Babilónia – Mitos e Realidades


British Museum, 8 de Março de 2009

British Museum: 13 Novembro 2008 / 15 Março 2009

Pela primeira vez, o Reino Unido acolhe uma exposição sobre a antiga cidade da Babilónia. São 400 objectos, de colecções de 13 países, exibidos no British Museum, em Londres, que descrevem a vida na Mesopotâmia, o actual Iraque, e revelam a verdade por detrás dos mitos e lendas. A exposição é o resultado de 200 anos de trabalho de arqueólogos. Para além de artigos arqueológicos, há gravuras, manuscritos e quadros. Alguns retratam os mitos sobre a Babilónia, como a Torre de Babel ou os alegados vícios que levaram à queda da cidade. A ver até 15 de Março de 2009. Via.

For two thousand years the myth of Babylon has haunted the European imagination. The Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens, Belshazzar’s Feast and the Fall of Babylon have inspired artists, writers, poets, philosophers and film makers.
Over the past two hundred years, archaeologists have slowly pieced together the ‘real’ Babylon – an imperial capital, a great centre of science, art and commerce. Since 2003, our attention has been drawn to new threats to the archaeology of Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq.
Drawing on the combined holdings of the British Museum London, the musée du Louvre and the Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, and the Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin, the exhibition explores the continuing dialogue between the Babylon of our imagination and the historic evidence for one of the great cities of antiquity at the moment of its climax and eclipse.

Babylon, myth and reality

Babylon, myth and reality

Over 2500 years after the city’s fall, Babylon is still an evocative name. The resonance of the Tower of Babel, the Hanging Gardens, Daniel in the Lions’ Den or the madness of Nebuchadnezzar continues today even without popular certainty that Babylon itself ever existed. Drawing on three of the most important collections of artefacts from the ancient city of Babylon, at the British Museum, the Louvre and the Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin, this book brings to life Nebuchadnezzar’s magnificent state buildings with their famous glazed brick reliefs, and the great stepped tower or ziggurat that inspired the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Contemporary writings investigate the history, culture and religious life of the time, describing the Conquest of Jerusalem and the emergence of monotheism within Babylonian religion. This book explores how and why the magnificent ancient capital evolved into a universal symbol of the ‘city of sin.’

Babylon City of wondersBabylon City of wonders

The city of Babylon flourished for nearly 2,000 years on the River Euphrates in what is now central Iraq. After its conquest by the Persians in 539 BC it slowly faded from prominence and over time was lost from the historical record almostcompletely. One of the greatest cities of the ancient world lived on only in popular belief and legend. Amalgamating fact and fantasy, stories about the city and the kings of Babylon survived through the Middle Ages into modern times and were theinspiration for many pieces of art and literature in Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries. The Tower of Babel ã the Madness of Nebuchadnezzar ã the Writing on the Wall ã the Hanging Gardens of Babylon ã Daniel in the Lions Den – such storiesand images grew famous over the years, while the city itself became little more than a name.However, the real city and its kings have re-emerged into the light thanks to the endeavours ofmany scholars and archaeologists in the 19th and 20th centuries.


The painted panels made for use in Byzantine and Orthodox churches and for prayers at home are perhaps the most effective and enduring form of religious art ever developed – and also perhaps one of the most mysterious. This book will explain the history of icons in the context of the history of Christianity and examine all aspects of the production and power of this distinctive art form. Based on an analysis of British Museum examples that have been carefully studied by restorers, Robin Cormack will explain how icons were made, framed and displayed. He will also explore their subject matter, showing how scenes can be identified and how the iconography developed over the centuries and examining the role of portraiture. Finally, he will look at the continuing use and interest of icons in the modern world, and how artists such as Matisse found inspiration in them. The book will be illustrated mainly with Cretan, Greek and Russian examples from the British Museum, Britain’s foremost collection.

Exhibition exposes modern tragedy of Babylon

6th century BC glazed brick relief depicting a dragon, from Babylon's Ishtar Gate

For more than 2,000 years the city of Babylon has been a byword for depravity and hubris. The Old Testament depicts it as an evil city and the legend of the Tower of Babel, a symbol of human arrogance, began there.
Now, the British Museum is to give new currency to Babylon’s legends with a major exhibition including details of how American and coalition troops have wrecked priceless archaeological remains in the ancient city during the occupation of Iraq.
