nations that live throughout the world with different religious and moral practices and are distinguished by a rich variety of languages, arms and dress, nevertheless there have arisen no more than two classes, as it were, of human society. Following our Scriptures, we may well speak of them as two cities. For there is one city of men who choose to live carnally, and another who choose to live spiritually, each aiming at its own kind of peace, and when they achieve their respective purposes, they live such lives, each in its own kind of peace.87

Augustine writes that ‘the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city by a love of self carried even to the point of contempt for God, the heavenly city by a love of God carried even to the point of contempt for self’.88 In his commentary on Psalm 65, Augustine explicitly names Babylon and Jerusalem in these terms.89 This distinction, and its elevation from specific geography and history to a place in history as structuring principle, have survived: their modern expression in Zionism and Rastafari is discussed in Chapter 7. Augustine is also arguably the originator of the notion that something external to time in the world (God, the heavenly city) exists, thereby engendering a focus on destiny and redemption in the future over the search for meaning in the present.90 This focus, which also survives into modernity, gives the role of Babylon as the materialist earthly city a further connotation of inward-looking folly.

Medieval Arabic sources

There is one explicit reference to Babylon in the Quran.91 It is to be found in Al-Baqarah (The Cow), in a warning against rejecting the teachings of the Quran and listening to devils, who ‘teach men witchcraft and that which was revealed to the angels Harut and Marut at Babylon’.92 The reference is to a pre-Islamic narrative in which the angels laugh at humans for their weakness in succumbing to sin. God instructs them to choose two of the most virtuous of their number (Harut and Marut) to live on earth, with earthly desires. This they do, and as God predicts fall into sin, tempted by a Persian princess into wine and adultery. The angels’ punishment was to be thrown into a well for all eternity (a site at Babylon known as the ‘pit of Daniel’ gained a reputation as the location of the well). The Quranic passage is interpreted quite differently, as angels are considered infallible in Islamic theology. The standard interpretation is that Harut and Marut were sent to Babylon to test humans by revealing forbidden knowledge in the form of magic and instructing mortals not to imitate them. Naturally many failed the test.

Although Babylon was not accorded the same prominence as in Christian literature,93 other Arabic sources preserve Greek traditions on the city.94 Greek chronologies for Mesopotamia were collected and compared by Abu-Raihan Muhammad Ibn ‘Ahmad al-Biruni (973–1048 AD [362–440 ah]). His Chronology of Ancient Nations includes three Mesopotamian chronologies, one Assyrian and two Babylonian. The work was highly influential and has been important in the long-term preservation of now lost sources and other information. Sachau, its translator, wrote that:

It is a standard work in Oriental literature, and has been recognised as such by the East itself, representing in its peculiar line the highest development of Oriental scholarship. Perhaps we shall one day find the literary sources from which Albîrûnî derived his information, and shall be enabled to dispense with his extracts from them. But there are other chapters […] regarding which […] the author had learned the subject from hearsay among a population which was then on the eve of dying out.95

Al-Biruni’s Assyrian chronology runs for 1305 years, and among other points of interest offers relative dates for the sack of Troy and the reign of King David, while the Assyrian and Babylonian chronologies cover periods of 241 and 428 years, respectively. In the Assyrian chronology the first king is Belus,96 followed by Ninus, founder of Nineveh. Al-Biruni states that Abraham was born in the 43rd year of Ninus’ reign, although all the reigns given are plausible for mortal kings – the very long reigns attributed to early kings in Sumerian, Akkadian and Hebrew lists are absent. Al-Biruni’s founder of Babylon is Nimrod:

According to some chronicler, Nimrôd ben Kush ben Ham ben Noah, founded a kingdom in Babylonia twenty-three years after the confusion of languages. And that was the earliest kingdom established on earth.97

The phrase ‘some chronicler’ is typical of al-Biruni’s vagueness regarding sources for these chronologies. He cites ‘Western authors’ as sources for the story of Sardanapalus98 and his downfall at the hands of Arbaces.99 The content of his version is sufficient to confirm Ctesias as the origin, but not necessarily as one of the actual works used by al-Biruni – likely intermediaries are Diodorus Siculus and Photius. Ctesias is not the source, however, for the Babylonian chronologies. The first of these concerns the beginning of Babylon’s history: the city is founded by Nimrod, while in an interesting piece of etymological tidying up Semiramis is made the founder of Samarra.100 She is succeeded not by Ninyas, as in Ctesias, but by a Zameis, whose name reappears in the seventeenth-century chronology of Athanasius Kircher (see below). Al-Biruni’s second Babylonian chronology runs from a ‘Nebukadnezar the First’101 up to Alexander the Great, totalling 428 years. The last Neo-Babylonian king is ‘Belteshassar’ (reigned four years), followed by ‘Darius the Median, the First’ (17 years) and ‘Cyrus, who rebuilt Jerusalem’ (nine years). Of all the known chronologies for Babylon on which al-Biruni might have drawn, this one accords best with that of Daniel, where Cyrus is also preceded by a mysterious (and aged) Darius the Mede. Nebuchadnezzar II (the name Nebuchadnezzar is in fact remembered, here as in other Arabic sources, as ‘Bukht-Nassar’) is illustrated in two medieval copies of the text in the act of destroying Jerusalem.102 Bukht-Nassar and the Judaean Exile are also remembered in the twelfth-century account of Yaqut al-Rumi al-Hamawi. Interestingly, Nebuchadnezzar also retains an association with large-scale canal engineering.103

Arab historians were limited to the same group of non-cuneiform sources as their European counterparts. Writing in the late fourteenth century, Ibn Khaldun used classical sources to give a brief account of Babylonia in volume two of his great universal history, but a fuller account had to wait until the late sixteenth century and the universal history of Müneccimbaşı (Ahmed ibn Lutfullah, d. 1702). Müneccimbaşı account drew on European as well as Islamic sources, and his information on Assyria and Babylonia came from the former. These kingdoms, along with the Seleucid and Ptolemaic dynasties, were novelties ‘previously barely known to Islamic historiography’.104

