Editorial Feature

Babylon: Sifting Myth From Reality

Robert Bevan shines a light on the ancient city’s unresolved history

From the 70s disco schlock of Boney M to Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast, the idea of Babylon has fascinated. For Rastafarians, the very word ‘Babylon’ is the epitome of all that is wrong with the world, a confusing, acquisitive, hellhole – a view derived from Christian and Jewish traditions. On the one hand, Babylon is the home of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – the Hanging Gardens -- on the other it is personified in Revelations as the “Whore of Babylon” who has her full name written on her forehead: Mystery, Babylon the Great, The Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth”.

The Babylon Harlot by Jean Duvet (From the collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

Sifting myth from reality is difficult in a city that largely vanished into the sands more than two millennia ago and of which only some 3% has ever been scientifically excavated. Perhaps best to think of it as many Babylons that have risen and fallen over the course of thousands of years and where the very land on which they were built has vanished as the powerful Euphrates river changed course, sweeping away a city that had once straddled both its banks.

But it is also real place, a series of genuine fragmented mounds and some dubious reconstructions just 52 or so miles south of Baghdad. Even if the Hanging Gardens of Babylon might have been located elsewhere altogether.

Illustration of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon by Maerten van Heemskerck (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Babylon was in Mesopotamia, the fertile land where some of the world’s earliest settled civilizations were founded. The city emerged c.1900 BC, as the nomadic Semitic tribe, the Amorites turned merchants. King Hammurabi brought the city fame, establishing the world’s first legal codes as settled society became increasingly complex. This Old Babylon declined after his death but remained the capital of southern Mesopotamia for centuries under various rulers.

A second golden age were the 6th and 7th centuries BC when Babylon became what’s thought to be the largest city in the world, shaking off Assyrian rule and becoming the first city to exceed 200,000 inhabitants. Under its Chaldean dynasty king Nebuchadnezzar II, Babylon was notorious for its wickedness and wildness. It was Nebuchadnezzar who attacked Jerusalem and transported the Jews back to Babylon where they “sat down and wept” (Psalm 137:1) Its citizens, however, saw themselves as inhabitants of a sacred city, a paradise at the cosmic centre of the world where their chief god Marduk had created order out of chaos.

The Burning of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar's Army (From the collection of Fundación Banco Santander)

By this time, Babylon covered three square miles and set within its wall’s gates such as the blue glaze brick Ishtar Gate – a reconstruction of which is in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin, and one of eight rather than the 100 gates that Herodotus would have us believe. A grand processional way led between palaces and temples including the great ziggurat of Etemenanki. It is at this time that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were supposedly constructed for his queen Amyitis, homesick for greenery.

Ishtar Gate from Babylon (From the collection of Pergamonmuseum)

But did the gardens ever exist? German archaeologist Robert Koldewey thought he had discovered the foundations but others say they are the remains of a grain store. Other scholars think the gardens were actually in Nineveh as depicted on friezes from that city – a place sometimes confused with Babylon in ancient records. The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel (Babylon), destroyed because of man’s architectural hubris in the face of God, may have its origins in the, perhaps 200m tall, Etemenanki ziggurat. It has been the subject of artworks throughout history including Bruegel the Elder’s beguiling Tower of Babel (1563), one of many masterpieces brought together for the Louvre’s landmark Babylon exhibition in 2008.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (From the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen)

Babylon’s age of infamy was over by the 539 BC when it was conquered first by the Persians, then by Alexander the Great, before Islam arrived in the 7th century AD. The early death of Alexander and a dividing of the spoils among his generals had signaled the city’s terminal decline. It wasn’t properly discovered again until early 19th century scholars began poking around.

It’s the idea of Babylon that has proved more enduring than the city itself. Its fate is still the subject of crackpot religious theories online and its history and imagery were used by rulers of Iraq, a country whose boundaries are the legacy of colonialism, to attempt to cement a unified national identity out of its disparate parts.

Babylon has appeared on coins and stamps and replicas of the Ishtar Gate and Ninmakh temple built on the site in the 1960s. Saddam Hussein added to this new mythology with his own egotistical projects that included constructing the 250 room Southern Palace of Nebuchandnezzar, and reconstructing the Processional Way. Saddam had his name inscribed on the bricks: "This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq". A proposal for new Hanging Gardens had not happened before Iraq was invaded in the Gulf Wars (when Coalition forces caused enormous damage to the archaeological site).

The reconstructed Southern Palace of Nebuchadnezzar II (From the collection of World Monuments Fund)

Perhaps Babylon really is damned as the Isaiah (13:19-21) asserts:

“It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation: neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there; neither shall the shepherds make their fold there.

"But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there."

Until World Monument Fund’s involvement, US barbed wire from the latest of many wars remained in place. With the wire removed, the 2,500-year-old black basalt lion can once more be a proud symbol not just of Babylon but of Iraq.

Lion of Babylon undergoing conservation work (From the collection of World Monuments Fund)
Workers excavating the foundation before repairs on the Lion of Babylon (From the collection of World Monuments Fund)
Words by Robert Bevan
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