As part of a survey of Babylon from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BC to the present day, the museum plans to use film and photographs to show how coalition tank tracks, helipads and fuel spills have ruined unexplored archaeological remains on one of the world’s most important historic sites.
The museum’s curators have discovered how souvenir hunters have damaged the remains of the famous Ishtar Gate by stealing brick reliefs of dragons, and how military vehicles have ripped through parts of a 2,600-year-old Processional Way leading to Nebuchadnezzar’s palace.
Although the exhibition represents a wide survey of the myths and realities surrounding the city famed for its tower and hanging gardens, the decision to analyse the impact of the war in Iraq is likely to make uncomfortable viewing.
Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, prompted the decision to bring the survey up to date. Hannah Bolton, spokeswoman for the museum, said the curators are determined to highlight “the desperate need to preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage”. She said the exhibition, which will open in November, will chart Babylon’s “tragic recent history through video and photography”.
John Curtis, keeper of the museum’s Middle East department, has described Babylon as “one of the most important archaeological sites in the world”. Babylonian civilisation included the first known legal code and written language, as well as early examples of the use of dictionaries, astrology and weights and measures.
Curtis’s report into the destruction caused by coalition troops will form the backbone of the final part of the show, which considers the impact of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In the 1980s, Saddam rebuilt Nebuchadnezzar’s palace by placing a concrete ziggurat on a mound over the city’s archaeological remains.
Dan Cruickshank, an architectural historian, said he was “appalled at how bad it was” when he first visited Saddam’s version of the palace. “A military camp should never have been established at Babylon, and to have done so may be compared to building a camp next to Stonehenge or in the shadow of the Great Pyramid,” Curtis wrote in a magazine article last weekend.
His report shows how archaeologically important deposits were used to fill sandbags and how gravel and fuel were poured over swathes of the site, damaging remains beneath. “It’s a tragedy of the highest cultural consequence unfolding before us and nobody is caring,” said Cruickshank. “The British Museum is absolutely right to raise this issue. We need to debate what is happening to this place and the 10,000 other archaeological sites across Iraq that have not been fully documented and recorded.”
The exhibition will be staged in collaboration with the national museum in Berlin, which has Babylon’s Ishtar Gate, and the Louvre in Paris. The prize exhibit is likely to be enamelled wall panels showing three lions and a dragon on a glazed blue background, which comprised part of the Processional Way. Tablets inscribed with cuneiform writing will also be on show – many of which are still to yield their secrets through translation. Via.
Brass celestial globe, made by Muhammad ibn Hilal
Possibly from Maragha, north-west Iran, AD 1275-76 (AH 674)
‘The astronomer from Mosul’
The celestial globe is a three-dimensional map of the stars, and has been used since classical times. The stars were thought to sit on the surface of a giant sphere around the Earth, and the constant movement of the stars every night and throughout the year seemed to be caused by this giant sphere slowly turning overhead. Just like a terrestrial globe, the celestial sphere is mapped by a North and South Pole, an Equator, and lines of longitude and latitude.
Celestial globes were produced first by Greek astronomers, and later also in the Islamic world, where the earliest known globes date from the late eleventh century. Islamic astronomers built upon many of the achievements of classical Greek science, further refining concepts and the design of astronomical instruments, such as the celestial globe and the astrolabe. This is why an Islamic globe depicts the classical constellations, such as the Great Bear, Pegasus, Orion and the twelve signs of the zodiac.
At the South Pole of this globe, the craftsman has inscribed his signature: ‘Made by the most humble in the supreme God, Muhammad ibn Hilal, the astronomer from Mosul, in the year 674’ (AD 1275-76). Mosul is an important city in northern Iraq, famous in the first half of the thirteenth century for its skilled metalworkers. However, this globe may not have been manufactured in Mosul. In 1262, the city was sacked by the Mongols. The invading force was led by Hulagu Il-Khan (died 1265), who had recently founded an important observatory at his new capital of Maragha, in north-western Iran. The Mongols were known to deport skilled citizens from conquered lands, and Hulagu may have decided to send Muhammad ibn Hilal to the new observatory straight away. The globe, constructed some twelve years later, may therefore have been constructed at Maragha.
