In 2008–9 a unique collaboration between the Musée du Louvre and Réunion des Musées Nationaux de France, the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the British Museum resulted in a cycle of three major exhibitions on Babylon.1 I was fortunate enough to be involved with the British Museum exhibition. Although the three versions differed greatly (this was not a travelling exhibition but a sharing of objects, expertise and resources), all three dealt both with the ancient city of Babylon itself and with its later representation in art and culture.

In the London exhibition we attempted to tell a story that moved back and forth between the ancient city and its later image, particularly the fragments that survive in contemporary popular culture such as the Hanging Gardens, the Tower of Babel, Babylon’s reputation as the city of sin and the phrase ‘the writing on the wall’. We wanted to show how the legends had developed and how they related to the ancient city itself. To do this we used a relatively small number of objects (a little over 100) and an exhibition structure based on a single, strong linear narrative. We conceived the exhibition as telling a particular story, focused on specific aspects of the city’s identity and later reputation. In terms of ancient material we concentrated exclusively on the period of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, c.612–539 BC, because it is this very short period that has most shaped Babylon’s later representation.

The Paris exhibition took a different approach, consisting of two parts, the first a chronological survey of Babylon’s history and archaeology, and the second a chronological survey of the city’s reception and representation. The result is that the exhibition and its catalogue came as close as possible to providing a broad representative sample both of Babylon’s ancient material culture and of the city’s representation in art.2 The material referred to in the present book is only a small sample of the vast wealth of representations of ancient Babylon in art and literature, and the Paris catalogue perhaps gives some sense of the quantity and variety of material that exists.

The exhibition in Berlin, the largest of the three, actually consisted of two physically separate exhibitions, entitled Mythos (myth) and Wahrheit (truth). Both were held in the Pergamonmuseum, Berlin, the latter in the Vorderasiatisches Museum itself, which was converted to house it. This meant that the archaeology of the city could be displayed alongside the great Ishtar Gate and Processional Way reconstructions. The separation of the two themes led to an exhibition structure that differed both from Paris and from London. The presentation in both cases was thematic, but the themes were quite different. Where the archaeological, Wahrheit side of the exhibition focused on subjects such as everyday life, work and religion, the Mythos component took themes such as Semiramis, the Tower of Babel and the confusion of tongues. This exhibition also contained more modern art than the other two, although the London exhibition did include a selection of modern works based on the Tower of Babel.

Exhibitions such as these reach a wider audience than that to which Mesopotamian archaeology is normally accustomed. All three were extremely popular, and together they attracted around one million visitors. This popularity partly reflects the enduring appeal of Babylon’s name, but it is also perhaps the product of a strange disjunction between this familiarity and an inability to place the city historically. During preparations for the exhibition our initial surveys established what we already suspected, namely that although everyone questioned had heard of Babylon, very few knew that it was a city in ancient Iraq and indeed a majority of those surveyed were unsure whether Babylon was a real place.3 This meant that we could offer visitors an unusual combination: a famous and familiar name but new and unfamiliar content. The situation is also interesting because I believe that the results of the visitor survey reflect Babylon’s particular history in culture. The obvious, rather lazy conclusion one might first draw is that in general people are simply not that aware of ancient history, but this hardly explains the situation. After all, everyone had heard of Babylon. The phenomenon to be explained is the yawning gap between the city’s fame and even the most basic specific knowledge about it. Why were people unsure where Babylon was located, or whether it was a real place?

There is a good reason in intellectual history for the disjunction. Specifically, the blame for Babylon’s paradoxical combination of fame and obscurity should be laid squarely at the door of St John the Divine. It was Revelation, after all, that first took the powerful prophetic language of the Old Testament denunciations of Babylon and applied them in a much broader compass, transferring them specifically to first-century AD Rome and more generally to refer to aspects of all human societies. In doing so it created a powerful metaphor and a rhetorical tool that have been in constant use ever since. The moral meaning of Babylon’s story (or at least the particular story of its fall) was thus uncoupled from specific geography and history. At the same time it was mythologized, taking on the proportions of the Apocalypse itself. This is the Babylon with which people today are most familiar: a construct created specifically to talk about sin and destruction. It is not an accident that the real city has become obscured by its myths: the use of Babylon in Revelation is universalizing, and is intended to encourage the application of the story to other, contemporary contexts. Examples of attempts to make the past ‘live in the present’ have been noted in earlier chapters, particularly in the cases of Bruegel and Rembrandt. Revelation, in these terms, is perhaps the ultimate example: it has caused the past to live in the present so successfully as to obscure the ancient history on which its language is based.

At the time the exhibitions were held it was still not possible to collaborate closely with the Iraq Museum, or to borrow objects from Baghdad. Five years after the invasion of 2003, Iraq remained unstable and unsafe, while the destruction of cultural heritage in the country remained a subject of prime importance. We used the final section of the British Museum exhibition to concentrate on the fate of Babylon in recent years, both under Saddam Hussein and as the site of a military camp post-2003. This was done in the form of a simple slideshow, which had a visibly sobering effect on visitors at the end of what had otherwise been (we hoped) an enjoyable journey through the exhibition. The exhibition gave us a chance to show something of the ancient Mesopotamian heritage itself, as well as its historical legacy, and thus to bring home the significance of the depredations suffered by the site of Babylon in recent decades.

Another way to make sense of this kind of loss is through art. Timed to coincide with the Babylon exhibition in London was a smaller exhibition, also held at the British Museum, entitled Iraq’s Past Speaks to the Present and curated by Venetia Porter.4 The exhibition consisted of works by contemporary Iraqi artists that connected to the country’s ancient past, sometimes alongside relevant ancient objects from the British Museum’s collection. The works were extremely varied, but several contained references to the recent destruction of heritage in Iraq and the suffering of the country in recent years more generally. This book has focused on Babylon’s representation in European culture, but I would like to finish by mentioning the work of these Iraqi artists. They constitute a new turn in the history of Babylon’s representation, and one whose iconography is largely drawn not from European traditions but from ancient Mesopotamian artefacts themselves. In theory this has been possible for around 150 years, but only now, and only because of artists approaching the subject in terms of contemporary identity and Iraqi cultural heritage, has the archaeology and visual culture of ancient Mesopotamia itself begun to feed back into art in forms more meaningful and substantial than as sources of material detail for Orientalist paintings. Hanaa Malallah’s The God Marduk5 (Figure 27) uses the image of a Babylonian mushhushshu as found by archaeologists in the glazed-brick reliefs of the Ishtar Gate, yet incorporates this image into a book with a system of overlapping, fragmentary pages, collage and burn marks, creating a piece that reflects on the fragility and loss of heritage in a way that archaeology is perhaps unable, and certainly in a manner more eloquent than could be achieved in an archaeological report. By rendering in fine calligraphy a passage from the first Arabic translation of the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, Mustafa Ja’far unites ancient and modern culture in Iraq.6 In the powerful Cry of Mesopotamia,7 Suad al-Attar places present suffering in Iraq in the context of the country’s long history. Works of this kind show the continuing importance of artistic engagements with the ancient past. The role they play in connecting past and present is one that co-exists very well with the scholarly disciplines of history and archaeology, and that the latter will never truly be able to supplant.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!