Nimrod receives frequent mention, and is ascribed several roles: settler as in Genesis 10, builder of the Tower, sinner against God, monstrous giant and magician. One story has Nimrod attempting to use eagles to ascend to heaven and make war on God.105 The play on words of the confusion of tongues’ Babel/balal also survives, as ta-balal-a, to get mixed up.106 As in the Western tradition, Nimrod and Nebuchadnezzar were the names which survived most prominently, and both carried strongly negative associations. The city of Babylon itself became that of ‘witchcraft and wine’,107 and ‘Babylonian eyes’ became those that enchanted.108 According to al-Bakri, ‘Ali refused to pray at Babil, considering it cursed and calling it a ‘graveyard’.109 The reference recognizes both the antiquity and the pagan nature of the site, and indeed Babylon retained a reputation as the oldest city in Iraq.110 More prosaically, Babylon was regularly included in the medieval Arabic geographies. The descriptions, like those of medieval European travellers, are generally laconic, but the antiquity and great size of the site are recognized. To describe Iraq as ‘Babylonia’ is criticized as anachronistic – meaning that it still occurred – in the tenth-century Geography of al-Muqadassi.111

Late Antique and medieval Hebrew sources

A further interesting facet of Nimrod's identity bridges the medieval Islamic and Hebrew sources. A tradition in the Aggada makes him the antagonist of Abraham as he confronts his religious doubts, while Qur’anic references to these struggles of Abraham (which do not name Nimrod) are understood to belong to the same tradition.112

A key medieval source from the point of view of Jewish historiography is the Sefer ha-Qabbalah (Book of Tradition) of Abraham Ibn Daud, composed in Spain 1160–1 AD (4921 AM). The work was highly influential, achieving a status in Jewish culture similar to that held by Orosius or Isidore of Seville in medieval Christian historiography.113 Ibn Daud was concerned with demonstrating the antiquity and continuity of rabbinical tradition, and this in itself is historiographically important, in that it marks a difference from the Augustinian Christian model, stressing an unbroken tradition of experience and a repetition of patterns, with biblical events acting as precedents for episodes in later Jewish history.114 As in Augustine, Babylon’s significance is rendered timeless, but here for a different reason, one more akin to the Greek cyclical conception of history. Here the Babylonian Captivity becomes a hardship that will recur throughout Jewish history.

Although developed within rabbinical tradition, the Sefer ha-Kaballah relies more heavily on Ibn Daud’s own study of biblical texts than on existing scholarship.115 In the resulting chronology Nebuchadnezzar attacks Jerusalem in the first, 18th and 23rd years of his reign. In the first attack he carries off Jehoiachim, Daniel and the three companions of the Fiery Furnace. In the second he takes Jehoiachin and some 17,000 captives (Ibn Daud notes a contradiction with the figure of 3,023 given by Jeremiah, arguing that this is the figure for heads of families). It is not until his final attack that he destroys the Temple and captures Zedekiah.116 Forty-seven years later, Ibn Daud’s Belshazzar is betrayed by his own officers in fulfilment of Isaiah 21.5.117 All of these events occur in the mid-fourth millennium dating from the creation of Adam, with the destruction of the Temple in 3362.118

Although influential in Jewish scholarship, Ibn Daud’s work fell out of favour in Christian historiography. In the mid-sixteenth century Calvin attacked the commentary on Daniel of Don Isaac Abravanel, which was based on the chronology of the Sefer ha-Qaballah.119 The attack did much to discredit rabbinic historical scholarship generally, and Ibn Daud’s Babylonian chronology in particular, in the emergent Protestant Christianity of Northern Europe.

An altogether different kind of Mesopotamian legacy can be felt through the Babylonian Talmud, whose compilation in Late Antique Iraq resulted in the incorporation of much cuneiform-derived material. Particularly notable for the transmission of information on magic and medicine from cuneiform into Aramaic, the Babylonian Talmud also contains historical traditions, some rooted in cuneiform sources, others matters of legend and lore. The Babylonian Talmud represents the compilation and redaction of centuries of Jewish scholarly tradition in Mesopotamia. Despite its spiritual resonance, the end of the Babylonian Captivity had certainly not meant an end to Jewish life in Iraq; on the contrary it was only the beginning. As noted in Chapter 3, there is no reason to think that more than a minority of Judaeans took advantage of the right of return granted by Cyrus, and over the centuries Iraq’s Jewish population increased. The scholars behind both content and compilation of the Babylonian Talmud were descendents of the Judaeans brought to Babylonia by Nebuchadnezzar, working at the great Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbeditha, as well as smaller centres such as Nehardea and Mahuza.

Other traditions, Persian and Armenian

In Persian as in Arabic literature some influence came through Jewish tradition and the Babylonian Talmud, ensuring the survival of the names of Nimrod, Nebuchadnezzar and Daniel, as well as a memory of the Babylonians as great astronomers in Persian as well as Western culture. It is worth noting that in medieval Arabic tradition there were two possible founders of Babylon. One was Nimrod, originating with the Genesis account as interpreted by Josephus; the other came from Persian literature. In the Persian tradition Babylon was founded by a line of kings beginning with an evil and semi-monstrous Arab king named Zahhak,120 whose successor Kavus seems to share characteristics with the Nimrod of Arabic tradition. He was reputed to have built the Tower of Babel121 and to have built seven palaces at Babylon, each of a different stone or metal, corresponding to the seven planets. To this king is also attached the legend of an attempt to reach heaven using eagles, ascribed to Nimrod in the Arabic sources.122

Legends of Semiramis also spread to Persia, while a separate Armenian tradition also grew up around the legendary queen. The eighth-century AD account of Moses Khorenati describes Semiramis leading an invasion of the Lake Van area (and thus presumably the kingdom of Urartu, Assyria’s neighbour and sometime rival power) and building a great city there – for which Urartian ruins are a probable inspiration.123 The invasion is prompted by her desire for the youthful Ara the Fair, a semi-divine hero,124 but despite her order that he be captured alive he is killed in the fighting. Semiramis attempts to resurrect Ara, until finally she resorts to dressing a substitute as the king and announcing to his people that he has returned to life.

