Does anyone but the odd fundamentalist fruitcake still think of Babylon as a synonym for wickedness? It's surprising now to think what a hold this idea has had over the Western imagination for so long a time - it was still a commonplace, after all, in 1916 when D.W. Griffith made "Intolerance." The whole, weird notion is explored in a show at the British Museum until March 15th .

You can appreciate the BM's "Babylon: Myth and Reality" exhibition a lot more if you've been to Berlin and seen the Ishtar Gate reconstruction there. It's a question of scale, as the BM has only been able to borrow a few panels of their enormous 2.38 sq metre baked and glazed brick reliefs of lions and dragons dating from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (605-562, more or less coincident with the exile of the Jews), whereas what you see in Berlin makes clear the breathtaking size of his palace.

Though I didn't see this show in Berlin or Paris, knowing the Berlin permanent display I can appreciate the British Museum's curators' claim that the show in London is a very different one. It's in the temporary exhibition space made from the Round Reading Room for the spectacular earlier shows of the Qin Emperor and Hadrian. I had the extraordinary good luck to be shown around it (alone) before it opened, by Irving Finkel and Michael Seymour, the co-curators and editors of the terrific catalog. Finkel is an immediately sympathetic character with a long, luxuriant beard, owl-rimmed glasses and an infectious fervour for cuneiform inscriptions. He explained to me that, while the BM has few holdings of Babyloniana to match Paris or Berlin on the macroscopic level, it has a good deal of stuff on the opposite scale.

The cuneiform inscriptions are at the centre of this show (and the reason for its relative miniaturization of scale), and there are a lot of them, 30 or so, on display; but, said Finkel about these tiny clay tablets, "there are about another 138,000 in drawers and boxes scattered around the BM." Peer at these 4 by 3cm (or even the larger 5 x 7cm) examples as I might, I cannot make out the individual characters stamped into the clay. To me they all look like rows of decorative marks. But in the smaller one (fig. 73 in the catalog), Finkel pointed out to me (and I took his word for it) that the name of Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon, can be seen fourteen times in the right-hand column, while the sign that proceeds it is always the character for "god," while in the left-hand column are listed the names of fourteen different "independent and powerful" gods. (It's a sort of equation: Marduk = god = divinity number 1, number 2 ...14.)

This leads Finkel to speculate, startlingly, that some first-millennium Babylon theologians were espousing monotheism - that Marduk was the only god, and all others simply aspects of him. Finkel pointed out that the exiled Jews, being literate, were rapidly co-opted into the mercantile, if not the actual ruling classes of Babylon, and that a lot of them remained until the last wave of emigration of Iraqi Jews in the late 20th century. Is it possible that Jewish monotheistic thought owed something to arguments absorbed during the captivity?

The show also tells the story of the myth of Babylon from the Tower of Babel, the search for the Hanging Gardens (I've always been puzzled by the "hanging" part - it simply means that there were trees growing on very high-up terraces, and what made them a wonder of the ancient world was how they managed to water them) to the story of the Whore of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzer's madness (it wasn't the historic Nebuchadnezzar, but a later, different king), Babylon in later Western art, and even in movies, music and contemporary art. Great stuff.

I most enjoyed the section on Belshazzar's Feast - especially on the Rembrandt painting of it (which you can see at the National Gallery - but this show does borrow John Martin's vast painting of the same subject from Newcastle). There's a cunning projection showing the hand actually writing on the wall, making it clear that "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" is being written vertically, rather than horizontally from right to left. This apparently solves the conundrum of why the king and his court couldn't read the Aramaic inscription, which is written in Hebrew characters. Rembrandt seems to have consulted his chum Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, whose solution to the puzzle was that Belshazzar was completely and understandably foxed by it being written from top to bottom.

If you saw the show in Berlin or Paris, I'd love to know how it differed from London.

December 20, 2008 6:40 PM | | Comments (0)

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