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We lay down and wept

At the very heart of the British Museum there is a gentle murmuring in many languages. The English voices are fretting from the very start of the exhibition: “Have these things been destroyed?” “What has been the impact of the current war on the archaeology of Babylon?”

Babylon: myth and reality has a crowded audience of the knowledgeable and concerned. Usually the blockbuster shows have a large proportion of the compelled-by-advertising-shufflers, but this was a display where one overheard discussion and debate. People were bumping into other people they knew as if a community had been drawn together.

We were looking communally at the fragments of Iraq’s history, of our own history – mostly from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II – and at how these stirred the imagination of later peoples.

The permanence of clay, and the enthusiasm for writing in the sixth century BC, has left us many lists of garden plants and of star constellations, mathematics, and medicine, through which we can trace the development of our own understandings. It has left us a map of the world with Babylon at the centre; it has left us richly coloured walls and it has left us the remains of the mud-brick city of Babylon itself.

For many centuries in the West, this legacy was transmitted through the Bible and the writings of Classical historians. Thus we have a vision of the Tower of Babel (see Brueghel), the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (see Conraet Decker), the Writing on the Wall (see Rembrandt), the Whore of Babylon (see Dürer and Blake). But only from the nineteenth century did the depictions of Babylon have a basis in archaeological fact.

Interestingly it is the pre-nineteenth century vision that has the most powerful influence on our contemporary representations of Babylon. Probably the most dominant is the musical expression of the Rastafarian image of Babylon. In a short film a Jamaican academic explains that Babylon is the “entire Western system… capitalism, oppression and everything that maintains this system.”

The mutterings in the British Museum were emanating from a different vision. They were based on a general knowledge that Iraq’s antiquities have been looted and bombed over the last few years. The end of the gallery was jammed as visitors paused to take in the present condition of Babylon. Saddam Hussein recklessly rebuilt parts of Babylon to make concrete his own identification with Nebuchadnezzar, just as in1971 the Shah of Iran had sought association with the Persepolis of Darius. The insecurity of power seeking confirmation from the dead. Both were consciously recycling their own heritage.

However, the siting of a US military camp in the middle of Babylon; the crushing by the heavy vehicles trundling up and down the Processional Way; the cutting of anti-tank ditches through the strata of artefacts, appear to be the villainy of casual disregard. The outrage of the international community of scholars and archaeologists did stimulate awareness on the part of the US army. The last item in the exhibition is a playing card, a nine of spades, from a set issued to the troops, on it the inscription: “Helicopter rotor wash can damage archaeological sites. Locate your LZs [landing zones] a safe distance away from known sites.”

Babylon: myth and reality showing at the British Museum until 15 March. £8. Timed entry, booking advisable.

Topics: Culture