Early European images

Early European artistic images of Babylon or Babylonians are concentrated around three subjects: episodes from the Book of Daniel, the Tower of Babel and the Book of Revelation.125 A common image is that of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Fiery Furnace. The message of trust in God protecting the faithful is a powerful one with obvious resonance for early European Christians. The scene, featuring only Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, is depicted in the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, in a fresco dating to the late third century AD. Their cruciform poses are repeated in many later illustrations, including some of the most lavish depictions of scenes from Daniel. These are the spectacular surviving manuscripts of Beatus of Liebana’s eighth-centuryCommentary on the Apocalypse (in fact a compilation of existing commentary). Twelfth-century copies of the manuscript featuring a distinctive, North-African influenced graphic style contain some of the most vivid illustrations related to Daniel and Revelation in medieval art. The most celebrated version is the Silos Apocalypse, produced at the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, Cantabria.126 The depiction of the Fiery Furnace in this instance features an angelic protector of the three men, as well as larger images of the enthroned Nebuchadnezzar and courtiers worshipping the idol. Another twelfth-century manuscript illustration comes from the Bible of Etienne Harding, representative of a tradition where Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego are represented as young children.127 Here, the largest figure is again Nebuchadnezzar, plump and ornately dressed. A smaller figure appealing to him may be Daniel. As an illustration to a personal Bible the scene is an easy choice to understand: espousals of humility and piety reflected well on the wealthy and powerful patron of the work. A more lavish representation can be seen in a fifteenth-century German image of the scene.128 In this image the Jews in the furnace are calm and in prayer, and the fire itself seems to emanate from them as a kind of radiance or corona. Around and above them are smooth grey arches; below is a chaotic scene dominated by Nebuchadnezzar’s servants standing awkwardly as they try to shield themselves from the flames. The impression is of shielding mortal eyes from the sight of God.

The other common genre of Daniel images is the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams. These scenes may be lavish129 or extremely dark,130 but only a few are markedly orientalizing.131 Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams have also been illustrated in manuscripts of Dante’s Divine Comedy. One example shows Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue whose head is of gold, body and arms of silver, stomach and thighs of bronze, legs of iron and feet of iron and clay (Daniel explains that the golden head represents Nebuchadnezzar himself, the rest of the body those kingdoms that will follow his own, down to the division of Alexander’s empire among his generals), in an image that also includes the figures of Moses, St John the Baptist, St John the Evangelist and the archangels Michael, Raphael and Gabriel.132

Images of the siege of Jerusalem focus on the city itself, with the Babylonians included as an encircling army in European costume. The best-known examples come from manuscript illustration. A detailed comparison of representations of Jerusalem and Babylon would be interesting in its own right; here we must focus on the latter, noting only that in Christian art the two are frequently juxtaposed, following the opposition between Babylon and the New Jerusalem set up in Revelation and reinforced by St Augustine. Nebuchadnezzar’s attacks on Jerusalem are not forgotten in the representation of his character from Daniel. Indeed, one notable siege illustration is an illumination of the opening letter to the Book of Daniel itself.133

The Tower of Babel is perhaps the most common image of all. An exceptional late medieval illustration of the Tower is that found in the Bedford Hours, a lavish fifteenth-century book of hours illustrated in Paris (Figure 4).134 As in many other medieval illustrations, the tower and its building techniques are contemporary. So too are the costumes of the builders, and of king Nimrod and his architects, who from this point on appear in most images of the tower. The Bedford Hours image, though exceptional in the quality of its production, is typical in all these features of medieval manuscript illustrations of the Tower of Babel. It is interesting to note that, despite the explicit moral role of the tower as a warning against ambition and pride, it could simultaneously act as a showcase for developments and achievements in the medieval mason’s art.

Despite the challenges presented by its often bizarre imagery, illustrations of the Book of Revelation are not uncommon in medieval art. The Whore of Babylon,135 holding the golden cup and seated upon the beast with seven heads, is one such image, while again the Beatus manuscripts such as the Silos Apocalypse furnish some of the most vivid images, including of the destruction of Babylon itself. The most impressive of all medieval representations of the apocalypse, however, is the incredible late fourteenth-centuryApocalypse of Angers, in which the subject matter, conventions and vivid imaginative qualities of manuscript illustrations of Revelation are rendered in large-scale tapestries of astonishing elegance and beauty (Figure 5).136 The work, still displayed at the Château d’Angers, is monumental: the apocalypse is depicted in six tapestry sections, each around 4.5 m in height and with a combined length of over 100 m.137

Medieval images of events in the ancient past employ contemporary architecture and costume and only rarely feature visible ‘oriental’ motifs. They do not attempt to reconstruct the fashions of past ages: no equivalent yet existed of the later Renaissance antiquarian and numismatic studies on which the first attempts at such authenticity would be based.138 Instead they lend emphasis and colour to a knowledge of Near Eastern antiquity that was necessarily based purely on textual sources, and from which little information on appearances could be derived. They served to fire the imagination, and to breathe life into the accounts they illustrated. Much the same could be said of those references to ancient Mesopotamia that occurred in the decoration of churches,139 and which were available to a broader public than manuscripts, which after all were barred to most on grounds of literacy and expense. Some tapestries would also have had a wider audience: it is thought that the Apocalypse of Angers itself was hung in Angers Cathedral on some feast days.

