Babylon: Legend, History and the Ancient City by Michael Seymour

Book Review by Alistair Forrest

Archaeology uncovers layers of history in time and space. Seymour’s “excavation” has given us so many more layers, not just the physical and the cultural, but the very ideas of “Babylon” formed in the minds of the great, the good and the infamous in a timeline spanning four millennia.

His insightful study opens with Koldewey’s painstaking excavations over two decades from 1899. This unveiling is where Seymour sets the scene that decorative bricks and walls wide enough to drive a chariot thereon don’t reveal the meaning of “Whore of Babylon” or the creator of the “Writing on the Wall”. These things come from story-tellers, poets and artists through the ages.

But the first half of this landmark book does reveal those precious gems mined by archaeological journeymen seeking the facts behind myriad ideas from “a riot of disparate sources”. Here is “a city buried under its own mythology”. How extremely well put.

Where Koldewey was meticulous, Layard and Botta before him had perhaps been a little destructive. The British explorer, Layard, had been disappointed not to replicate his successes (at times in tandem with the Frenchman Botta) at Nineveh and Nimrud. Seymour’s realism is possibly too dismissive of Layard’s contemporary Major Rawlinson whose derring-do unpicked the Bisitun inscriptions to give the world understanding of three ancient languages – Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian. I prefer to hold the image of Rawlinson dangling upside down on a rope to copy the cliff-face texts, a story that no doubt pleased Queen Victoria but which to Seymour is “folklore”.

As an art historian, Seymour is in his element when writing about the commentators and interpreters of the Idea of Babylon. Were the early writers and sources – Ctesius, Herodotus, Berossus et al – any more accurate than the post 19th Century excavation writers and observers? Probably not, he says, as both ancient and modern are full of contradictions.

His chapters on the German Friedrich Delitzsch, especially his controversial lectures “Babel and Bible” that fuelled anti-Semitism and by his death in 1922 had inspired an anti-Old Testament movement, are carefully and insightfully scripted. Seymour captures the contrast between the methodical German approach (Delitzsch and Gustav Kossina, another tool for Nazism) and their predecessors Layard, Rawlinson and Botta: German superiority versus Western European sang-froid. Then Winckelmann’s “social Darwinism” placing German Aryans at the pinnacle…

The book leads towards a climax of discovery and destruction – what does it all mean, this Tower of Babel and the idea of humanity shaking a fist in the face of the divine? And should it all end with the Saddam regime, Iraqi looting and the US Army camping on the site of such an historical treasure, driving its tanks through millennia of culture? Seymour turns to Jorge Luis Borges in whose “Library of Babel” mathematics meets mysticism – the belief in something divine underlying the chaos – and summarises thus: “Cultural works carry their own survival mechanisms”.

Babylon stands alongside Athens and Rome in the cultural canon. Like Jerusalem, it’s where three great religions focus and where humanity reveals its grandeur and its squalor, where grandiose achievement is built and then destroyed, where myth, metaphor and reality meet. Seymour is to be commended for bringing us a revival of The Idea That Is Babylon.

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