Babylon: Legend, History, and the Ancient City

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

I.B. Tauris  352pp  £68

Babylon lies approximately 85 kilometres south of Baghdad, on the fertile soils of the Euphrates. Throughout history its physical location, though important, has mattered less than its symbolism. Artists, writers and politicians have nurtured their own pictures of the city and its significance, as if they have each discovered a private doorway into a well-worn metaphor. What these ideas of the place tell us about our relationship with the ancient world is the complex question at the centre of this new study. 

From the first traces of Babylon in fragmentary texts of the late third millennium BC, via its powerful dynasty of kings in the 1700s BC, and its subjection to Assyrian rule 500 years later, Seymour plods through the early history before pausing in the sixth century BC. It was in 539 BC that Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, bringing about what was later interpreted as the fulfilment of an Old Testament prophecy. Seeking to separate myth from legend, even where these criss-cross the terrain of pagan and Christian, Seymour suggests that, far from wreaking destruction, Cyrus’ conquest marked a ‘relatively quiet transition’ into Persian rule. Likewise, the fall of Babylon was not cataclysmic, but a gradual response to the foundation of a rival trade centre at Seleucia on the Tigris in the late fourth century BC.  

Artist Brueghel the Elder painted its iconic Tower of Babel as a classical building casting a shadow over 16th-century Antwerp, while Nimrod gasconades like Philip II of Spain over the Low Countries, or so it has been argued. 

Later, William Blake perpetuated the common image of Babylon as a city of sin in his ‘nightmarish’ Whore of Babylon. Helpfully, Seymour explains Blake’s imagery in the artist’s terms, that is, as one of the six types of matter he identified – ‘mineral’ – and as ‘experience’ (sin) rather than ‘innocence’. 

His book would have benefited from more contextualisation of this kind as it moves between millennia and continents, archaeology, history and art criticism. The author’s tendency to cite the findings of scholars and archaeologists as though the reader is already familiar with them makes the book less accessible than it might have been. Still, the range of sources covered is impressive and there are some fascinating interpretations and details here. Another historian might merely discount Marco Polo’s identification of Baghdad with Babylon but, as Seymour observes, his 13th-century account is of Babylon’s heir, ‘which in a sense Baghdad was’. 

After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the Iraqi government embarked upon a campaign to restore Babylon’s monuments, partly as a means of deterring Islamic revolution in southern Iraq and countering Iran’s decision to remove symbols of pre-Islamic heritage. The restoration work was a burdensome drain on resources and not always sympathetically done. But then Babylon has become what one might call a self-perpetuating metaphor for something that is at once attainable and out of reach. 

If Seymour’s book does one thing, it is to show that, far from preserving history for history’s sake, we are ever trying to make it into something else. 

Daisy Dunn is a writer and Classicist. Her first book will be published by HarperCollins.

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