R. Pinder-Wilson, ‘The Malcolm celestial globe’, British Museum Yearbook-2, 1 (1976), pp. 297-321 (reprinted in Studies in Islamic Art, Pindar Press, London, 1985)
E. Savage-Smith, Islamicate celestial globes: t, Smithsonian studies in history and technology, 46 (Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985)
B. Dorn, ‘Description of the celestial globe belonging to Major-General Sir John Malcolm… deposited in the Museum of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland’, Transactions of the Royal Asia, 2 (), pp. 371-92
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Brass geomantic instrument, made by Muhammad ibn Khutlukh al-Mawsili
Possibly from Damascus (Syria), AD 1241-42
‘The revealer of secrets’
This unique instrument ‘calculates’ patterns of dots with different ascribed meanings, related to the planets, four elements, the signs of the zodiac and parts of the body. Many scholars have written about geomantic divination, but there are no references to an instrument such as this. One Arabic term for geomancy is ‘ilm al-raml (‘the science of sand’); originally, the patterns were created when the geomancer traced dots with a stylus across a board of sand or dust. The geomancer then inspected and interpreted the dots, deriving further patterns, and eventually a result or forecast for his customer. This instrument provides a mechanical means of tracing the dots and developing further patterns. The rectangular tablet features a series of sixteen dials, each turning to display a domino-like pattern in the small window above. Hence the inscription on the instrument’s face:
‘I am the revealer of secrets; in me are marvels of wisdom and strange and hidden things. But I have spread out the surface of my face out of humility, and have prepared it as a substitute for earth. […] From my intricacies there comes about perception superior to books concerned with the study of the art’ [of geomancy].
To use the device, the customer or the geomancer turns the first series of four dials, creating four dot patterns for interpretation. From these four, the geomancer then derives a further twelve patterns, using the following dials to record each stage. The semi-circular panel at the bottom provides ‘meanings’ for the final derived pattern, and the customer receives an answer to his question (‘should I marry X?’, ‘will my business venture succeed?’, etc.).
The triangular handle and ring at the top of the panel are features usually found on astrolabes. This suggests that the craftsman, Muhammad ibn Khutlukh al-Mawsili, was also a maker of astrolabes, but there are no known astrolabes bearing his signature. ‘al-Mawsili’ shows that Muhammad ibn Khutlukh came from Mosul in northern Iraq, a city famous for its accomplished metalworkers in the first half of the thirteenth century.
Cuneiform tablet with part of the Babylonian Chronicle (605-594 BC)
Neo-Babylonian, about 550-400 BC – From Babylon, southern Iraq
Nebuchadnezzar II’s campaigns in the west
This tablet is one of a series that summarises the principal events of each year from 747 BC to at least 280 BC. Each entry is separated by a horizontal line and begins with a reference to the year of reign of the king in question.
Following the defeat of the Assyrians (as described in the Chronicle for 616-609 BC), the Egyptians became the greatest threat to the Babylonians. In 605 Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian crown prince, replaced his father Nabopolassar as commander-in-chief and led the army up the Euphrates to the city of Charchemish. There he defeated the Egyptians. Later that year Nabopolassar died and Nebuchadnezzar returned to Babylon to be crowned. Over the next few years he kept his control over Syria and extended it into Palestine. In 601 BC he marched to Egypt, but withdrew on meeting the Egyptian army. After re-equipping his army, Nebuchadnezzar marched to Syria in 599 BC. He marched westwards again, in December 598 BC, as Jehoiakim, the king of Judah, had ceased to pay tribute. Nebuchadnezzar’s army besieged Jerusalem and captured it on 15/16th March 597 BC. The new king of Judah, Jehoiachin, was captured and carried off to Babylon. A series of expeditions to Syria brings this Chronicle to an end in 594 BC.
T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museu (London, The British Museum Press, 1988)
A.K. Grayson, Babylonian and Assyrian chroni (Locust Valley, J.J. Augustin, 1975)
D.J. Wiseman, Chronicles of Chaldaean kings (London, Trustees of the British Museum, 1956)
J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern texts rel, 3rd ed. (Princeton University Press, 1969)
Cuneiform tablet with part of the Babylonian Chronicle (616-609 BC)
Neo-Babylonian, about 550-400 BC – From Babylon, southern Iraq
The fall of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire
This tablet is one of a series that summarises the principal events of each year from 747 BC to at least 280 BC. Each entry is separated by a horizontal line and begins with a reference to the year of reign of the king in question.
