November 11, 2008 / 3:53 PM / 10 years ago

UK show examines U.S. military damage to Babylon

LONDON (Reuters) - A new exhibition about the myths and reality of the ancient city of Babylon ends with a display blaming the U.S. military for causing irreversible damage to the site after it invaded Iraq in 2003.

John Curtis, keeper of the Middle East collections at London’s British Museum, has been a vocal critic of the decision to build a coalition camp on the archaeological site near Baghdad that was once Nebuchadnezzar’s sprawling city.

“This is tantamount to establishing a camp around the Great Pyramid of Egypt or at Stonehenge in Britain,” he said in a commentary explaining the final room in the exhibition, which runs from November 13 to March 15 next year.

Photographs of Curtis’s visit to one of the world’s most important archaeological sites in 2004 are beamed on to the wall, showing how helipads and roads were built apparently regardless of what lay underneath and nearby.

The movement of heavy vehicles and use of chemically treated gravel all contributed to the damage, some of which is irreparable, the museum said.

Curtis concluded in a report on his visit that around a dozen trenches had been made in which were found pottery and fragments of brick with cuneiform inscriptions, and sandbags were filled with earth scooped from the archaeological site.

Nine of the molded brick figures of dragons in the Ishtar gate were damaged and the brick pavement in part of the 6th century BC Processional Way have been broken by heavy vehicles.

The museum also pointed out that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who identified himself with his country’s ancient rulers, contributed to the problem by reconstructing buildings where the original structures once stood.

“After showing people why they should care about Babylon, we wanted people to have a rather somber end to the show,” said curator Michael Seymour.

“We never considered not doing it. The versions of this exhibition in Paris and Berlin did not do it, but Britain is tied up more with the Iraq war. We’ve had a chance to say something about the damage in our own right,” he told Reuters.


The rest of the show aims to address popular myths surrounding Babylon, which has long had a reputation as a place of sin and oppression largely due to Biblical accounts.

The animosity is not surprising, given that Nebuchadnezzar led the sacking of Jerusalem and deportation of Jews back to Babylon in 587 BC.

The sacred temple-tower of Etemenanki probably became the Tower of Babel, a symbol of man’s pride, and it was where Belshazzar saw the writing on the wall described in the Book of Daniel shortly before Babylon fell to the Persians in 539 BC.

“Nebuchadnezzar becomes the symbol of oppression and is at the root of Babylon’s bad reputation in history,” Seymour explained. “He did sack Jerusalem and it is his fault, but he would have been amazed at the way he has been remembered.”

Seymour said the main accounts of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon came from Greek sources, although a tablet from Nineveh depicts irrigation canals and aqueducts showing how the technology was there to create such a wonder.

“All of these things have some roots in ancient history and a big element comes from the modern imagination,” he said, surrounded by artists’ fantastical depictions of the gardens.

The exhibition addresses the Biblical account of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness, depicted in William Blake’s painting of a long-haired, naked man crawling on all fours.

The museum argues that the story probably describes one of the king’s successors, Nabonidus.

And the fall of the ancient city in 539 BC was probably relatively peaceful, far from the cataclysmic event portrayed in many paintings. The Persians adopted it as their capital and Alexander the Great later took it and died there in 323 BC.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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