Saturday, December 20, 2008

THE BABYLON EXHIBITION at the British Museum gets a detailed and thoughtful review in The National (UAE):
Building Babylon

* Last Updated: December 19. 2008 9:30AM UAE / December 19. 2008 5:30AM GMT

An exhibition at the British Museum explores the multiple ways in which the legendary city of Babylon has been imagined and re-imaged – mostly by Westerners. Kanishk Tharoor visits in search of a city.

Among his many sins, Saddam Hussein sought to defy history. The ruthless dictator milked all the resources of his country, making no exception for its past. While waging war with Iran, he visited the site of Babylon, about 50 miles south of Baghdad. Unimpressed by the stubbly remains of the once great city, Saddam rebuilt a version of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II – Babylon’s most famous ruler – over the ruins. He even styled himself as Nebuchadnezzar’s heir, mimicking the Babylonian monarch’s inscriptions on bricks that were time-stamped, “in the era of Saddam Hussein, protector of Iraq, who rebuilt civilisation and rebuilt Babylon.” Saddam’s posturing was meant to remind Iraqis of their glorious heritage, their abiding link to a vigorous and sophisticated empire that held sway over the Middle East nearly three millennia ago.

But if there is one lesson to be drawn from the Babylon of history and myth, it is that hubris begets decline and doom. Folklore, the Bible and countless artists and writers tell the story of Babylon as that of demise. Blind to these cautionary tales, Saddam forgot that Nebuchadnezzar’s city was eventually conquered (and his dynasty severed) by the Persians, a footnote equally ominous and inconvenient in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war. Stuttering from bloody war to bloody peace to bloody war again, Saddam was finally toppled by the Americans. The writing, as King Belshazzar realised too late in the Book of Daniel, was already on the wall. And like the tower of Babel, Saddam was bound to come crashing down.

Saddam followed, perhaps unknowingly, in the footsteps of countless Westerners who sought to build real arguments upon Babylon’s mythological foundations. Babylon: Myth and Reality, a brilliant exhibition on at the British Museum in London, explores the multiple ways in which Babylon has been imagined and re-imagined, measuring the reveries against what is known about the real city. ...
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