In spring 616 BC, the Babylonian King Nabopolassar (625-605 BC) led his army up the Euphrates into Syria (part of the Assyrian Empire). In 614 the Medes from Iran besieged the city of Ashur. The chronicle says that the Babylonian army marched to help the Medes but did not reach the battlefield until after the city had fallen. Nabopolassar met Cyaxares, king of the Medes, and a treaty was drawn up. According to tradition this was confirmed by the marriage of Nebuchadnezzar, Nabopolassar’s son, to Cyaxares’ granddaughter.
The text of the Chronicle is broken for the year 612 BC, but the Medes joined the Babylonian forces and laid siege to Nineveh between June and August. Eventually the city fell and was plundered, though some Assyrians escaped westwards. A new Assyrian king, Ashur-uballit II rallied his troops at the city of Harran. The following year the Babylonians plundered the region of Harran. In 610/9 Ashur-uballit and the Egyptians who had come to his aid withdrew west of the Euphrates and Napopolassar sacked Harran. The Assyrians and Egyptians attempted to retake the region, but their siege failed. From this point on the Assyrians and their king disappear from history.
D.J. Wiseman, Chronicles of Chaldaean kings (London, Trustees of the British Museum, 1956)
A.K. Grayson, Babylonian and Assyrian chroni (Locust Valley, J.J. Augustin, 1975)
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Brick of Nebuchadnezzar II
Neo-Babylonian dynasty, about 604-561 BC – From Babylon, southern Iraq
Following the defeat of the Assyrian Empire by the Babylonians in 612 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II rebuilt the city of Babylon on a grand scale. It has been estimated that 15 million baked bricks were used in the construction of official buildings. The bricks are usually square and often bear cuneiform inscriptions, generally made with a stamp (as here), but occasionally written by hand.
The inscription on this brick translates: ‘Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, who cares for Esagila and Ezida, eldest son of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon’. Esagila was the temple of the supreme god Marduk in Babylon, while Ezida was the temple of Nabu, god of writing, in the neighbouring city of Borsippa. The king’s most famous construction works were in Babylon where, along with Esagila, he built the famous Ishtar Gate and the ‘northern’ palace. He also rebuilt the ziggurat tower called Entemenanki.
Babylon is described by the Greek historian Herodotus (about 485-425 BC). The writer Berosus also credits Nebuchadnezzar with the construction of the ‘Hanging Gardens’ which, according to tradition, he built to remind his wife of her home, in the mountains of Iran. No evidence survives for the Gardens at Babylon, however, and the story may relate to the earlier extensive gardens built around the Assyrian capital Nineveh.
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The East India House Inscription
Neo-Babylonian dynasty, about 604-562 BC – From Babylon, southern Iraq
The religious devotion and building works of Nebuchadnezzar II
After the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC to the armies of Media and Babylonia, the Neo-Babylonian Empire eventually stretched from the border of Egypt to the Gulf. The Neo-Babylonian dynasty was founded by Nabopolassar (625-605 BC), but it was his son, Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC), who was mainly responsible for this expansion. He rebuilt the capital city on a grand scale to glorify his reign and the supreme god of Babylon, Marduk. He rebuilt the great temples called Esagila and Ezida, along with various smaller temples, the city walls and royal palaces in Babylon.
The chief building material was mud-brick, and baked bricks, some of which were glazed. It has been estimated that 15 million baked bricks were used in the construction of official buildings. Today, Babylon has disappeared, except for some remains which cover some 850 hectares (2100 acres). The city may have originally been twice that size.
This stone block with finely carved cuneiform was found in the ruins of Babylon before 1801, when it was presented to the representative of the East India Company in Baghdad, hence its modern name. It records Nebuchadnezzar’s wish to glorify Marduk through his many building works in the capital and the nearby city of Borsippa.
R.F. Harper, Assyrian and Babylonian litera (London, D. Appleton and Co., 1901)
D.J. Wiseman, Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon (London, Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 1985)
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Cyrus Cylinder
Babylonian, about 539-530 BC – From Babylon, southern Iraq
A declaration of good kingship
This clay cylinder is inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform with an account by Cyrus, king of Persia (559-530 BC) of his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC and capture of Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king.
