Babylon means more than exile

A current London exhibition shows us how to widen our Jewish perspective

By Jeremy Isaacs, December 23, 2008

Few major displays open in London whose subject intersects with Jewish history. Babylon, the archaeological-historical tour de force at the British Museum, is such a show.

The exhibition does several things, and all well. Using archaeological findings, corroborating eye-witness testimony, it tells the story of Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar. The main interest of this from the Jewish point of view is the capture of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple in 587 BCE precisely, followed by the Israelites’ Babylonian Exile.

These are key events of the Jewish past, the first because it ended an era, the second because it symbolises a longer exile that lasted 2,000 years. Daniel in the Lion’s Den is also included.

Archaeological discovery — digging up ruins, recovery of written tables and their translation from cuneiform — ­shows something of what the fabulous city of Semiramis was like. It boasted two, some say three, of the seven wonders of the ancient world; the Hanging Gardens, the Tower of Babel, the Wall.

Some reconstructions of these owe more to the artist’s imagination than to observable fact, but the Great Processional Way to the Ishtar Gate, resplendent with glazed, hard brick, survived. Sizeable portions of it made their way to museums in Europe, principally Berlin; a convincing model is one of the glories of the present show.

Vast lions, gold on a blue ground, amaze. Nebuchadnezzar insisted his name and title be incised on the bricks; two millennia later, Iraq’s recent emperor, Saddam Hussein, just up the road in Baghdad, did the same. There is no certain evidence for the Hanging Gardens — roof-gardens, perhaps, or rising terraces? Some doubt they were ever there.

Babylon’s enormous ziggurat may have come to be called the Tower of Babel. It was destroyed by the Assyrians in 689BCE. Genesis tells us that God saw mankind, speaking one language, building high towards him, struck it down, and caused the builders to address each other unintelligibly, in many tongues. Babel, I think, remains a figment of theological invention, a mystery still. But what a hold the notion took on the artistic imagination; from Brueghel to the present, stunning representations succeed themselves. We recognise it instantly. But archaeology has not found identifiable remains.

What the British Museum has brilliantly done in Babylon is have it both ways. It shows us what we know, and also what we can only imagine. Babylon has seized the lurid imagination for countless generations, and still does.

Belshazzar, at a triumphant feast, sees the writing on the wall, Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin —“Your end has come”. Rembrandt, in a dramatic masterpiece, captures the moment, message and all. It takes Menasseh ben Israel to decipher the lettering (if you go, try for yourself). The trail continues down the centuries to the present. It is pleasing to note the presence, in Iraq, of two rabbis in mediaeval times who identified the site of the synagogue, reminding us that not until the 20th century, notably in 1948, did the thriving Jewish community of Iraq, unwillingly, remove. The Sassoons, the Saatchis and the Yentobs came to Britain.

For some reason, Babylon has come to stand for luxury, iniquity, sex and sin. Hollywood movies attest to this and, in the exhibition, the seamier underside is billed as Hollywood Babylon. But the city had more to it than that; great learning, major arts, inventive science. Babylonians used 60 to count by; it divides by more factors than does 100. That is why our watches count in 60s too.

The BM’s Babylon exists in context. If you look at a map which includes ancient Israel, Judah and Jerusalem, you are struck by the tiny space the Hebrews occupied, surrounded by the giant expanses of Egypt to the west, Babylon to the east, Assyria to the north. You could say it looks the same today, though militarily Israel faces neighbours deploying greater strength than did conquered Jerusalem. That balance, of course, may tip. It would be good to live to see the region at peace.

As a boy in Jewish Glasgow, I often heard it said, though never by my parents, that we Jews were “special”, more gifted, more deserving of success. I didn’t believe it. At school, with the globe coloured red, it was easy to suppose that we British were superior. I didn’t believe that either.

But I did believe, for longer than I should have, that Judaeo-Christian Europe had the highest culture. Visiting the great museums of the world, coming face to face not just with “The Glory that was Greece” and “The Grandeur that was Rome”, but with Egypt, India, China, Japan and more, I found out how wrong I was.

With an hour to spare before my ticket allowed me entry to Babylon, I strolled through the BM’s displays of Egypt and the Assyrians, each magnificent. Great Russell Street, not Heathrow, is London’s passport to the world.

“Babylon” is at the British Museum until March 15. Sir Jeremy Isaacs’s latest book is “Cold War”, co-written with Taylor Downing

Last updated: 4:14pm, December 30 2008