Secular contexts for the illustration of Babylon are fewer. One notable survival is the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, retold by Boccaccio in the Decameron and by Chaucer in his Legend of Good Women.140 An ivory box in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows something of the medieval cultural context for the story, including it alongside other episodes from courtly literature, including Aristotle teaching Alexander, Phyllis riding Aristotle, and the assault on the Castle of Love (Figure 6). Certainly there are differences between what would be considered ‘canonical’ Babylon stories in the medieval and Renaissance worlds and in later periods, partly as a consequence of the greater medieval reliance on Latin (as opposed to Greek) sources. The medieval image of Semiramis – very positive, as one of the Nine Worthy Women – was based on a story absent from the Greek accounts, but told by the Roman historian Valerius Maximus. On hearing of a revolt in Babylon whilst at her toilette, Semiramis pauses to lead an army to crush the rebellion before returning to finish combing her hair. She is identifiable in medieval images by her long, unbrushed hair – symbolism which may feature in the Venus of Botticelli’s Primavera.141 More explicitly, the theme survives beyond the Renaissance and into the Baroque paintings of Guercino, who produced three major versions of Semiramis receiving word of the revolt.142

Returning to scriptural sources, a different model of feminine virtue and physical courage was the image of Judith beheading Holofernes in his tent, thereby preventing the sack of Bethulia. In the Book of Judith, Holofernes is a general of Nebuchadnezzar, though this Nebuchadnezzar was ‘king of the Assyrians, and reigned in Nineveh’.143 The story has long been understood to relate to its own, second- to first-century BC political context, with competing theories on the identity of ‘Nebuchadnezzar’. The subject of Judith beheading Holofernes appears regularly in medieval manuscripts, and has been treated by many artists, including Giorgione, Michelangelo, Lucas Cranach, Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi; more recent notable examples include works by Francisco Goya and Gustav Klimt.

Babylon in medieval cosmology: the case of Dante

Although its references to Mesopotamia are all brief, Dante’s Divine Comedy is important here for two reasons. First, the contemporary and later influence of Dante’s work in general lends enormous weight to the mentions it does make of Babylon in terms of representation. Second, the Divine Comedy is essentially a moral categorization of human beings by type, based in large part on the personal values and prejudices that in many (though by no means all) cases Dante shared with other Christian thinkers of his age. The Divine Comedy’s careful classification of sin and virtue is exactly the kind of grand model C. S. Lewis had in mind when writing The Discarded Image.144 The model successfully integrates biblical and classical traditions, as well as applying itself to Dante’s contemporary world.145 Its categories and hierarchies hold many surprises for the present-day reader. Alexander, for example, is to be found in the river of blood around the seventh circle of hell, with Attila and other ‘tyrants, who took to sword and pillaging’,146while Saladin is placed in Limbo, the first circle of hell and the best fate available to a non-Christian in this scheme.147 Both placements at first seem anachronistic in an age of religious crusades, yet the treatment of Saladin must be reconciled with the awful fate Dante writes for the Prophet Mohammed. The author cannot be mistaken for displaying a great tolerance of Islam.148

The only mention of the city of Babylon is in the highest reaches of heaven, as a great trial that has been passed:

Oh what great wealth, crammed down in there, among

These richest coffers which, below on earth,

Were goodly husbandmen, and true seed flung.

Here they have life and joy in just that worth

Of treasure, earned in banishment and weeping

In Babylon, and scorning gold for dearth.149

The biblical reference is to Psalm 137, and the role of Babylon is that of purgatory-on-Earth. More use is made of the Babylon of Revelation, in the sense that Dante’s visions in the earthly paradise150 relate closely to those of Revelation. Unlike Augustine, Dante uses them for the condemnation of Rome, but the meaning is nonetheless quite different from that of Revelation itself. This time the attack is directed at Christian Rome, and the corruption of the Church.

Despite such scant reference to the city as a whole, several characters associated with Babylon are treated individually. Semiramis is found very early on, in the second circle of hell, reserved for sexual sinners and battered by an eternal storm. She is grouped with, among others, Cleopatra, Tristan and the lovers of the Iliad: Achilles, Paris, Helen. Virgil describes her to Dante:

‘The first of those of whom you question, she’s

Empress of many tongues,’ he then replied

‘And so undone with lechery that her decrees

Mingled her lust into her law and tried

To shift away from her own acts the blame

Which to her own loose conduct had applied.

Queen Semiramis was her earthly name;

We read she was to Ninus wife and heir.

She held the land which is the Sultan’s claim.’151

This account is enough to confirm that Dante’s Semiramis is a combination of those described by Ctesias and Athenaeus, via Diodorus Siculus and presumably a Latin translation or epitome. One possible source is Orosius who, as has already been noted, emphasized and elaborated Semiramis’ sexual transgressions.152 Certainly his History Against the Pagans was a particularly popular and much-reproduced work in the Middle Ages.153 Further, although a name is not given it seems likely that Dante designates Orosius as a ‘little light’ in the fourth heaven, that of the sun,154 supporting the suggestion that he used and respected Orosius’ work.155

Other aspects of the account show contemporary influence. ‘The land which is the Sultan’s claim’ suggests that Dante, like John Mandeville and others, understood Babylon to be an ancient name for Cairo, although the reference is perhaps too vague to be sure. More significantly, while Semiramis’ behaviour is drawn from classical sources, the moral dimension of Virgil’s comment on that behaviour is framed in an apparently original way. The Semiramis of Ctesias certainly does not try ‘to shift away from her own acts the blame’. She is a semi-mythical barbarian queen and, like a Greek immortal, is presumed not to care. Whatever the case, a wide gulf separates Semiramis from Babylon’s other representative in hell, Nimrod. Interestingly the latter is not identified with Ninus, Ctesias’ founder of Babylon, and no attempt is made to resolve this apparent conflict of founders. There is some indication that for Dante the conflict did not occur. On the one hand, some later sources suggest the concept of a dispersal immediately after the confusion of tongues, followed by a re-founding of Babylon; on the other, Nimrod, when we finally reach him in the lowest reaches of hell, is clearly a creature of another age.156 Nimrod is in the ninth circle for his treachery to God, and is conceived as one of the giants who made war on heaven. While the previous levels of hell have involved dire and violent punishments, the giants are simply chained and still appear very dangerous. Nimrod is given the longest description of any of them, and even has a speech, though it is nonsense. As Virgil explains to Dante:

He told me: ‘He condemns himself in speech.

This is the Nimrod, through whose evil spurred,

We cannot speak one language, each to each.

