The London Babylon Exhibit: a Review

So, where is the outrage?  Where the cry of distress at the destruction and loss? The great Babylon exhibit that closed a few weeks ago in Berlin was to be reconstituted in London along with a new focus: the situation in present-day Iraq. But not until the very last room of the exhibit – almost like a footnote – does a short, even-toned documentary film politely hint at a state of affairs that is no less than tragic.

Even so, the gentlemen in London have created a beautiful jewel of a show: “Babylon: Myth and Reality”, opened at the British Museum on the 13th of November and on view until the 15th of March, 2009. Whereas the Berlin show spanned over three millennia of Mesopotamian history, here we are presented with the 7th and 6th centuries BC – the time from Nebuchadnezzar’s rule through to the Persian conquest in 539. The exhibit is relatively small, with its 100 exponents compared to the 800 in Berlin, allowing for a relaxed, focused viewing. Especially the cuneiform clay tablets are shown to good effect, glowing in the spot-lights against a dark blue background. From above-head the Babylonian language of each tablet wafts gently down, enveloping the viewer in this distant past. And, in contrast to the Berlin exhibit, where the more modern European and biblical exponents were shown in a different section of the museum, here in London the side-by-side of the pieces provokes immediate comparison and reflection.

As in Berlin, the emphasis is on the feats of kings. True, Semiramis is given ample attention, but only to clarify that she had nothing at all to do with the building projects of the time. Her “exploits” –  she actually is known to have accompanied her son into battle – took place a few centuries earlier. The role of women, even royal women, in this resplendent era is given no consideration. In fact, female deities are also missing in the London show: the Ishtar Gate is given a prominent place, but who was Ishtar? Only Marduk, the state god, is deemed worthy of mention. Aside from such short-comings, the presentation gives a good idea of the accomplishments of the time: the imposing architecture, the technological advances, and the keeping of peace in the empire. The captivity and exile of the Jews, after the sack of Jerusalem, is well-covered, a subject that has played a major role in the mythology and imagination of later centuries.

The quite muted description of the destruction was perhaps to be expected, given the political realities. Certainly, it is a responsibility of the museums to heighten public awareness of the situation, and the fact that the Berlin State Museum undertook nothing at all in this respect is worthy of note. The British Museum, on the other hand, should be given recognition for the leading role it has played and continues to play in saving Iraq’s cultural heritage and supporting museum colleagues in Baghdad. Before the military operation of April 2003, archeologists and museum authorities alike warned repeatedly of the dangers to Iraq’s cultural heritage.  In spite of persistent and urgent efforts, they had to look on helplessly as museums were looted, ancient sites were damaged and robbed.

The exhibit’s film shows the more well-known points of the ancient city of Babylon, an archeological site that the Americans converted into a military base in 2003: the monumental processional way, leading up to the Ishtar Gate as it has for centuries, its bricks damaged by heavy military vehicles, the beautiful Marduk dragon-figures lining its walls, chipped and broken away (actually nine of these life-sized figures have vanished!), the site’s soil, rich in artefacts, polluted by oil and chemicals.

Not mentioned is the destruction that has taken place in other sites. Even in Ur, the Sumerian city that reaches back into the 4th millennium – where Abraham was born, where the great Epic of Gilgamesh came into being – military activity in and around the city has caused extensive damage. Here. walls that survived thousands of years unharmed now have cracks and are crumbling. The royal cemetery is in danger of collapse, the south side of the ziggurat has been damaged by an air strike, parts of the old city are irretrievably lost. Exposure to the elements also has taken and continues to take its toll, as archeologists, hindered by the current situation, have neither easy access to the sites nor the financial means to keep them protected. One must bear in mind that these ancient walls are made of baked, and frequently unbaked, clay. Hidden under the sands, they are fragile and sensitive to weight from above.

But so-called collateral damage, in which cultural heritage is destroyed as a secondary by-product of war, and the “insensitive” use of archeological sites are just one part of the story. Also left unmentioned in the exhibit is the widespread looting that still continues – looting that is fueled by the illegal antiquities market.

Actually, illegal digging had stopped. After the revolution in 1958, Iraq controlled its archeological sites strictly. But, an unfortunate set of circumstances caused a dramatic increase in the dealing with illegal antiquities. In 1987, following the stock market crash, investors were on the look-out for new investment possibilities outside of the traditional securities: the antiquities market was a lucrative option. At the same time, the Iraqi economy was foundering as a result of the war with Iran. In 1990, the UN imposed heavy sanctions on Iraq. The Gulf War in 1991 brought further chaos. The complete break-down of the Iraqi infra-structures was felt most excruciatingly by the country’s poor – it did not take long until many of them started digging. For them it was a matter of life and death, a question of whether there would be much needed medicine or even food for the family. A perfect symbiosis was born.

As early as 1994, a flood of artifacts appeared at dealers in London and other centers of the trade. Collections in the US, London, and the Gulf States suddenly increased astronomically. Since then, thousands of pieces have arrived on the market, archeological treasures without provenance and, thus, without the essential information that can only be gleaned from the context in which they were found. Lost forever is precious data that could have yielded clues to the origins of humanity, of our religions, mythologies, and civilization.

No, not the poor of Iraq are to blame. The culprits sit in comfortable offices in the US, Europe, and the Near East. And, ultimately, the illegal market is supported by public apathy and indifference. We are all to blame.

But, not only are we unconcernedly letting our own history be scattered to the winds. The history of a people is being lost. Whether the war in Iraq has been a “liberation” is open to debate. However that may be, a good case can be made that a kind of post-colonial colonization is in progress – and colonization is most effective coupled with the destruction of memory. Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, speaks about the different “narratives” of the Babylon exhibits in London, Berlin, and also Paris, where the show was first presented. Yet, are the narratives really all that different? Are they not, far more, the same European/Western narrative? And, what might be the Iraqis’ own narrative of their history and of the destruction of this history? In the end, it is their cultural heritage, a heritage that is a matrix with the potential to bind together the many conflicting strains making up the country today.

So, even though it could have been louder and clearer and more impassioned, though aspects of the issue were left out, the British Museum did convey the message. An attempt was made. Much more is still left to be done: effective laws and funding for law enforcement to deal with illegal trade would be a good first start. Meanwhile, “colonization” proceeds at a swift pace, as can be observed in the following example: in April of this year, the construction in Baghdad of a multi-million dollar Disney-style entertainment park was announced. The amusement center will be built in Al Zawra park, a fully functioning Islamic-style park with fountains, playgrounds, and a zoo, right in the center of the city, where for years families have met on the week-ends. General Petraeus is supposedly enthusiastic about the idea, and the Pentagon supports it. What better way than a dream-world to instill the appropriate “cultural values” in the youth of Iraq, to distract from the harsh realities, to quench any flames of anti-Americanism? What better way to hinder political unrest than to steer thoughts away from that deep reservoir of strength that is one’s own cultural heritage?

So, it is not enough. Not enough to show Mesopotamia’s treasures, not enough to view them in museums, no matter how deep and praiseworthy our appreciation may be. It is high time to take action, large or small, in any and all ways possible for each one of us. At stake is the heritage of the Iraqi people. “A Nation Stays Alive, When Its Culture Stays Alive” – thus reads the inscription over the entrance to the museum in Kabul. But that’s another story.



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