In the shadow of Babylon
If you want to understand Iraq, the British Museum's collection of its treasures offers some crucial clues
Monday June 14, 2004
The collapse of the Tower of Babel is perhaps the central urban myth. It is certainly the most disquieting. In Babylon, the great city that fascinated and horrified the Biblical writers, people of different races and languages, drawn together in pursuit of wealth, tried for the first time to live together - and failed. The result was bleak incomprehension. Ambitious technology defying the natural order was punished as the tower that tried to reach the skies collapsed. Irreligion and promiscuity inevitably conjured the apocalypse.
Unlike Egypt, which in popular imagining continued serene through the centuries, Babylon is seen to have flourished and fallen again and again, the reading of each episode informed and deformed by those that went before. Mythical or historical, they go on and on: the Tower of Babel; the conquests of Nebuchednezzar and the invasion of Babylon by Cyrus and then Alexander; the glorious court of Haroun-Al-Rashid; the devastation of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, where the Tigris ran black with the ink of the manuscripts from the ransacked libraries. Is there any other culture for which the distant past, real or imagined, still wields such power?
If you want to understand day by day the turmoil of Iraq now, you can of course gorge on newspapers and television bulletins. But if you have any energy left, you should go to the British Museum and see a different kind of reportage.
(Post rewritten after yet another new Blogger crash erased the first version.)