Cyrus claims to have achieved this with the aid of Marduk, the god of Babylon. He then describes measures of relief he brought to the inhabitants of the city, and tells how he returned a number of images of gods, which Nabonidus had collected in Babylon, to their proper temples throughout Mesopotamia and western Iran. At the same time he arranged for the restoration of these temples, and organized the return to their homelands of a number of people who had been held in Babylonia by the Babylonian kings. Although the Jews are not mentioned in this document, their return to Palestine following their deportation by Nebuchadnezzar II, was part of this policy.
This cylinder has sometimes been described as the ‘first charter of human rights’, but it in fact reflects a long tradition in Mesopotamia where, from as early as the third millennium BC, kings began their reigns with declarations of reforms.
P. Michalowski, ‘The Cyrus Cylinder’ in Historical Sources in Translat (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 2006), pp.426-30
T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museu (London, The British Museum Press, 1988)
J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern texts rel, 3rd ed. (Princeton University Press, 1969)
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Cylinder of Nabonidus
Neo-Babylonian, about 555-540 BC – From Sippar, southern Iraq
This clay cuneiform cylinder was discovered in the Temple of Shamash at Sippar. It records the pious reconstruction by Nabonidus (reigned 555-539 BC) of the temples of the moon-god Sin in Harran and of the sun-god Shamash and goddess Anunitum at Sippar. He tells us that during the work at Sippar, inscriptions of older kings Naram-Sin (2254-2218 BC) and Shagaraki-shuriash (1245-1233 BC) were discovered, and Nabonidus offers dates that considerably exaggerate their age.
Nabonidus came to the throne after the assassination of two of the successors of Nebuchadnezzar, even though he had no direct family connection with the Babylonian royal family. He was old enough to have a mature son (Bel-shar-usur, the biblical Belshezzar) and was almost certainly an experienced soldier. A number of Nabonidus’ inscriptions include historical references intended to show that his irregular accession to the throne had the blessing of the gods and of earlier Babylonian kings. Linked to this concern for legitimacy are the recurring references to Nabonidus’ search for earlier buildings in the course of his own reconstruction work.
Collecting ancient documents and objects was already practised, for example, at Ashurbanipal’s library at his palace at Nineveh. In the ruins of the Northern Palace at Babylon a museum-like collection of ‘antiquities’ was found, apparently collected by Nebuchadnezzar and his successors. This was probably still visible in Persian times.
R.F. Harper, Assyrian and Babylonian litera (London, D. Appleton and Co., 1901)
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Cylinder of Nebuchadnezzar II
Neo-Babylonian dynasty, about 604-562 BC – From Babylon, southern Iraq
The King’s palaces described
This clay cylinder was found in the ruins of the city of Babylon. The cuneiform text describes the three palaces which Nebuchadnezzar II (reigned 604-562 BC) built for himself in Babylon. The first palace was a rebuilding of the palace used by his father Nabopolassar (reigned 625-605 BC), which Nebuchadnezzar says had become dilapidated. When he had finished, he decided that it was not grand enough, so he built himself a new palace on the northern edge of Babylon. This palace had a blue parapet and was surrounded by massive fortification walls.
Later Nebuchadnezzar erected new city walls around the east side of Babylon, and built himself a third palace next to the River Euphrates. This is known today as his ‘summer’ palace, as it had ventilation shafts of a type still used today for cooling houses in the Near East. All three palaces were built of baked brick and bitumen, with roofs and doors constructed from fine imported timbers, cedar, cypress and fir.
Cylinders of this type were buried in the corners of all large buildings by Nebuchadnezzar and his successors. They were meant to be found and read by future kings whenever the buildings had to be repaired.
J. Oates, Babylon-1 (London, Thames and Hudson, 1979)
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Cuneiform tablet telling the Epic of Creation
Neo-Assyrian, 7th century BC – From Nineveh, northern Iraq
Part of the library of King Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-631 BC)
This is one of a series of tall narrow cuneiform tablets that tell the story of the creation of the gods Apsu and Tiamat out of primordial waters. This particular tablet relates the episode in which the god Anshar summons the gods to celebrate Marduk’s appointment as champion following his defeat of Tiamat.
