Babylon, fact and myth

We ask why the Jews’ ancient city of exile is the subject of a major exhibition.

By Julia Weiner, November 6, 2008
By the Waters of Babylon, by English pre-Raphaelite painter Evelyn de Morgan, part of the Babylon exhibition at the British Museum

By the Waters of Babylon, by English pre-Raphaelite painter Evelyn de Morgan, part of the Babylon exhibition at the British Museum

Having just closed an exhibition devoted to one arch-villain of Jewish history, namely Hadrian, who brutally suppressed the revolt of Simon Bar Kochba, the British Museum is opening another major show which focuses on another tormentor of the Jewish people - the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar II. In 587 BCE, he conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Solomonic Temple and deported a sizeable portion of the Jewish population to Babylon, beginning a period of exile of 70 years which became known as the Babylonian captivity.

So why has the British Museum decided to do an exhibition about Babylon? The fact that Babylon is in Iraq - an eminently newsworthy place - makes this a timely exhibition.

Much of the exhibition concentrates on the myths and stories surrounding ancient Babylon. One of the most famous is the story of the Tower of Babel, recounted in Genesis. Curator Irving Finkel is convinced that this story was inspired by the famous Ziggurat built by Nebuchadnezzar.

"The Ziggurat was a gigantic structure in the middle of Babylon 80 or 90 metres high. It was where Nebuchadnezzar could communicate directly with Marduk, the supreme god of Babylon.

"I believe that story made its final form while the Jews were in exile in Babylon and saw the Ziggurat. The Bible tells us the Tower Of Babel was built of bricks and that is exactly how the Ziggurat was built. It was the biggest building in the world and Nebuchadnezzar must have thought that everyone would admire him and think he was a great architect. However, in the Bible it becomes a symbol of ambition and an explanation for the prevalence of all the languages in the world."

On show are several archaeological finds that prove that such a tower existed. These include a cylinder seal depicting a Ziggurat and a tablet on which its measurements are calculated. "The exhibition explores the relationship between fact, as far as we can establish it with archaeological tools, and stories as they come through to us through the Bible," explains Dr Finkel.

Much of the exhibition is dedicated to Nebuchadnezzar. "I always think that what is described in the Bible would have amazed him," muses Finkel.

"In Babylonian terms he was a really good King. A bit like Queen Victoria, he had the longest possible reign. There was opulence, stability, no internal strife. He was a major Empire builder and Babylon was like nothing that had ever gone before. He got full marks.

"However, from the Jewish point of view he was a disaster. No-one can forgive him for what happened in Jerusalem. His real concern was with the military problem in Egypt but the intervening states were not altogether loyal and the Judeans flirted with the Medes. He destroyed the Temple, not to annihilate Judaism, but to deal with the problem."

One of the challenges of the exhibition is that much of the information about Babylon is contained on cuneiform tablets. The British Museum has over 130,000 of these, not all of them translated. "Lots of people think they look like dog biscuits," says Finkel.

"But marvellous lighting makes them look a million dollars. We have a dated tablet written in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar which describes him going to Jerusalem, and we have another naming a person whom we know from the Book of Jeremiah was in Jerusalem with him. When King Jehoiachin of Judah was imprisoned in Babylon, we have a cuneiform tablet which gives details of his rations. On a very primitive level this is the most fantastic proof that the Bible is true," he enthuses.

Another part of the exhibition explores the Biblical story of Belshazzar's Feast and the writing on the wall.

elshazzar, a prince of Babylon, held a feast at which he blasphemously served wine in the sacred vessels looted from the Temple. During the feast, an inscription appeared on the wall that read "Mene, Mene Tekel Upharsim." Only the prophet Daniel was able to interpret it and inform Belshazzar he has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Finkel explains why. "Mene Mene Tekel Upharsim is like saying pounds, shillings and pence. It is divisions of weights high down to low. The rest is a typical Rabbinic interpretation."

Finkel is particularly excited about this part of the exhibition. "We got a sofer (scribe) to come in and write the letters and we filmed him doing it, so that the letters appear on the wall." A selection of the weights are also on show.

Nebuchadnezzar may have thought his city would last for ever, but the Old Testament prophets predicted that Babylon would be ruined and this came to pass.

"In the 19th century the first visitors who went there were not slow to quote the passages which predicted that jackals would roam in the ruins of the once great city," says Finkel. There have been more problems in recent times. Saddam Hussein built himself a huge palace next to the site, but even worse was to come as Finkel explains.

"In the final area we look at what has happened in Babylon as a consequence of the war, when the Americans set up a military base and helicopter pads right in the middle of the ancient capital. This brings our study of the long term rise and fall of this city up to date."

Babylon runs from November 13 until March 15, 2009 at the British Museum

Last updated: 6:15pm, November 6 2008