Let’s leave him standing there, nor waste a word

For every language is the same to him,

As his own to us, senseless, absurd.’157

The monstrous, chained, giant Nimrod is part of the climax of the Inferno, and is much more prominent than the later passage, in the Purgatorio, where we encounter a figure more familiar to us. Here Dante and Virgil walk along a path where the proud are depicted to be trodden underfoot, and see Nimrod witnessing the ruin of his tower. The two representations are not factually inconsistent, but that of the Inferno certainly does conflict with the Nimrod of our medieval illustrations of the Tower, of which that described in thePurgatorio seems more representative. Moral teaching lies at the heart of all these works, and in this respect the monstrous giant who wars against heaven and the man who is misguided merely by dint of ambition and pride are very different. The latter description is an example from which one is intended to learn humility, the former a shocking image from which one can learn only fear: of Nimrod, of God, and of hell.158

Nebuchadnezzar is not one of the characters Dante meets, and he receives only a brief reference:

And Beatrice [Dante’s love and guide through Heaven] took the role on Daniel thrust,

In saving Nebuchadnezzar from the ire

That rendered him so cruel and unjust.159

Considering Dante’s theme of sin and redemption and Nebuchadnezzar’s biblical fame, this cursory treatment is strange. One explanation may lie in the complications of the Book of Daniel itself. Dante’s original source presents two morally quite different versions of the king, only one of whom finds any kind of redemption. Dante’s model is intended to punish and reward tendencies more than specific actions, and specific actions are always taken to be indicative of the whole personality of those he meets in theDivine Comedy. The system works by rule, not degree, and although individuals in the Purgatorio may display a mixture of virtues and vices, they are consistent. Nebuchadnezzar’s shifting pattern of cruelty, madness and submission to wise counsel is difficult to incorporate. Dante’s apparent resolution of the problem, a simpler arc of sin and, through Daniel, redemption, involves a sleight of hand, but is also a very neat, very medieval solution.

Dürer and the image of the apocalypse

The religious politics of the Reformation profoundly influenced Babylon’s place in European cultural life, as the ‘violent conflict for souls’ unfolding in northern Europe turned the image of the apocalypse into a tool for sectarian mud-slinging.160 Babylon was caught up in this battle as reformers drew on the language of Revelation to attack the present-day city of sin they saw increasingly in the Roman Church.

Early signs of the blurring between the Babylon of Revelation and the contemporary, lived world can be seen in the famous Apocalypse woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer, published in 1498. Dürer’s Whore of Babylon is a richly adorned courtesan in contemporary Venetian dress (Figure 7).161 The ‘peoples of the Earth’ drawn to her also wear contemporary dress, and notably include a monk and a Turk in the foreground. All this, however, is set amid the fantastic visions of Revelation. The Whore of Babylon herself is the main focus of the image, holding aloft the golden cup filled with obscenities.162 She rides upon a seven-headed beast, while above her the angels prophesying Babylon’s destruction163 and the armies of the Knight Called Faithful and True164 descend upon the world. In the background the city of Babylon itself erupts in flame.

In depicting the complex, hallucinatory visions of Revelation Dürer faced a particular challenge, greater than that of his medieval predecessors. Following Luther’s views (Dürer’s admiration for Luther is well documented, although he remained a Catholic throughout his life), his images had to remain subordinate to – and thus strictly illustrative of – the text. As as result, ‘Where the imaginings of the text are most implausible Dürer was obliged to be most literal’.165 The result was as original as it was dazzling.

Produced at the close of the fifteenth century, Dürer’s Apocalyspe was to influence practically all northern European printed illustrations of the subject in the sixteenth,166 as the theme’s role in the imagery of the Reformation developed. The association in reformist minds between vice-ridden, corrupt Babylon and the comtemporary Roman Church could be expressed through devices similar to those by which Dürer had mixed visionary and material, ancient and contemporary elements in his woodcuts. Of particular importance, given the impact and dissemination of Luther’s own German translation of the New Testament, published in 1522 and better known as the September Testament, are the images produced for this publication by Lucas Cranach, whose apocalypse woodcuts were strongly influenced by those of Dürer but also carry clear attacks on Rome. Making the link explicit, Cranach’s Destruction of Babylon used Rome as depicted in Hartmann Schedel’s 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle as its model.167 From the abstract symbol of worldliness Babylon had become through the influence of St Augustine, it was once again returning to a physical locus; and as in the day of St John the Divine that locus was Rome.

Pieter Bruegel and the Tower of Babel

By far the most famous images of the Tower of Babel today are the late sixteenth-century paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Figure 8). Bruegel produced three paintings of the Tower, of which two survive.168 Filled with minute detail and showing a masterful understanding of architecture, the paintings are also famous for the strong political statement they made by placing the Tower of Babel, symbol of pride and decay, in a contemporary Flemish setting. They were much imitated, providing the basic model for a major genre in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Familiar settings can be misleading. The artist acquired the nickname ‘peasant Bruegel’ for his depictions of everyday peasant life, and for a long time his work was considered to be very straightforward and not at all intellectual. It was often asserted, following the biographical account of Carel van Mander, that Bruegel was by birth a peasant himself.169 This was never a view easily reconciled with darker, stranger works such as The Triumph of Death or Dulle Griet, and twentieth-century scholarship on Bruegel made the traditional position increasingly untenable. Charles de Tolnay, the author most responsible for promoting a new perspective on the artist,170 is now generally seen as having gone too far in his portrayal of Bruegel as a radical and member of the House of Love, but the considerable literary and scholarly content of his works is now widely acknowledged. As for his peasant scenes, many are now seen as far more pessimistic and satirical than was once thought. Very little biographical information survives about the artist himself, although there is some limited evidence suggesting that he associated with a humanist intellectual circle including the cartographer Abraham Ortelius.171 He probably produced some risqué work that does not survive: on his deathbed he seems to have ordered his wife to burn some of his drawings. Whether, as has often been suggested, this work was strongly political, however, is far from clear.172

