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Glorious Babylon revealed at the Louvre

New cities have played a bigger role in people’s imaginations than they have in reality. Athens, Rome, Jerusalem, Beijing, Paris, New York and London are among those whose importance as an idea surpasses their achievements. But long before them stood Babylon, which rose to greatness on the banks of the Euphrates, in what is today Iraq, around 1800 BC. It fell, it rose again and resumed its role as «center of the universe» before being destroyed, so that it lived on only in the tales of its enemies. No other city was so maligned, no other city was so misunderstood nor buried under such a landslide of prejudice. It was not until 1899 that the serious study of Babylon’s ruins began, leading to the gradual revelation of a city and a civilization that played a most important role in the development of learning and society. Rare artifacts The modern «discovery» of Babylon is at its peak these days, with a major exhibition at the Louvre which brings together, for the first time, about 400 treasures from 13 countries. Thousands of visitors queue under the glass pyramid to pass in a solemn procession before some of the most important objects to have been unearthed in Mesopotamia, the dusty part of the Earth which saw the first steps of urban society that lead to Western civilization. Here we see the basalt column inscribed with the law of King Hammurabi, who lived around 1800 BC. The code sets out laws and prescribes harsh punishments but also declares that people are innocent until proven guilty. We see statuettes and reliefs that portray gods, demons, animals, pilgrims, as well as clay tablets with poems, spells, astrological signs and medical treatments. Among the most spellbinding objects, on loan from the British Museum, is a clay relief of the «Queen of the Night,» a winged, naked goddess who might be Ishtar, the «ancestor» of the Greeks’ Aphrodite. Another artifact portrays a couple on a bed, locked in lovemaking. Lions and strange monsters from the walls of Babylon, created out of glazed bricks, look as if they were created a few years ago. Cut into a small, damaged tablet that was found in the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal’s library in Nineveh is the text of the great flood that we read about in the Old Testament. These are rare glimpses of the dreams and fears, the achievements and disasters, of unknown ancestors. One of the most interesting aspects of Babylon’s history is the way in which its neighbors and enemies portrayed the city. And so the Louvre exhibition is set out on three axes: the presentation of the historic city, based on archaeological finds; the way in which others described the city and its kings; and the modern discovery of Babylon by archaeologists and artists. For at least 4,000 years, Babylon played an important role in civilization’s development and was at the center of major events. Among them were the rule of the lawgiver, Hammurabi, the Babylonians’ victory over the hard Assyrians in the 7th century BC, the deportation and exile of the Jewish people in the 6th century, the city’s fall to Cyrus’ Persians in 539 BC, followed by Alexander the Great’s conquest of Babylon in 330 BC and his death there seven years later. Today, during the United States’ occupation of Iraq, the ancient city hosts a military base, which experts say has caused damage to antiquities and the area. The rise and fall of the greatest city of antiquity, and the academic and cultural achievements of its citizens, engendered the awe and envy of all the other peoples of the region, from Persia to Egypt. Babylon and the Babylonians were handed over to history through the written words of the Jews, the Greeks and others. The Jews never forgot nor forgave the years of their Babylonian exile. And so, at every opportunity, they portrayed the city, its kings and its people as enemies of God. Nebuchadnezzar II, the king who destroyed the Jews’ temple and deported them to Babylon until Cyrus repatriated them, is the chief villain of the Jewish narrative. The evidence of history and from archaeological excavations, however, shows that Nebuchadnezzar was a great king who led the Babylonians to victory over the Assyrians and revived his city, making it the greatest the world had known. His enemies, however, imposed a different verdict upon him and his city. City of myths Among the many stories of the Bible, one of the most striking is that of the Tower of Babel, the building that, as a symbol of man’s vanity, provoked God’s wrath. Continuing the tradition, St John’s Book of Revelation describes the city as «Great Babylon, mother of whores and all that is repulsive on Earth.» For about 2,000 years, this mythical image held sway, at the expense of the truth and the achievements of Babylon. Until our era, when archaeological finds and scientific research began to reveal the true story of this misunderstood city, those hanging gardens and fortifications were two of the ancient world’s seven wonders. When one passes before the fragile items that were saved, miraculously, from endless wars, looting and decay – and then one sees the lithographs, paintings and declarations of the «whore» and «accursed» Babylon – one understands that this treasure is not simply priceless because of its rarity and beauty, it is also an exhibition of unique objects presented as evidence in a «trial» aimed at restoring the truth. The «Babylon» exhibition is at the Louvre until June 2, 2008. It will be at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum from June 26 to October 5. The British Museum will host it, in different form, from November 13 to March 15, 2009. The catalog at the Louvre is only in French.