The younger gods disturb Tiamat, and Apsu, her husband, decides to destroy them. However, before he can act, he is killed by the gods. Tiamat is enraged and gathers an army of monsters and demons and marches in revenge. The gods, gathered in assembly, at first are unable to face Tiamat. Eventually Marduk, a young god, steps forward and offers to fight Tiamat, in return for the throne of heaven. The gods agree and Marduk gathers his weapons. Tiamat’s army is defeated and she is killed. From her body Marduk creates the heavens and earth and, from the blood of a defeated giant, humans are created to serve the gods.
The Epic was recited on the fourth day of the New Year Festival in Babylon, which took place in April. On this day the king’s right to rule was symbolically renewed by the gods. The story probably has its origin in the second millennium BC, but was still known in the fifth to sixth centuries AD.
T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museu (London, The British Museum Press, 1988)
S. Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creati (Oxford University Press, 1991)
J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern texts rel, 3rd ed. (Princeton University Press, 1969)
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Cuneiform tablet telling the legend of Ishtar’s descent to the Underworld
Neo-Assyrian, 7th century BC – From Nineveh, northern Iraq
Part of the library of King Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-631 BC)
The legend, written in Akkadian, describes how Ishtar, goddess of sexuality and warfare, went to the Underworld. Ishtar decided to undertake the journey, although the Underworld was known as the ‘land of no return’ for humans and gods alike. On the way down she passes through seven doorways and each time the gatekeeper removes from her the symbols and clothes of her divinity. Eventually Ishtar comes face to face with Erishkigal, the goddess of death, and collapses. All sexual activity stops on earth. The gods are distraught and Ea, god of wisdom, creates an impotent boy who is attractive to Erishkigal. He manages to persuade Erishkigal to have Ishtar sprinkled with the waters of life and revived. Ishtar passes back through the seven doors, and regains her clothing and attributes.
The story is known from earlier texts and a later version written in Sumerian, where Ishtar succeeds in escaping the Underworld by substituting her husband, the shepherd Dumuzi. This text appears to be connected with the cult of Dumuzi, since it can be interpreted as ending with ritual instructions for the bathing, anointing and lying in state of a statue of Dumuzi. He periodically died and returned from death, causing seasonal fertility.
S. Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creati (Oxford University Press, 1991)
J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern texts rel, 3rd ed. (Princeton University Press, 1969)
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Cuneiform tablet with omens
Neo-Assyrian, 7th century BC – From Nineveh, northern Iraq
From the library of King Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-631 BC)
This tablet is the third of a series of twenty-four calledshumma izbu concerning malformed newborn humans and animals, and their ominous significance. Everything in Mesopotamia was believed to be the result of divine action, and signs (omens) were used to interpret the will of the gods. Ancient letters reveal that deformities in human and animal births were taken very seriously at this time.
Tablets such as this are the scholarly textbooks of their day, consulted by the expert to determine the will of the gods. Many letters have survived from scholars and officials to King Ashurbanipal (reigned 668-627 BC), giving him details of strange occurrences and how they should be interpreted.
E. Leichty, The omen series Summa izbu (Locust Valley, J.J. Augustin, 1970)
S. Parpola, Letters from Assyrian and Baby (Helsinki University Press, 1993)
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The Flood Tablet, relating part of the Epic of Gilgamesh
Neo-Assyrian, 7th century BC – From Nineveh, northern Iraq
The most famous cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia
The Assyrian King Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-631 BC) collected a library of thousands of cuneiform tablets in his palace at Nineveh. They recorded myths, legends and scientific information. Among them was the story of the adventures of Gilgamesh, a legendary ruler of Uruk, and his search for immortality. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a huge work, the longest literary work in Akkadian (the language of Babylonia and Assyria). It was widely known, with versions also found at Hattusas, capital of the Hittites, and Megiddo in the Levant.
This, the eleventh tablet of the epic, describes the meeting of Gilgamesh with Utnapishtim. Like Noah in the Hebrew Bible, Utnapishtim had been forewarned of a plan by the gods to send a great flood. He built a boat and loaded it with everything he could find. Utnapishtim survived the flood for six days while mankind was destroyed, before landing on a mountain called Nimush. He released a dove and a swallow but they did not find dry land to rest on, and returned. Finally a raven that he released did not return, showing that the waters must have receded.
This Assyrian version of the Old Testament flood story was identified in 1872 by George Smith, an assistant in The British Museum. On reading the text he
… jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.’