Information on Bruegel’s cultural and intellectual influences must therefore be drawn from the paintings themselves. There is sufficient iconographic evidence in Bruegel’s oeuvre to suggest that the artist had a considerable familiarity with the ideas of Erasmus, who seems to be the source for many of the proverbs and puns illustrated in his paintings.173 Perhaps more importantly, Bruegel’s work seems to follow an Erasmian prescription for the visual representation of history. Erasmus thought it stupid and pointless to attempt to reconstruct the past by ‘dressing Flemings in Greek costumes’, and rather felt that the aim was to make the past live in the present.174 This position on visual art (on which subject Erasmus wrote rarely) is a direct extension of his broader position that the writers of classical antiquity had tangible and practical lessons for life in the present. Bruegel takes the same approach, and does so with intelligence and great emotive force. His Massacre of the Innocents175 is perhaps the most compelling of all demonstrations of the past ‘living in the present’. By placing this awful scene in a mundane contemporary setting, Bruegel brings perhaps even more horror to the subject than the painfully graphic depiction of the same event by Rubens.176 More prosaically, there is a good chance that Bruegel refers here to political events of his own day, and to persecution of Calvinists and others by the Inquisition.177 This much also applies to the Tower of Babel paintings. The architecture of the tower itself is classical, but the town over which it looms is sixteenth-century Antwerp. In terms of a contemporary political meaning, it is quite likely that Nimrod in the Vienna painting actually represents Philip II of Spain.178 Spanish rule in the Netherlands included an active role for the Inquisition, and if we accept that Bruegel had links to prominent humanists such as Ortelius this would certainly have affected his own circle. The suggestion that Nimrod and the Tower’s builders might be Philip and his supporters is rather clearer in the Tower of Babel paintings produced by some followers of Bruegel than in his own work, however, and interestingly the Rotterdam panel does not feature Nimrod at all.179 Figures in Lucas van Valckenborch’s Tower of Babel paintings feature obviously Spanish costume, a more open criticism available to the Protestant Valckenborch, who had already fled the Inquisition to settle in Germany.

As with a great deal of Bruegel’s work, there are multiple additional meanings and even ambiguity in the main theme.180 Thus, while the towers certainly refer to doomed pride, they also seem to have a role in the utopian ideas of the day. The confusion of tongues was an important theme, not least because of wider issues regarding linguistic and especially religious diversity in the Low Countries. It has been pointed out that the vast number of Tower of Babel paintings produced by Dutch and Flemish artists in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries appear at just the same time as the production and publication of the first Polyglot Bible. There can be no doubt that questions of language in this context were bound up with questions of religion and the politics of the Reformation. Bruegel himself is not known to have been a Protestant, but there are several instances in his work that suggest he was part of the very broad base of criticism of the Catholic hierarchy and its privileges. (A very small feature in the centre of the Rotterdam painting shows what looks like a cardinal’s procession moving up the Tower, though it is ambiguous enough that the artist could easily have denied that any such impression was intended.181) The limitations of human division and failure to some extent imply the potential to succeed through unity, whether of language or religion, and the idea that despite its pessimistic primary message a second, more utopian strand exists in Bruegel’s paintings is plausible, indeed almost characteristic: that celebration, sympathy and satire are so closely bound up in works such as Wedding Feast helps to explain why the satirical aspects of the work went so long unrecognized. Similarly, while the relevance of the Tower of Babel is moral, it is rather more than a simple didactic moral lesson on pride; in some ways it is a contemporary moral theological question left unresolved.

Bruegel’s towers themselves are gigantic structures, classical in their architecture and quite unlike the contemporary towns and harbours at their feet. The model is the Colosseum, the greatest known building of antiquity and of course one associated with Rome. The influence of Bruegel’s choice has been enormous, but he was not the first to base his Tower on the Roman monument. A 1547 etching by Cornelis Anthonisz is probably the earliest example. In this image the tower is depicted as falling, almost exploding, as a terrified populace (some of whose poses are obviously modelled on famous classical sculptures) run for safety from falling masonry.182 Nor would Bruegel actually have needed to travel to Italy in order to gain detailed architectural knowledge of the Colosseum: an excellent alternative source was available in the form of prints made by Hieronymus Cock, whom Bruegel knew personally. He did go, however, working in Rome for about five years. It is known that during this period he worked closely with the miniaturist Giulio Clovio, probably painting landscape backgrounds to Clovio’s figure work.183 Through Clovio Bruegel had access either to a Gerard Horenbout image in the Grimani Breviary, to Clovio’s close copy of it for the Farnese Hours, or to both.184The extent to which this image forms the model for Bruegel’s towers may not be immediately apparent in isolation, but if it is compared with more traditional manuscript illustrations the connection appears very strong indeed. The colossal scale of the tower in the Grimani Breviary is an innovation, as is the deep, naturalistic landscape in which it is set. It was for their landscape painting (although the genre did not yet exist independently) that northern artists were appreciated in Italy, and Bruegel himself went on to transform this important aspect of Netherlandish art. Building on the work of Joachim Patinir, Bruegel developed the concept of the ‘world landscape’, using a combination of techniques to incorporate views over vast composite landscapes into his compositions.185 The Tower of Babel is one example: in one sense the setting is Antwerp; in another, as the viewer appreciates instinctively, it is the world at large. The towers do not fit perfectly into the world landscape model, in that one would normally expect more prominent mountainous alpine elements, although these do occur in paintings of the subject by other artists following Bruegel. Nonetheless it can be seen that Bruegel contrives to present a much larger area, and from a more elevated perspective, than his subject strictly requires, altering perspective in order to do so. Compare the view from a raised foreground with that of a more clear-cut example, such as Bruegel’s own Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, and the nature of the genre becomes more apparent.

