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Babylonian Dreams

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The elite attack on ancient Greek achievement is made manifest in London, Paris, and Berlin.

The August heat made Berlin feel like Baghdad. Inside the Pergamon Museum, and constructed specially for the travelling Babylon show, were narrow winding ways impenetrable to air conditioning. In packed discomfort hundreds of us were slowly inching past glass cases of cuneiform tablets—little panels of baked brick that seem to have been Mesopotamia’s main industrial product. One of them told of Babylon’s creation epic. Another contained a magical spell. The biggest invariably declaimed the power of kings. Craning our heads we tried hard to read the labels and tried just as hard to be impressed.

Being impressed by Mesopotamia was the point. For too long had Hellenism been uncritically exalted in the West. Now it was time for the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome to stand aside so that we could gaze upon the je ne sais quoi that was Mesopotamia. But what exactly was Babylon? Imperial majesty? Architectural folly? A voluptuary paradise? Oriental despotism incarnate? To try to answer these questions the combined museological might of the British Museum, the Musée du Louvre, and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin had assembled a display of things Babylonian under the title Babylon: Myth and Reality. Early in 2008, the exhibition had begun its travels in Paris; it was in Berlin at the time of my visit; and it was in London until last Sunday.

It was inevitable for the German organizers to put the show in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum because that is where Babylon’s Ishtar Gate—a permanent installation completed about 1930—was already on display. A towering reconstruction in polychrome glazed bricks nearly 15 meters high and 16 meters wide, its walls ornamented with tiers of bulls and dragons and surmounted by crenellated ramparts, it forms the gateway of a fortress where visitors and supplicants prostrated themselves at the king’s feet.

But if the existing Ishtar Gate made the choice of the Pergamon Museum inevitable, it was also a risky and perhaps even self-defeating decision. For as its name suggests, the main display at this establishment on Berlin’s “Museum Island” is one of Hellenism’s most astonishing artefacts, the Pergamon Altar, with over 100 yards of sculptured friezes as eye-catching as anything from the Parthenon. This is a decidedly hard act to follow: once seen never forgotten. And the altar and its frieze is the first thing visitors did see. Only after this marvel did they move along to find what Mesopotamia had to offer.

Is it conceivable that whole decades of research reveal no Persian literary endeavors to compare with the achievements of the Greeks?

Of course there were other items of interest from Babylon besides the gate. There were rigid busts thought to show this king or that. The seven-foot-high black basalt stone on which Hammurabi’s Code was written around 1750 BC is a useful reminder of the historic place of law in civilized society. A third stone, about 24 inches by 20 inches dating from Nebuchadnezzar’s reign (605562 BC) and containing four columns of early cuneiform script, is described in the catalogue as “a masterpiece of archaizing Babylonian epigraphy”—and no doubt it is.

But what is inscribed? What royal ruminations are here set down that might claim our attention, diverting it from things Greek? We were told it "memorializes Nebuchadnezzar’s building operations in stone. After quoting his royal titles and describing his personal piety, it describes the decorating of the chapels of Marduk, Zarpanitu, and Nabu, the reconstruction of the processional boat of Marduk, the rebuilding of the Akitu house, the restoration of the Babylon temples," and so on. Peggy Lee’s disenchanted question has no doubt been overworked, yet it was difficult to emerge from those claustrophobic museum corridors without gasping “Is that all there is?” What literary evidence is there from antiquity of a polity and a culture meriting as much attention as ancient Greece?

One wonders about the motives behind the exhibition itself. Topically, they plainly had to do with current events in Iraq and at the Baghdad Museum—a concluding chapter in the British Museum’s English-language catalogue says as much. But they also go deeper than that. For much of the past 30 years admirers of classical Greece have been on the defensive, while easternizing admirers of Mesopotamia—which includes the Assyrians, the 6th century BC Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar, and the Persians who took over under Cyrus in 539 BC—have been on the attack. Darius and Co. have been talked up; Pericles and Herodotus and Co. have been talked down.

That distinguished and venerable classicist Peter Green apologised for having been too keen for freedom in his 1970 book Xerxes at Salamis. Revising it in 1996 under the new title The Greco-Persian Wars, he regretted embracing so enthusiastically “the fundamental Herodotean concept of freedom-under-law (eleutheria, isonomia) making its great and impassioned stand against Oriental Despotism.” What he called “the insistent lessons of multiculturalism” had forced all classical scholars “to take a long hard look at Greek ‘anti-barbarian’ propaganda, beginning with Aeschylus’s Persians and the whole thrust of Herodotus’s Histories.”

The Oxford University Press author of the 2003 The Greek Wars, George Cawkwell, told us in a short preface that he was proud to be part of a scholarly movement that aims “to rid ourselves of a Hellenocentric view of the Persian world.” Much of the first three pages of his introduction then proceeded to ridicule and discredit Herodotus, who showed “an astounding misapprehension” concerning the Persians, whose stories were sometimes delightful but were certainly absurd, and who, he wrote, “had no real understanding of the Persian Empire.”

But if Herodotus didn’t get it right, who exactly did? Obviously, some nameless Persian equivalent to Herodotus might have had “a real understanding of the Persian Empire,” but who was he and where is his narrative? What book by which contemporary Persian historian provides an alternative account of Achaemenid manners and customs, institutions and political thought, imperial policy and administration and ideals?

For much of the past 30 years admirers of classical Greece have been on the defensive, while easternizing admirers of Mesopotamia have been on the attack.

The courts of Cyrus the Great, Darius the Great, not to mention Xerxes, King of Kings, employed armies of chroniclers recording royal achievements and military victories. Is it conceivable that whole decades of the recent research invoked by Peter Green and Tom Holland (author of the 2005 book Persian Fire) reveal no Persian literary endeavors to compare with the achievements of the Greeks?

Alas, that seems to be the case. Even the Oxford don so jeeringly hostile to Herodotus admits that though the evidence of past Persian glories “is ample and various, one thing is lacking. Apart from the Behistun Inscription which gives an account of the opening of the reign of Darius I, there are no literary accounts of Achaemenid history other than those written by Greeks.” Moreover, he admits, such literacy as existed in the Persian Empire was largely Greek; and such writing as took place was mainly done by Greeks.

Escaping out through the monumental Ishtar Gate into the rest of the Pergamon Museum, one was glad to be again surrounded by Hellenistic sculptures. It was like taking off from a barren desert airstrip and landing in Paris. Human faces. Faces of human scale alive with familiar emotions. In the remarkable Telephos Frieze there were youthful and elegant figures clothed in drapery, arranged with all the delicacy of civilized feeling and all the art that gifted sculptors can bestow. Gods like men and men like gods. Exploring in the nearby Graeco-Roman collection one found, instead of the heartless faces of despots, the marble statue of a young girl playing knucklebones.

Roger Sandall is a Sydney-based writer and the author of The Culture Cult. You can find more of his essays and commentary at

Image by Rictor Norton & David Allen.

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