Hadrian / Babylon
Duncan Prowse reviews new exhibitions at the British Museum, London, 2008 – 2009
What is the connection between the Tower of Babel, Bob Marley, Thomas Hobbes, Blake, Psalm 137, commercial contract law, the 60 minute hour, the 360 degree circle and the American invasion of Iraq? Answer: Babylon.
What is the connection between Tivoli, the withdrawal of Roman forces from Iraq (in the face of insurrection), homosexual love, Tosca, Benvenuto Cellini, The Pantheon and Newcastle upon Tyne? Answer: the Emperor Hadrian.
And, still for the connecto-phile, what is the connection between Babylon and Hadrian? Answer: Hadrian is the current exhibition at the British Museum and Babylon is next, starting on 13th November 2008.
Circumstantially he represents connections all over the Roman world. But the British Museum exhibition is frustrating for any connecto-phile because there is not much there: some impressive busts, which seem to have been manufactured to an imperial template, and lots of pictures of ruins from Italica in southern Spain to Vindolanda in northern Britain. For that deep-down shudder of cultural connectivity, we’ll have to wait until November, when the Babylon Exhibition gets to London. If it does – because there is a risk that the huge show currently at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, the first of its kind, will be cut down in size for its London gig.
In Berlin the exhibition is hosted by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in cooperation with the Musée du Louvre and the Réunion des musées nationaux in Paris, as well as the British Museum in London. Its title is Babylon, Mythos und Warheit – myth and truth. The truth bit is fairly obvious. Focusing on the Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way of Babylon, it’s all about 3000 years of archaeology, religion, history, economics, architecture, and the everyday life of ancient Mesopotamians. They built the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens, they invented Pythagoras’ theory before Pythagoras, the 60 second hour, the 360 degree circle and contract law for trade. Things could also be a bit grim down Babylon way – their monarchs invented the Divine Right of Kings, a doctrine since found useful by Caligula, Charles I, and Robert Mugabe, among others.
The myth part is less obvious. It’s the wart on the end of the nose that has been there so long that we no longer notice it. This half of the exhibition explores Babylon as a western metaphor for primal darkness. It shows the degree to which our entire Judeo-Christian tradition has been built on the notion of good represented by heavenly Jerusalem and evil represented by the Whore of Babylon; how the religion of the sophisticated Mesopotamian cities lost out to that of the nomadic desert tribes, with their eye-for-an-eye barbarism, rather than the logic and polytheism of the Tigris-Euphrates city dwellers. In modern marketing terms, we bought the wrong brand – VHS rather than Betamax.
Like a lot of people who buy into brand loyalty, we have spent the last few thousand years justifying our choice of Jehovah over Baal, rather than re-examining the offers. Baal, or Marduk, as he used to be called in Babylon, was the god of water, greenery and judgement – all pretty useful things. The Bible didn’t like him because he came with Nebuchadnezzar II, conqueror of Judah and destroyer of the Temple of Jerusalem, as told in Psalm 137 and the Book of Daniel. As a result of this extremely effective advertising, Baal’s brand has been completely outsold ever since. Nebuchadnezzar went mad, as shown by Blake in his famous painting. Such is the fate of tyrants.
Once the Old Testament set the trend, nothing was too bad for Babylon, Baal, Nebuchadnezzar and friends. Babylon has represented the anti-Christ from the Book of Revelation to the songs of the Rastafarian Bob Marley. Babylon has become a metaphor for everything that is corrupt and decadent. This bandwagon has given a ride to the most amazing cast of saints, sinners and rogues – Saint Augustine, Thomas Hobbes, Byron, Stalin and Verdi to name but a few.
Even recently we have not been free from the power of three thousand years of brand advertising. Berlin’s louche reputation between the wars led to hints of divine retribution when ‘Sin City’, the modern Babylon, burned under allied bombing. And even more sinister, the American fundamentalist right experienced the satisfaction of a truth foretold when Bush Junior smote Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, Saddam Hussein, who had even named one of his Republican Guard units after the King of Babylon.
Seeing this exhibition you can almost hear the scythe of time clearing neural pathways not used for years, if ever. And it’s hard not to conclude that we might have been better off buying the Baal-Marduk brand first time round. It might have caused us less trouble than brand Jehovah.