The great Babylon Exhibition in the Louvre museum contains many interesting objects, but some of them are especially intriguing: they promise a story, but do not finish it. Take, for example, the request from the Babylonian king Burnabariash II to his Egyptian colleague Echnaton: will the pharaoh be so kind to execute two travelers, who have killed several merchants and stolen their silver?
That is all we know – the beginning of a story, but not the conclusion. Did Echnaton investigate the case, or was Burnabariash’ letter sufficient evidence? The only thing that is certain is that a Babylonian king in the fourteenth century believed his request was reasonable.
All our knowledge of ancient Babylon is based on fragmentary data like these. Of course the inhabitants of the cultural capital of the ancient Near East wrote many texts. In the British Museum alone, some 100,000 cuneiform tablets are waiting to be deciphered. However, these tablets are often damaged. One example may suffice. In one of the displays in the Louvre is an ancient chronicle (photo to the left) that mentions Alexander the Great, but precisely at the point where it appears to mention the death of Darius III and the accession of Bessus, the text becomes illegible. There is a reference to Kidinnu – is it the astronomer? There is a reference to a plot – is the Philotas affair meant? We do not know.
Greek and Roman authors have given descriptions of Babylon, but often, they are unreliable. Herodotus of Halicarnassus (third picture) suggests he visited the city – although he does nowhere really say it explicitly, and merely makes remarks like “this was still the case in my days”. His description is full of mistakes. Still, several modern scholars continue to believe Herodotus’ tales, even now that we have thousands of cuneiform tablets that contradict him.
Archaeological research is difficult too. The rivers Euphrates and Tigris create problems, but the political situation is far too complex. At this moment, eleven teams are active, but it is not very inspiring that Babylon has for several years now been used as barracks by the forces that have liberated Iraq. The ancient city did in fact have the “honor” to be the first monument to be removed from the UNESCO world heritage list. Google Earth photos show how cars are riding across the ruins; a team from Germany is now trying to find out whether there’s still a possibility to recover something.
Researching ancient Babylonia and the roots of our civilization is, therefore, difficult, and this makes the well-balanced Louvre exhibition even more remarkable. You can see splendid works of art like the “treasure of Babylon”, which consists of crystal and onyx. Less beautiful, but very important for economic historians, is the archive of the Egibi family, a bank that was among the most important ones in the ancient Near East.
In one of the displays is the oldest tablet in which the zero is employed – not an Indian or Arab invention, as is often maintained. In mathematics, the Babylonians were very advanced; the same can be said about astronomy. (The photo shows a list of eclipses from the fifth century.) When Alexander the Great conquered the city in 331, he immediately ordered the records with observations to be translated and sent to Greece, where a pupil of Aristotle named Callipppus improved the calendar.
There is also a wall of glazed bricks in the Louvre, and the visitor can also see a four millennia old wall painting from Mari. Right in front of it is the stone monolith on which the Laws of Hammurabi were writte, somewhere in the eighteenth century BCE. In another room, you will find Chronicle 5, which mentions Nebuchadnessar’s capture of Jerusalem (photo), and the blueprint of the Etemenanki sanctuary, also known as Tower of Babel.
Of course not many visitors can read those cuneiform tablets, but the explanations are clear. No visitor can be left in doubt: these objects really are the beginning of our civilization and much of our literature. In one display you will see the Epic of Atrahasis, a poem about the Great Flood that was composed about a millennium before the Bible – which actually quotes from the Babylonian text. It is also quoted in the Epic of Gilgamesh, to which an entire display is devoted.
In still another display are the fragments of the text known as “I will praise the lord of wisdom”, a poem that -like the Biblical book of Job- addresses the question how god can allow evil. Under normal circumstances, these fragments are not united, because they are in several museums. And this is an aspect of the exposition that somehow irritates me: why did we have to wait until 2008? It now turns out that bringing these objects together was easy – and it was always easy: of the 330 ancient objects, only 29 are not from the Louvre, the British Museum or the Vorderasiatisches Museum.
What the organizers wanted to show and what was the reason to organize this exposition, was the collection of the National Archaeological Museum of Iraq, which became accessible after the liberation of Baghdad. As is well-known, the museum was looted for three days – and instead of a splendid exhibition that would contain every important object, we are now left with an exposition that might have been organized ten years earlier. This makes the exhibition, impressive as it is, also a sad reminder that we have for good lost a part of our view on the roots of our civilization.
The website of the Louvre is incomplete, as it fails to mention that photography is strictly forbidden. If you want to study the objects at your leisure, you will be forced to buy the catalog, which is beautiful but of course never contains a photo of the particular details you would have photographed yourself. So, if you have already visited the main museums in Europe, or want to improve your knowledge by making photos, there is no need to go to Paris. Otherwise, there is no excuse: anyone interested in the cradle of our civilization, should go to the Louvre as soon as possible.
The exposition in the Louvre lasts until 2 June after that, it will visit Berlin and London.