Recently I had the good fortune to spend a week in France doing babysitting duties with my grandchildren at my son’s house near Toulouse. It gave me the opportunity to read, so I so took with me a book on Babylon by Michael Seymour which we had been sent for review. Here are my thoughts.
Babylon was excavated between 1899 and 1917 by a German team under Robert Koldewey. Koldewey was a superb excavator, one of the first excavators to learn to excavate the mud brick walls of which classical Babylon was built, and in massive well-funded excavating seasons he uncovered much of the centre of Babylon in its greatest period in the 6th century BC. Many of the glazed bricks with their distinctive blue colouring were taken back to Berlin where the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way were reconstructed to form the prize exhibit of the great Berlin Museum.
Babylon however is more than just an archaeological site, it is a place of history and legend. First and foremost among these is the Bible where it makes its first appearance in Genesis Book XI where the descendants of Noah learnt to make baked bricks and built a tower up to heaven, which so disconcerted the Lord God that he decided to sabotage their efforts by disrupting their language, and whereas before everyone had spoken the same language, they found themselves all speaking different languages and the Tower of Babel was abandoned. Babel is presumably Babylon and the Tower was presumably a ziggurat and this part of Genesis must therefore be dated to the 6th century BC when the Jews were in exile and saw ziggurats and mud brick construction.
Babylon forms the heart of the Jewish story, for in 597 and again in 587 the Jews were conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and carted off into exile in Babylon, though when the Babylonians were in turn conquered by Cyrus the Persian in 539 BC, he decided that all the conquered people were more trouble than they were worth so he sent them all back home and the Jews returned to Jerusalem where they built the second temple. The story is all told in II Kings and II Chronicles and also in Jeremiah with the story completed in Ezra. Archaeologically however the biblical accounts are not very satisfactory for although they are replete with lamentations they are rather light on their topographical details.
The most influential biblical reference to Babylon however is in the Book of Revelations, where Babylon is conflated with Rome as the symbol of all evil — a symbol which has been taken up enthusiastically by Hollywood.
The Greeks however were rather the reverse: they set out to provide topographical descriptions. First and foremost was Herodotus. His description of Babylon was comprehensively trashed by Victorian Scholars, but recent excavations have partly rehabilitated his reputation. However he omits to mention the most famous feature of all — the so called Hanging Gardens, which were comprehensively described by a later writer Ctesias, whose work is lost but was summarised by Diodorus Siculus. However the most interesting account would have been that of Berossus, a Babylonian priest living around 300 BC when the cuneiform tablets in the temples could still be read. His work however is lost, though there are a few tantalising fragments in Josephus. By the end of the first century BC however all knowledge of cuneiform had been lost and that it was not until the 19th century AD that cuneiform was eventually deciphered.
Following the Roman period the site of Babylon was lost and it was replaced by modern Baghdad fifty miles to the north. There were many accounts of travels in the area throughout the Middle Ages notably by Marco Polo. However when the first proto-archaeologists began exploring Mesopotamia it was not yet certain which site was Babylon, and the first important sites to be excavated were Nineveh, explored by Layard and the British in the early nineteenth century, and also the site of Khorsabad, excavated by the French under Botta. It is fascinating to compare the differing approach between the British and the Germans. Layard was a somewhat crude excavator, but also a publicist of genius, and his whose popular account of Nineveh and its Remains in 1849 was a huge publishing success helped by the reports in the Illustrated London News which at the time had a weekly circulation approaching 100,000. Layard’s excavations however were only semi-official and he had great difficulty in persuading the scholars of the British Museum to take Assyrian art seriously, rather than considering it inferior to Greek art. However 50 years later, the new German state was very concerned to rival the British and French empires, and they saw Babylon as an ideal site to promote German scholarship. Well-funded excavations were set up under Koldewey, who excavated on a massive scale and published his work immaculately in huge volumes, in great detail and at vast expense.
However Koldewey was not exactly a charismatic figure, and he made little effort at popularisation. The task of popularisation was undertaken by his senior, Friedrich Delitzsch, the great cuneiform expert who laid the foundations for the writing of cuneiform grammars and cuneiform dictionaries. However from 1902 onwards Delitzsch gave a series of three high profile lectures on the theme of Babel und Bibel aimed at demonstrating the relevance of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft’s work to Germany and showing the similarities between Babylonian literature and the Bible: the Kaiser himself attended the first two lectures. Subsequently in his book The Great Deception, Delitzsch went over the top, and separated out the Sumerian languages from the Semitic languages and argued that Christ was not a Jew, and that Christianity did not need the Hebrew Scriptures. The message reflected the rising anti-Semitism of the time, and the Kaiser did not attend the third lecture; nevertheless it became part of the intellectual underpinning of the Nazi regime.
Babylon today is near the heart of modern Iraq. Iraq is not, as is commonly considered, the arbitrary construction of the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, but was formed by putting together the three Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul. And if one wishes to find the politician who threw the most money at archaeology in the 1980s, then step forward Saddam Hussein, whose Ba’athist socialist regime liked to associate itself with the militant kings of Assyria and Babylon. Saddam invested heavily in heritage and in enormous reconstructions at Babylon. The antiquity budget doubled in the first four years of Ba’athist rule and increased much further after 1979. He constructed Bagdad’s most famous modern monument — the Victory Arches and he enlarged the Bagdad Museum. Sadly this meant that when he was deposed by the American invasions the museum became the focus of opposition to his regime.
Babylon: Legend, History and the Ancient City (I.B.Tauris) is the subject of a new book by a young English scholar, a protégé of the British Museum where he assisted in the British Museum exhibition on Babylon, though he has now crossed the Atlantic to work at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. At times the archaeology is a little thin for my tastes, and he has a tendency to indulge in ‘theory’; but it is a splendid account of the background