Sunday 15 March 2009


A polemic disguised as a review of the recent ‘Babylon: Myth and Reality’ exhibition at the British Museum

When they say ‘Myth and Reality’, they mean things in that order. This recent exhibition is bookended by others’ views of Babylon, with the actual historical evidence the jam in the sandwich. But what follows shan’t dwell on the difference twixt those two, which was covered well enough by the show itself, but instead delve into those popular conceptions in order to probe their workings.

Right up to the Nineteenth Century Babylon was only known indirectly, and mostly through the eyes of its Hebrew enemies. As the Bible held a totemic influence in Western thought, Babylon couldn’t help but become a bogey in our minds. Yet the Greeks also knew of, and wrote about, the place without having any axe to grind, even owning up to what they owed their predecessors. Besides, Jewish antipathy alone merely gives us the opportunity to paint Babylon black, not in itself the motive. Moreover, as we’ll see, popular images may have been based on the Bible, but were not confined to it, and would often add their own motifs and embellishments.

I’m going to go on to argue here that Babylon is central to a number of interlocking myths which maintain a through-line down the centuries, and which we still hold in some ways today. Moreover, these myths are used to articulate something we feel about the nature of civilization itself.

Of course (Hanging Gardens notwithstanding) the most popular image of Babylon is the Tower of Babel and this is the very thing which occupies those bookends – starting with a blow-up of Breugel’s painting, then moving to more modern depictions. Even the exhibition’s logo alludes to this, incorporating the outline of a ziggurat inside the A. And, unlike the Hanging Gardens, it seems the Tower legends did have a base in Babylonian reality. Herodotus and other historical accounts describe the giant ziggurat Etemakani (“the foundation platform of heaven and earth"), built as a single point for all around to look up to. Though no part of this building remains, we can locate it (and even know it’s size) through mapping its foundations. There’s even a scale model of it on show, presumably extrapolating from what we knew of similar buildings.

“Artists”, we’re told, “developed strong conventions for the Tower’s appearance”. While of course they’re selecting examples to suit their argument, their case does seem to be borne out. Take for example Escher’s woodcut Tower of Babel (1928). While this looks little like the squat model of Etemakani, it’s remarkably congruent with the Bible accounts. Though it appears to be built from stone, not the bricks specified in Genesis, it’s appropriately geometric in appearance. Moreover the crest of the Tower is looked down upon, an impossible angle for any human which suggests God’s perspective. God is not just the only named character in the Genesis passage, there’s even the suggestion he one day comes across the Tower. (“Then the Lord came down to see the city and tower which mortal men had built.” His omnipotence is actually quite sketchy in Genesis, with him frequently taken by surprise by things.)

But most important of all, there is no mighty smiting to behold. The Tower merely lies unfinished, the workers confused, the topmost figure throwing up his arms. For in Genesis God’s response is to ‘”confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech”, thereby making any more co-ordinated building effort impossible. Hence we get both ‘Babylon’ and ‘babble’ from the Hebrew word ‘balal’, to confuse or confound. (Escher characterised some of his befuddled workers black and some white, to signify this division.) We’re told “from that place the Lord scattered men all over the face of the earth”, though the inference is this is the result of the loss of a common tongue, not the likes of a mighty wind. Escher’s etching could therefore be of the moment in Genesis where God spies the Tower and, in a mixture of outrage and alarm, sabotages its builders by tying their tongues.

Yet Escher’s Bible-based depiction is in many ways the exception to the rule on display here. Let’s look at some of the features which were characteristic enough to become traditional, without any scriptural derivation, then speculate (no more) on their basis.

The first thing to go is the square, geometric look, an inherent feature of a ziggurat. Having nothing much to go on with Babylonian architecture, artists based it instead on the round Colosseum. (Rome was not just depicted in the Bible as equally oppressive and decadent, but the Colosseum was seen as the ostensible centre of Christian persecution.) Of course this is just substituting a model which did exist for one which then didn’t. But there’s also points of departure from the Colosseum, and it’s with these that things get more interesting...