A great deal, perhaps too much, has been read into the architectural feasibility of Bruegel’s depictions and the many paintings that followed. If the structure appears possible from an engineering perspective, is the implication that humanity can potentially succeed in its endeavours? On the other hand, are failings in the architecture incidental or meaningful in the paintings’ message?186 A further sense in which the architecture is meaningful is surely the connection with Rome. In Protestant prints of the same period, the Babylon of Revelation was equated not only with imperial Rome but with the papal Rome of the present.187 Babylon was an important Reformation motif, used far more often against the Catholic Church than in its defence. The ruined triumph of imperial Roman architecture would make an excellent symbol through which to criticize hubris in the contemporary Roman power. There is no compelling reason to think that Bruegel was not an orthodox, practicing Catholic, let alone that he was a member of the House of Love, but this does not necessarily preclude veiled criticism of the earthly trappings of his faith.

The Tower of Babel pictures relate to present and past in several ways. They contain probable references to specific people and issues of the artist’s day, more universal messages about pride, hubris and possibly even utopia; most importantly, they demonstrate a quite complex basis for the location of a historical subject in a present-day setting. All of these features fall under the general heading of relating to and understanding the past. When European travellers visited Babylon in the sixteenth century they noted that, as they had read, the city was destroyed and its ruins had become infested with wild beasts. The value of further empirical investigation on-site was not yet at all obvious. New knowledge of the past, for a scholar like Erasmus, lay in the study and interpretation of texts. The value of that knowledge, and in one sense even its culmination, lay in the application of these readings to the contemporary world, and clearly Bruegel made a greater contribution in this respect than the travellers who visited and described the site of Babylon in his day. Bruegel’s paintings represent a sophisticated engagement with the distant past, and rather than a secondary use of the available information or a fancy, they also represent an active position on the relevance and meaning of that past in the present.

Bruegel’s paintings sparked the development of an entire genre. Between the mid-sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries there appeared dozens of paintings and drawings of the Tower of Babel, some by students of Bruegel himself, treated in an often almost identical manner. Hendrick van Cleve, Lucas and Marten van Valckenborch, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Abel Grimmer and many more produced images following the basic format of Bruegel’s paintings.188 The architectural details of the towers in these images tend to be modelled on classical ruins, particularly the Roman Colosseum, while the surrounding towns and harbours are recognizable as towns in the artists’ contemporary environments. Bruegel had created a vision of the Tower that, though entirely of his own creation, has defined the monument’s appearance in the European imagination ever since.

Athanasius Kircher

No Mesopotamian visual reference points were available for Bruegel’s Tower of Babel paintings, or for any other European image of Babylon, prior to the late seventeenth century. Arguably the first are the drawings commissioned by Pietro Della Valle on his travels, showing a present-day tell (Tell Babil, which for Della Valle was the Tower of Babel), and with the inscribed bricks brought to Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by Della Valle, Engelbert Kämpfer, who visited Iran in 1686,189 and the Abbé Barthélemy.190 These still constitute a meagre resource – the Della Valle images show only a tell, and reveal nothing of its contents. Nonetheless, such images and the descriptions they accompanied began to play a role. The scholar whose work most clearly bridges the gap between Renaissance and modern thought on Babylon, as on so many topics, is the seventeenth-century Jesuit priest, collector extraordinaire and polymath Athanasius Kircher.

Kircher’s Turris Babel is a unique theological and historical work, incorporating the observations of Pietro Della Valle, the implications of Old Testament chronology, the Babylonian histories of Ctesias and Herodotus, the moral aspects of the story of the Tower of Babel and a treatise on linguistics.191 Fascinated by languages and their origins (he is best known to Egyptologists for his serious but unsuccessful attempt to decipher hieroglyphs), Kircher had a strong interest in the Genesis confusion of tongues and hence the Tower of Babel. He was not alone in treating the question of the original, so-called Adamic, language spoken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; the most commonly held view was that the Hebrew of the Pentateuch must represent that language, and that all others were created by the confusion of tongues. From this starting point, Kircher took a philological approach, considering many languages and seeking to understand their relationships to one another. In effect the great work was almost a universal history of language: its goal was to explain how languages had multiplied and spread since Babel.192

Turris Babel confronts the present-day reader with the full extent of the epistemological gulf between seventeenth-century and contemporary academic thought, and gives the lie to the quite deceptive modern intelligibility of some travel accounts of its time. It also challenges the tendency to assume that, on the basis of knowledge building up in a linear and cumulative way, scholarly works such as Kircher’s will tend to be more ‘modern’ in their assumptions and arguments than less scholarly works, such as travel accounts, that rely more heavily on hearsay, folklore and contemporary common knowledge. Turris Babel is a supremely scholarly work drawing on a multitude of sources, and the Babylon Kircher presents is in some ways the most complete version we will encounter in any source, yet when taken as a whole it is more obviously alien to a modern archaeological or historical account than the narratives of the ancient Greek historians. In trying to resolve all available knowledge about Babylon, Kircher created a work that required of its reader a great openness to the divine, the magical and the fantastic. The combination of completeness and implausibility is not a coincidence but the direct result of the challenge Kircher set himself. Turris Babel works to achieve a harmony, consistency and completeness that is simply impossible, and in so doing creates a vision of Babel that is rich and strange in equal measure. Nor did Kircher’s scholarship inhibit his imagination: his attention to the sources is studious, yet with them he builds a description of Babylon far more detailed and complete than they could possibly allow.193

Kircher’s dating for the foundation of Babylon takes as its basis the life of Noah. He offers three sequences of dates, counting forward from the beginning of the world; based on the age of Noah; and counting forward from the Flood, at which point the world had existed for 1657 years.194 According to this system he places a co-regency of Nimrod and Belus (the Bel known from classical sources, the Babylonian god Marduk) at the end of the second millennium, with both their deaths in the 1996th year of the world (the 940th of Noah’s life and the 340th since the Flood). They are immediately succeeded by Ninus, who nine years later also becomes king of Assyria. This must owe something to Diodorus, whose Ninus ‘set about the task of subduing the nations of Asia, and within a period of seventeen years he became master of them all except the Indians and Bactrians’.195 Accordingly Ninus is succeeded by Semiramis, but here Kircher diverges from Diodorus, and as in the chronology of al-Biruni she is succeeded not by Ninyas but by Zameis. Nimrod reigns for at least 250 years, against Ninus’ and Semiramis’ shorter but still lengthy reigns of 52 and 42 years, respectively.196 These should not necessarily be taken to imply natural lifespans, since Semiramis was the contemporary of Ninus, but the pattern of a gradual reduction in life expectancy follows the model of the Old Testament. The many images in Turris Babel were mainly designed by Conraet Decker and were commissioned by Kircher for the purpose. They present a great variety of views of the Tower and the city, although conforming to a general pattern similar to that of the Flemish painters whereby Roman ruins and Egyptian obelisks were mixed with more contemporary architecture. Nimrod, Ninus and Semiramis are all shown in Roman military dress.197

