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from the trenches
Museums: The Original Sin City Volume 61 Number 4, July/August 2008
by Richard Covington

[image] This 20-inch-tall terracotta relief made ca. 1800-1750 B.C. depicts a Babylonian deity known today as the "Queen of the Night." (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

From Genesis to "Beach Blanket Babylon," few cities have inspired as many legends and works of art (not to mention musical spoofs) as the Mespotamian capital. An exhibition touring Europe aims to celebrate both the myths and the reality behind the ancient metropolis, now a symbol of modern Iraq.


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1563 depiction of the Tower of Babel (© Photo RMN/Franck Raux)

Babylon--which opened at the Louvre (March 14-June 2) and will be traveling to Berlin's Pergamon Museum (June 26-October 5) and the British Museum (November 13, 2008-March 15, 2009)--focuses on artifacts dating from the city's beginnings around 2300 B.C. to its abandonment in the second century A.D. The show also features paintings such as Pieter Brueghel the Elder's 1563 oil-on-wood fantasy, The "Little" Tower of Babel, as well as drawings, books, and films about the city.

Babylon has long impressed the world with its military prowess and cultural achievements, which include the 12-month calendar, scientific weights and measures, and dynastic chronicles that influenced the writings in the Bible. At the exhibit entrance stands the famous seven-foot-tall basalt stele inscribed with the Code of Hammurabi (r. 1792-1750 B.C.), the first codified set of laws. Elsewhere are clay tablets recounting the epic of Gilgamesh and the great flood.


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A copper figurine dedicated to the god Amurru in the name of King Hammurabi (© Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam)

Perceptions of the city have shifted with the Zeitgeist. For the fifth-century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus, Babylon "surpassed in splendor any city in the known world." During the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the tower of Babel was viewed as a symbol of the revolt of Man against God. But by the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the tower was seen as an extraordinary feat of engineering.

The Babylonians experienced a golden age under Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605-562 B.C.), who restored and expanded the walled city to cover nearly four square miles and built the Hanging Gardens. But in 587 B.C., when he destroyed Jerusalem and deported the Jews to Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II ensured that the city would become shorthand for decadence and evil. (St. Augustine condemned it as the "anti-Jerusalem.")

The city's other famous rulers also have a prominent place in the exhibit. The period of Persian occupation (559-331 B.C.) is represented by fragments from a stele of Darius I with his foot on the chest of a defeated rebel king. A marble sculpture of Alexander the Great's head is a reminder of the Macedonian ruler's plans to restore Babylon to its former glory, an ambition that went unrealized at his death there in 323 B.C.

Oddly, the exhibition does not address Babylon's recent past. Styling himself as the new Nebuchadnezzar, Saddam Hussein constructed not one, but two kitschy palaces on top of the ancient site. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, American forces further damaged the archaeological remains by digging trenches, building a helicopter pad, and using archaeological deposits to fill sandbags.

There are plans to restore the site and eventually turn it into a tourist destination, but for now, a European capital is as close as you will come to Babylon.

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