Socialist Worker

Babylon: Myth and Reality

Issue No. 2130

Lucas van Valckenborch’s 1595 painting of the Tower of Babel   (Pic: British Museum/©Mittelrhein-Museum)

Lucas van Valckenborch’s 1595 painting of the Tower of Babel (Pic: British Museum/©Mittelrhein-Museum)

There are two parts to Babylon: Myth and Reality, the new exhibition at the British Museum. The first gives an idea of what this great, historic city of ancient Iraq was like.

The second explores the way in which name “Babylon” has been used to signify power, money and oppression.

The exhibition directly relates to the US’s attempt to build a 21st century “Babylon” in Iraq – a regional power base that is being constructed, quite literally, on top of the remains of the old.

Michael Seymour, one of the curators of the exhibition, told Socialist Worker, “We wanted to show both the way in which Babylon was a pre-eminent city in its time and also to take on the way that its name survives, to get under the skin of its symbolic meaning.

“Babylon, in what is now southern Iraq, was the first of many cities to have dominated the region. At its peak, around 605-562 BC, it was the biggest city in the world.

“It was a scholarly centre which produced highly significant advances in science and medicine and was architecturally amazing.

“Nothing comparable was occurring in the west at the same time.”

It was the transmission of these advances to the Greek empire, and then Europe, that ultimately provided the basis for the Enlightenment.


A study of Babylon also provides a way of understanding the tradition of shared heritage between the different cultures of the Middle East.

This runs counter to the Zionist argument, which has come to dominate since the creation of Israel in 1948, that there was both separation and antagonism between cultures.

As Michael said, “The Judeans were forcibly exiled to work as slaves in Babylon, but in this way they came to establish themselves in parts of the city. Babylon is the ultimate point of origin for those Jewish-Arab nationalists who were a feature of Iraqi life in the early 20th century.

“Most Iraqis will tell you that the religious divisions we see today in the region are not historically rooted. While there was religious domination in Babylon, there is no record of abuse of different religious beliefs. It was more about incorporation.”

Alongside its significant achievements Babylon became known for oppression, particularly through its forced exile of the Judeans, as well as the corruption and debasement caused by great wealth and military conquest.

Michael explained, “In the New Testament, we see the term ‘Babylon’ applied to Rome, as a sign of oppression.

“In the Reformation we see Babylon used as a shorthand for the sin and vice caused by oppressive power structures and the foretelling of those structures’ destruction.”

The exhibition shows how this use of “Bablyon” continued into the 20th century. There is a clip from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, itself influenced by the events of the German Revolution of 1918-23, where the workers are building an industrial Babylon, before they rebel against it.

Reggae and punk artists used the idea of “Babylon” to comment on contemporary injustice.

The exhibition also contains a short film in which Rastafarians talk about their concept of Babylon, and how it is represented today by US imperialism and capitalism.

The end of the exhibition shows how Saddam Hussein evoked the legacy of Babylon on stamps, posters and medals in an effort to portray Iraq as a land of progress, plenty and military might.

It’s worth remembering that for all the brutality of his regime, Iraq was relatively advanced in terms of standards of living before the US and British-led sanctions and war destroyed the country. The final piece in the exhibition is a short film that brings us back to the current occupation of Iraq.


Michael explained, “After the 2003 invasion, a military camp was set up by the US on the ancient site of Babylon, which had the stated aim of deterring looters.

“However, the process of building this camp caused immense damage to the site, with the use of heavy goods vehicles, chemical sprays and the dumping of archeological specimens in sand bags.

“Residential blocks were set up, and material from other sites was brought in, so disturbing the unique historical nature of the site.”

John Curtis, curator at the British Museums Ancient Near East Department, describes this as “tantamount to establishing a military camp around the Great Pyramid in Egypt or around Stonehenge in Britain”.

This is a very interesting and thought provoking exhibition about ancient Middle Eastern civilisation.

And it is also refreshingly bold in its connection with contemporary concerns about power, empire, and imperialism in the 21st century.

Babylon: Myth and Reality is on at the British Museum, cental London, until 15 March. For details go to »

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Tue 2 Dec 2008, 18:43 GMT
Issue No. 2130
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