Before the mid-nineteenth century, when the British explorer Austen Henry Layard unearthed the spectacular Assyrian palaces of Nineveh (modern Mosul), the ancient empires of Mesopotamia could be glimpsed only through the lens of classical and biblical writings. These were almost uniformly hostile and understandably so, for the Assyrians and Babylonians (occupying roughly northern and southern Iraq, respectively) had brought only grief to ancient Israel, culminating in Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews to Babylon. In this as in much else, the Old Testament is history written by the losers—probably by Judean refugees living in Babylon itself—and it shows in the portrayal of that city as a cesspit of idolatry and sin, and of King Nebuchadnezzar in particular as a despotic, cruel, and ultimately mad ruler.
As for the Greeks, they too had faced eastern invaders: Persians, who they reviled as oriental despots, epitomizing the arbitrary rule of kings and a servitude fundamentally corrupting of man’s character. The Babylonians and Assyrians were known to be no better, and stories of their cruelty and unmanly luxury were commonplace from Herodotus on.
The New Testament takes things further, transforming Babylon from a geographical particular into a place and state of mind, a general image for imperial corruption, idolatry, and decadence—and even a code name for Rome, the oppressor of the new religion of Christ:
I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The title was written on her forehead: MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. I saw the woman was drunk with the blood of saints, the blood of those who bore witness to Jesus.
Our image of Babylon has never fully recovered from these early indictments, as we hear still today in Bob Marley’s lyrics reviling the generic Babylon as the paragon of exploitative, establishment power. In pre-Christian times, however, there was another myth that put Babylon at the center of everyone’s world and the language they spoke: the Tower of Babel. As Genesis has it, Babel was so called “because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world” and scattered peoples over the face of the earth. Josephus, writing in the first century AD, is more explicit:
The place where they built the tower is now called Babylon from the confusion of that primitive speech once intelligible to all, for the Hebrews call confusion “Babel.”1
The truth of course is the reverse: the city-name Babel (Babylonian bab-ili, “gateway…
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.