December 19, 2008 / 6:41 PM / 11 years ago

London's Babylon exhibit divides myth and reality

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - A new exhibition in London explores the reality behind the myths of ancient Babylon through art and relics from the historic site.

“Babylon: Myth and Reality” at the British Museum places artifacts from the site of the ancient city alongside contemporary news footage and works depicting Babylonian themes from such artists as William Blake, Cornelis Anthonisz and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The exhibition draws on the combined collections of the British Museum in London, the Louvre and the Reunion des musees nationaux in Paris as well as the Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin.

Lead curator Irving Finkel said the fascination with Babylon possibly stems from the fact that so much of its history is an amalgamation of myth and reality. The exhibition displays several artistic interpretations of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, though its historical existence is still hotly debated.

The reality of ancient Babylon is demonstrated through numerous artifacts from the site.

The walls are flanked by blue-and-gold glazed panels from the city’s processional road and detailed cuneiform scripts describe pivotal moments from Babylon’s history.

One giant tablet covered in cuneiform known as the “East India House” slab describes Nebuchadnezzar’s rebuilding of the city’s holy districts. Another, the “Cyrus Cylinder” relates Cyrus of Persia’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BC.

The site of Babylon, which sits about 85 miles south of modern Baghdad, has been altered often in modern times. The area was damaged during the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple President Saddam Hussein, who also built a huge palace nearby that overlooks the city.

Finkel said that people still do not know much about Iraq, and even less so about its rich history.

“Babylon is like the large crest of a wave in people’s interest in Iraq. The exhibition seeks to fill out some of the country’s story,” he said.

Finkel said there were a number of reasons that Babylon remained so fixed in contemporary focus, though agreed that the 1991 Gulf War and the U.S. “War on Terror” had contributed.

The exhibition depicts the damage done to the site during U.S. occupation and Saddam Hussein’s leadership through news footage from modern day television broadcasts.

“The effect of the Gulf War was that it concentrated public attention, concern and worry onto Iraq,” he said. “The disasters affected the archaeology of the whole country.”

Central to the exhibition is the exploration of the story of the Tower of Babel, believed to be based upon the enormous ziggurat that dominated the Babylonian skyline.

Clay tablets recording the building of the ziggurat are displayed alongside artistic interpretations of the tower, including Lucas van Valckenborch’s 1595 painting “The Tower of Babel,” showing the construction of a sprawling, city like structure overseen by Nebuchadnezzar.

The Tower of Babel, according to the bible’s Book of Genesis, was an enormous structure whose erection united all of humanity, all speaking a single language.

Finkel said that he believes Babylon’s lasting presence in contemporary thought stems largely from the biblical story.

“The story of the Tower of Babel is a major part of the Old Testament narrative,” he said. “And what is so interesting about it is that it is very short. It is a brief story yet it has a timeless didactic message about human arrogance and pride.”

He said that that story of the Tower of Babel has a permanent vibrancy because of its simple and relevant message.

God, seeing that the vast tower would serve as a monument to the glory of man and not for worship, destroyed the tower, scattered the people across the world, and gave them different languages to prevent man from attempting such a feat again.

“What’s interesting is that the creation of different world languages, which can be seen as one of the riches, the benefits of human existence, is viewed as a punishment,” he said.

Much of the art on display is preoccupied with Babylon’s mythical downfall; from Cornelis Anthonisz’s 1547 etching “Fall of the Tower of Babel” to William Blake’s notable painting “Nebuchadnezzar,” which depicts a mad king, bearded, naked and on all fours.

Finkel said that the captivity of the Jews in Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar II, and the historical ramifications of this, kept the story wedged firmly in contemporary thought.

“Wicked Nebuchadnezzar became an all-purpose evil king in an all-purpose evil city - an archetypal evil place, and often this is an idea that the human race finds comfortable.”

Babylon: Myth and Reality at the British Museum in London runs until March 15, 2009

Editing by Paul Casciato

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