One of the problems with producing a consistent representation of the Tower of Babel was the contradiction between its apparent destruction very early in human history and the accounts of its existence, and indeed destruction at human hands, in Greek histories. Kircher adopts Orosius’ solution to this problem: a second Tower, built by Ninus and Semiramis. This interpretation apparently still held some currency for Rich and Keppel in the early nineteenth century. (Indeed a similar problem is still being resolved today, in that Herodotus describes a temple that was once thought, by the time of his visit to Mesopotamia, to have been completely destroyed by Xerxes.198) This position, however, hardly begins to account for the array of towers presented as images in the book, which range from a gigantic neo-classical wedding cake to the nondescript tells recorded by Pietro della Valle’s artist. As well as the Tower(s) of Babel, illustrations include views of the entire city and of the Hanging Gardens. The former is laid out on a grid pattern, after Herodotus, with the river (only one, contradicting other maps in the book where the Tigris and Euphrates meet in Babylon) running through the centre, and monumental buildings in the centre of the city and on either side of the river. The whole city is surrounded by a moat, with bridges running into the walls at regular intervals through the 100 gates mentioned by Herodotus. Despite the tendency towards classical architecture, particularly in the Tower, an Asian setting is indicated: in the foreground figures in exotic dress, some mounted on elephants, move towards the city.

Perhaps the most remarkable elements of Turris Babel are Kircher’s attempts to bring scientific and humanistic analysis to bear on those aspects of the Tower of Babel tradition hardest to interpret literally, namely the attempt to build the tower up to heaven and the subsequent confusion of tongues. This approach simply does not admit of allegory, and Kircher graphically demonstrates the impossibility of building a tower to reach heaven. That impossibility, furthermore, is argued not in philosophical or theological but in mechanical terms, on the basis of the astronomical insight that the nearest heavenly body, the moon, is simply too far up. Kircher calculates that to reach the moon the tower would require three million tonnes of material, stand 178,672 miles high, and would tip the Earth from its axis (Figure 9). The combination of biblical literalism and Enlightenment astronomy used to reach this conclusion seems absurd, particularly when rendered as a visual image, but the case is a perfect microcosm of the challenges Kircher faced in studying the Tower of Babel. The domains of theology, philosophy and empirical research had begun to chafe against one another in unexpected and sometimes alarming ways.


Images based on the Book of Daniel continue in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, one common subject being Belshazzar’s Feast. Typically such images showed the king’s more or less orientalized banqueting hall, guests and sometimes the writing on the wall, but by far the most famous and important example is in almost every way atypical: Rembrandt’s masterpiece Belshazzar’s Feast (c.1636–8) has much more to do with the artist’s unique religious vision and approach to the representation of history and the Bible than with the art of his contemporaries (Figure 10). Rembrandt’s huge canvas focuses tightly on Belshazzar himself, revealing only a small group of bystanders and a single table from the great feast. Belshazzar, recoiling, stares in horror at the writing on the wall as it appears before him. He is dressed in an orientalizing costume that was almost certainly copied, along with the king’s pose, from a Pieter Lastman painting of Esther and Ahasuerus.199 Other figures in the painting also have models in earlier paintings,200though Belshazzar’s is the only one to feature an oriental costume of any kind. Rembrandt took no part in the wave of interest in Persian costume then current among Dutch painters, nor in the vogue for Turkish costume that had preceded it.201 His major source of ‘oriental’ costume was probably the Jewish population of Amsterdam,202 alongside, as here, figures in other paintings. In truth, all treatment of historical accuracy in terms of material culture seems utterly irrelevant here. The elements that matter are Rembrandt’s portrayal of the king, his personality, his emotions, and of the divine writing itself.

The painting’s inscription has been the subject of much debate. Written in Hebrew characters, it contains the Aramaic inscription mene mene tekel upharsin. Its format, however, is highly peculiar, arranging the letters not in horizontal lines but vertical columns. Attempting to read the inscription normally, i.e. in horizontal lines right-to-left, produces nonsense. The device is a response to a scholarly problem arising from the Daniel account of the incident: why, in the court of the king of Babylon, could only one person (Daniel) not only interpret but even read an inscription given in the Near Eastern lingua franca of Aramaic? The solution of vertical columns can be traced to the Babylonian Talmud, where it is attributed to Rabbi Samuel,203 and was probably given to Rembrandt by the famous Amsterdam Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel.204

In one sense, then, the painting is very scholarly, but its purpose is not to mystify and its central, emotional meaning is immediate and direct. In the figure of Belshazzar Rembrandt captures the mixture of alarm, fear and guilt that are the real subject of the painting. This is an encounter with the divine whose human dimension was of great importance to Rembrandt, as would also be the case in many of his later biblical works. Lit by the writing on the wall, the skin tones of the king break with artistic convention: where normally cold and warm tones are alternated, here Rembrandt uses exclusively warm tones, contributing to the work’s theatrical quality. The king’s pose, at once turning towards and pulling away from the writing, causes his figure to fill a large part of the canvas, physically dominating it and contributing to the movement as the surrounding figures also react to the apparition.205 The king himself is middle-aged and his face lined. Rembrandt offers a Belshazzar who is careworn, strangely ordinary for all his pomp. This is a picture of a rich and powerful man discovering his own ruin, and of the power of God over mortals. Just as much as Bruegel, Rembrandt is an artist concerned with the meaning of his historical subject in the present.

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