T.C. Mitchell, The Bible in the British Museu (London, The British Museum Press, 1988)
H. McCall, Mesopotamian myths (London, The British Museum Press, 1990)
S. Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creati (Oxford University Press, 1991)
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Cuneiform tablet telling the legend of Etana
Neo-Assyrian, 7th century BC – From Nineveh, northern Iraq
Part of the library of King Ashurbanipal (reigned 669-631 BC)
The story told on this tablet centres on Etana, a legendary king of the southern Mesopotamian city of Kish.
An eagle has its nest in the branches of a tree while a snake nests at its base. The two animals swear an oath of friendship by Shamash, god of the sun and justice. They both raise their young, but the eagle eats the young snakes. The snake cries to Shamash who tells it to hide in the carcass of a dead wild bull. The eagle flies down to eat from the bull, but is seized by the snake, who ties its wings and throws it into a pit.
Meanwhile, Etana, a pious man, prays to Shamash for a son and the plant of life. Shamash tells Etana where to find the eagle, so that it can help him to find the plant. For seven months Etana teaches the eagle how to fly again. But the eagle is unable to find the plant, and suggests that they fly up to heaven to speak with the goddess Ishtar. Etana is frightened by the height they fly and they have to make several attempts at the journey.
We do not know whether they were successful, as unfortunately the rest of the text is missing and the end of the story is unclear. Versions of the legend are known from as early as the seventeenth century BC, but the story is certainly much older.
J. Kinnier-Wilson, The legend of Etana, new edition (Warminster, Aris & Phillips, 1985)
S. Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creati (Oxford University Press, 1991)
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Stela of Nabonidus
Neo-Babylonian dynasty, 555-539 BC – Possibly from Babylon, southern Iraq
The last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire
It is not known where this basalt stela was originally found, but it may come from Babylon. Comparison with other sculptures, on which he is named, suggest that it represents King Nabonidus. He wears the traditional dress of a Babylonian king, and holds a standard which was possibly carried during a religious ceremony. Above him are the divine symbols of the moon-god, Sin, (closest to him), the planet Venus of Ishtar and the winged disc of the sun-god Shamash. The text celebrates the return of plenty after a drought.
Nabonidus was the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which stretched from the border of Egypt to the Gulf. He was not a member of the royal family but came to the throne after the legitimate ruler had been murdered. Keen to show his legitimacy, Nabonidus undertook major building works. One of his projects was in the city of Harran where the temple of the god Sin was rebuilt. He appears to have been devoted to this god, and it is probable that his mother had been a priestess of Sin at Harran. Another text of Nabonidus records her death and explains that she lived to be over a hundred.
H.W.F. Saggs, Babylonians (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)
M. Roaf, Cultural atlas of Mesopotamia (New York, 1990)
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Cuneiform tablet with part of the Nabonidus Chronicle (556-530s BC)
Neo-Babylonian dynasty, about 530-400 BC – Probably from Babylon, southern Iraq
The fall of a dynasty
This tablet forms part of a series, and summarises the principal events of each year from the accession of Nabonidus in 556 until the 530s BC. The chronicle stresses that Nabonidus was absent in Arabia for much of his reign, thereby interrupting performances of the annual spring festival in Babylon where the king’s presence was essential.
Nabonidus established a base at the oasis of Teima on the caravan routes and campaigned against other rich oases or negotiated alliances with the Arabs. The king spent ten years in Arabia and left Babylonia administered by his son, Bel-shar-usur (Belshazzar of the Old Testament).
Meanwhile, Cyrus, the king of Anshan and Persia in south-west Iran, defeated king Astyges of Media (western Iran). This gave Cyrus territory from eastern Iran to the Halys River in Anatolia. Croesus, the king of Lydia, felt threatened and met the Persian army in battle in 547 BC. The Persians pursued Croesus back to the Lydian capital at Sardis which fell after a two-week siege. The Babylonians were allied with Lydia and eventually in September/October 539 BC the Persian and Babylonian armies met at Opis, east of the Tigris. Cyrus was victorious, the cities of Sippar and Babylon surrendered, Nabonidus was captured, and the Persian king entered Babylon as the new ruler.