Unlike the Colosseum, the Tower not just starts to taper but becomes segmented, bisected at intervals by a narrow path like a screw thread. (As shown in Durer’s 1865 engraving above.) Let’s remember how early this passage comes in Genesis, these are intended as among the first people. With this motif the Tower comes to stand for a new conception of time, which arrives through the cultivation of surpluses which allowed for urban life. Linear time arrives, in which life is no longer a continuum or daily scrabble but we become consciously aware of our own past and future. The upper levels, always depicted as incomplete, stand for the more nebulous future. (Indeed Babylon had an eye on its own posterity, inscribing names into bricks and even burying clay barrels like Blue Peter time capsules.) The image of the Hanging Gardens also reflects this, suspending nature, displacing it to the sky.

However, as we’ll find happens often, this image may have antecedents in other parts of the Bible. For one thing, this curved and tapered tower contrasts with the squarer and squatter Jerusalem Temple. There is also Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue in Daniel, divided into sections which stand for different periods of rule. The only difference here is that the image is the other way up, though representing the future it is the statue’s feet which are weak and unstable. Though the term ‘feet of clay’ has now become commonplace, this part-obscures the original meaning. The statue’s feet were weak because they were an amalgam, “part potter’s clay and part iron... so shall men mix with each other by intermarriage, but such alliances shall not be stable; iron does not mix with clay.” Like the apex of the Tower, they represent the impermanence of alliances between men.

It could also be argued that the successive levels also stand for calculation or accountancy, again something which would have grown in importance with the growth of urban life. This is enhanced by the way all the images portray the Tower as under construction, and so display the mechanisms of measurement as well as construction. (See the anonymous Bible illustration above, from Thirteenth Century Germany.) This is again echoed in Daniel. Consider the terminology used in the Writing On the Wall: “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end. You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” The very methods man was using to measure the world, to divide it up as it suited him, are now used by God upon man.

And of course the pyramid shape, with successful smaller levels, stands for the emergence of human hierarchy. This leads to a notable change. The Bible accounts mention no despot, name no King and it’s even emphasised the Tower is built by collective effort. (‘”Come’, they said, ‘let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and make a name for ourselves.’”) But the paintings commonly not only give the story a villain (normally Nimrod), but push him into the foreground. (See the anonymous French woodcut above, from 1670.)

With its fixation with lineage, the Bible seems inherently distrustful of cities. The first city is built by Cain, while Lot’s wife gets turned into a pillar of salt for just looking at one! But their problem seems to be their status as centres of teeming life, which tends to lead to mobs, loss of self-identity and makes them centres of collective sin. (“Abram settled in the land of Canaan; but Lot settled among the cities of the Plain and pitched his tents near Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.”) Perhaps, more used to city life, we throw the emphasis onto a conjured-up wicked despot.

But most striking of all, the Tower starts to topple (as seen spectacularly in Cornelis Anthonisz’s 1547 image above) Sometimes the surrounding city is shown on fire. (Already conflated by God looking upon “the city and tower.”) As with all the examples given above, exceptions can be found to this rule. Breughel the Elder makes his Tower an architectural folly, an impossible hodepodge of styles and angles, the physical embodiment of a failed attempt to speak Franglais. But there’s enough adherents to call it a rule.

It’s also notable how similar the image then becomes to the harshest card in the Tarot deck, the Tower. In fact, early versions of the Tarot (as shown below) can show a nude man and woman fleeing the door of a burning building, tying the image to the Bibles’ other great Fall myth - the expulsion from Eden. (Though of course we don’t have to assume the direct influence of one on the other. It could be the two images arose separately and later became conflated.)

Once we have the struck Tower, we also get the accompanying motif of attendant figures fleeing. These figures seem suddenly stripped of their hubris, reduced from architects and engineers to a terrified speechless horde. Again this is reflected in Daniel, with its tale of Nebuchadnezzer reduced by God to a bestial state: “He was banished from the society of men and ate grass like oxen; his body was drenched by the dew of heaven, until his hair grew long like goat’s hair and his nails like eagles’ talons.” (As shown in Blake’s 1805 print below.) It is hard not to associate the look of these hunched, fleeing figures with the description given above.

More Tower art for your perusal here