Babylon: Myth and Reality at the British Museum

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We've all heard stories of Babylon. But then that's hardly surprising - no other city has been so vilified. Which is no bad thing as far as this once proud capital of a flourishing empire is concerned. Because a villain, as any lover of literature well knows, is more vividly beguiling than his virtuous foil. Take Milton's Satan as the most famous example. He is far more compelling than his pious God. Which is why, though hundreds of years have passed since this sprawling Mesopotamian metropolis crumbled back into the dust of what is modern-day Iraq, its legends - the tower of Babel, the mad Nebuchadnezzar, the feast of Belshazzar and the eponymous whore - remain like great monuments on the horizons of the imagination.

But how true are these tales?

This week the British Museum opens Babylon: Reality and Myth. It is the last in a sequence of three shows on the subject that have taken place this year, as a trio of European institutions - the British Museum, the Pergamon in Berlin and the Louvre in Paris - have teamed up, pooling loans and expertise, to create shows that can not only fascinate a broad public but offer a serious opportunity for scholarship as well.

Now, as the British Museum curators are passed whatever is the Mesopotamian equivalent of the baton - that beautiful carved onyx sceptre would probably do - they create their own distinct (but related) version of the show. Their most notable decision is to narrow the historical focus. They look at the story of Babylon through the spyhole of the 40-odd years from 605 to 562BC, during which the great Nebuchadnezzar ruled. These were the years in which the city's greatest monuments were constructed, including the fabled hanging gardens (one of the ancient world's seven wonders), and in which Jerusalem was captured and its people taken prisoner. It was in this narrow time frame that most of Babylon's legends find their source.

So don't worry. Your view won't be restricted. Rather this show follows a broad sweeping course, looping through history as the River Euphrates once looped through Babylon's sprawl. The visitor, meandering along between banks of display cases, is effortlessly carried from the tiny chiselled dot that marks Babylon in the middle of the world's oldest known map to the modern-day legacy of this once magnificent city in the Boney M song, Rivers of Babylon.

In between you will find anything from runic clay tablets through totemic statues to medieval manuscripts; from papyrus scrolls through the paintings of European masters to the extravagant fantasies of Hollywood. You will meet a cast of characters that runs from the semi-legendary Assyrian queen Semiramis through the Greek historian Herodotus to the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who, having brutally seized power over the nation state in which the last mounds and ditches of Babylon now rest, set about legitimising his position by associating himself with his country's ancient past. He erected his own huge (and criminally destructive) palace on the site of the ruins and created dozens of propagandist images that set his slightly tubby moustachioed form in ancient Mesopotamian scenarios. And, yes, he does look ridiculous as a chariot driver.

But actually he is doing no more than following the long local tradition that Nebuchadnezzar himself was happy to adopt when, commissioning stone-carving scribes to memorialise his latest building, he made them punctiliously imitate an archaic script. He wanted to arrogate the authority of antiquity. It's our own 'Ye Olde Tea Shoppe' principal at work.

So what about the reality? We all revel in myth, as this show makes clear. Its diverse array of paintings bring the city of Babylon to lurid life. Few works may be first rate: a poster-scale replica has to stand in for Breughel's Tower of Babel and a delightfully silly gimmick (see if you can spot it) for Rembrandt's splendid Belshazzar's Feast. But, bringing together anything from a clutch of giddying towers of Babel through a dramatically expressive Daniel in the Lion's Den, to a vast John Martin canvas that captures the city's apocalyptic destruction in all its 'authentic' detail, this show amply illustrates the hold that the stories - especially the bad ones - have on our creative imagination.

How can the bare facts of truth compete? The curators play their trump card immediately. As you step into this show you step into a reconstruction of Nebuchadnezzar's palace, the marvels of its shimmering presence reconjured by the glazed brick reliefs (from the Pergamon, never before lent to Britain) that set the totemic beasts of Babylon's imperial god Marduk and the lions of its kings prowling through our imaginations as they once prowled the walls of the great processional way.

But what next? For all its notoriety, little remains of Babylon beyond a bewildering tangle of earthworks. And even these - as a final and very important section of the show makes clear - have come under increasingly severe threat since the IraqWar, as military sandbags are heedlessly loaded with potentially priceless archaeological fragments, as gravel is scattered to make helipads and heavy vehicles shake the very foundations of our human story...

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