In Search of Babylon

The city of Babylon remains as monumental in fame and infamy as it once was in size. In the ancient world it was the greatest of all capitals, renowned for its marvels; not only the hanging gardens but also its huge city wall (89 kilometres long, according to Herodotus, and wide enough for a four-horse chariot to do a U-turn) and the gigantic stone obelisk of Queen Semiramis featured on early lists of the Seven Wonders of the World. To seal its legendary status, Alexander the Great made it briefly the centre of his empire and died there in 323 BC.

Its darker reputation it owes to the Bible. It was by the waters of the Euphrates at Babylon that the Jewish captives brought back by King Nebuchadnezzar after the sack of Jerusalem in 587 BC sat down and wept; the Tower of Babel (Babylon) was raised and tumbled there; it was in Babylon that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were thrown into the fiery furnace; the divine finger that appeared during Belshazzar’s Feast wrote its warning on a Babylonian wall; and above all it was the reviled, decadent city of the Book of Revelation: “Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.”

Neither fame nor infamy, however, was enough to save it. The city fell, not in a biblical cataclysm, but slowly drifting into the Mesopotamian sands as it was superseded by other cities and other civilisations after the Persian conquest of 539 BC. Its daunting buildings were mined for their inexhaustible supply of high-quality bricks that were reused in the local villages and in nearby Baghdad. The site faded from the record until archaeologists in the 19th century began to excavate it.

Babylon had never disappeared from artists’ imaginations though and the exhibition at the British Museum from 13 November will mix archaeological artefacts with paintings inspired by the city – by the likes of Dürer, Blake, John Martin and Turner – to give a sense of both the real Babylon and the Babylon of the imagination. The period covered is that of the second half of the first millennium BC, the time of the city’s pomp under Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 BC) and its subsequent decline. The aim of the exhibition is didactic and the interest of many of the exhibits lies in the story they tell rather than in their aesthetic qualities. The Babylonian Mappa Mundi, for example, is a small piece of broken clay partially covered with wedge-headed cuneiform writing and partially with an incised series of circles, lines and triangles. What this unprepossessing item actually shows is a schematic view of the city and its place in the world. Through the centre of the diagram flows the Euphrates with Babylon itself astride it. Surrounding it and within the band of the circular sea are further cities, the mountains from which the great river stems and the kingdom of Assyria. On the other side of the ocean are eight provinces while the writing describes part of the Babylonian foundation myth. Here then, on a piece of baked clay that would sit in the palm of your hand, is contained Babylon’s geographical and cosmological world.

Other tablets show the Aramaic alphabet translated into cuneiform and were instrumental in cracking the code of cuneiform itself; and there are seals, horoscopes and royal chronicles.

The most striking of the artefacts, however, are the glazed brick reliefs of lions and dragons that ornamented the city’s palaces and public buildings. A frieze of these magical creatures once stretched for 180 metres along Babylon’s processional way, one of the great decorative schemes of history.

Such marvels were undreamt of when Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted the first of many representations of the Tower of Babel in 1563, a picture that spawned a host of imitations; they were still decades away when John Martin drew his apocalyptic panorama The Fall of Babylon and only just coming to light when Degas painted his little-known Semiramis building Babylon. They were unknown, too, to William Blake, who in 1795 produced perhaps the most striking Babylonian image of all – showing the naked Nebuchadnezzar, haunted and mad as described in the Book of Daniel, crawling on all fours like an animal. The king, hair in a mane, is drawn in relief, coloured in blues and yellows, just like (although Blake could not know it) the lions that decorated the real king’s palace walls. In this extraordinary leap of the imagination, Blake magically linked the physical city with the myth it had become.

Across London, the remains of another legendary civilisation are on display. Byzantium 330-1453 at the Royal Academy comprises some 300 pieces and is the first major exhibition of Byzantine art here for 50 years. From its foundation by Constantine in 330 to its fall to the forces of Mehmet II in 1453 Constantinople saw itself as not just the heir of Christian Rome but a perfected version of it; art was an important part of this self-image. Nevertheless, the show describes a fractured artistic history: for all its longevity, the iconoclastic furore of 730-843 meant that the majority of its early sacred images were destroyed, while the sack of the city in 1204 at the hands of the Fourth Crusade meant that vast amounts of its wealth and artworks were dispersed, much of it to Venice. The dispersal did nevertheless protect numerous treasures from the hands of the Ottoman conquerors.

The exhibits gathered at the RA from the US, Russia, Egypt and Europe are of the highest quality. This dazzling array of icons, metalwork, wall paintings, manuscripts, ivories and perhaps most unexpectedly, textiles, goes some way to showing why the city by the Golden Horn and its empire were viewed with such awe and such covetous, destructive envy by both East and West.

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