J.B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern texts rel, 3rd ed. (Princeton University Press, 1969)
A.K. Grayson, Babylonian and Assyrian chroni (Locust Valley, J.J. Augustin, 1975)
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Map of the World
Babylonian, about 700-500 BC – Probably from Sippar, southern Iraq
A unique ancient map of the Mesopotamian world
This tablet contains both a cuneiform inscription and a unique map of the Mesopotamian world. Babylon is shown in the centre (the rectangle in the top half of the circle), and Assyria, Elam and other places are also named. The central area is ringed by a circular waterway labelled ‘Salt-Sea’. The outer rim of the sea is surrounded by what were probably originally eight regions, each indicated by a triangle, labelled ‘Region’ or ‘Island’, and marked with the distance in between. The cuneiform text describes these regions, and it seems that strange and mythical beasts as well as great heroes lived there, although the text is far from complete.
The regions are shown as triangles since that was how it was visualized that they first would look when approached by water.
The map is sometimes taken as a serious example of ancient geography, but although the places are shown in their approximately correct positions, the real purpose of the map is to explain the Babylonian view of the mythological world.
I.L. Finkel, ‘A join to the Map of the World: a notable discovery’, British Museum Magazine: the-5 (Winter 1995), pp. 26-27
W. Horowitz, Mesopotamian cosmic geography (Winona Lake, Eisenbrauns, 1998)
I.L. Finkel, Gilgamesh: the hero king (London, The British Museum Press, 1998)
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Tablet recording a gold delivery by the chief eunuch of Nebuchadnezzar II
Neo-Babylonian, 594 BC
The Babylonian cuneiform inscription on this clay tablet sheds new light on Chapter 39 of the Biblical Book of Jeremiah. It gives the name and title of a high-ranking Babylonian officer who, according to Jeremiah, was present at the historic siege of Jerusalem in 587 BC with King Nebuchadnezzar II. It therefore confirms the historical existence of this Biblical figure.
The tablet was translated in 2007 by Dr Michael Jursa, working in the Department of the Middle East study room. The text relates that the Babylonian officer had sent a quantity of gold, presumably as a gift, to Esangila, the temple of the chief god of Babylonia, Marduk:
(Regarding) 1.5 minas (0.75 kg) of gold, the property of Nabu-sharrussu-ukin, the chief eunuch, which he sent via Arad-Banitu the eunuch to [the temple] Esangila: Arad-Banitu has delivered [it] to Esangila.
In the presence of Bel-usat, son of Aplaya, the royal bodyguard, [and of] Nadin, son of Marduk-zer-ibni.
Month XI, day 18, year 10 [of] Nebuchadnezzar, king ofBabylon.
The chief eunuch’s name (Nabu-sharrussu-ukin in its Babylonian form) becomes Nebusarsekim in the New English Bible. It has been shortened because the Hebrew text was originally written without vowels (as follows: N-b-w-sh-r-s-k-y-m). The vowels were added later, at a time when the full sound of the original name was no longer certain. The correspondence with the Babylonian form can best be seen by comparing it with the Hebrew consonants only. The name represents an attempt to record a strange Babylonian name, where the details of the words were unfamiliar.
We know from contemporary cuneiform texts that the chief eunuch was one of the commanders of the Babylonian army and among the highest officials at the Babylonian court. There was always only one man with this title at any given time. Nabu-sharrussu-ukin and Nebusarsekim are clearly the same person.
There are very few instances of Biblical figures (apart from kings) clearly identified in contemporary, extra-Biblical sources. This makes the case of the correspondence between this tablet and Jeremiah 39 all the more remarkable.
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Babylonian brick
Babylon (Kasr), about 8th-7th century BC
This was one of a number of items collected by Sir Robert Ker Porter (1777-1842), a Scottish artist, traveller and diplomat. Ker Porter was appointed historical painter to the Russian Tsar in 1804 and recorded and drew ruins at Persepolis and other sites in Iran for the Russian Academy of Fine Arts (1817-20).
While travelling in the Near East, Porter stayed with Claudius Rich (1786-1821) in Baghdad, and was guided around the newly identified site of Babylon. Ker Porter presented a small collection of items he collected during his travels to the British Museum in 1821. These were mostly remains of ancient Babylonian buildings: bricks, mortar, bitumen and reeds.
This brick was originally at least 30 cm across, but Ker Porter cut it down to make it portable. The faint impression shows a lion with an Aramaic inscription. Aramaic gradually replaced cuneiform script in Mesopotamia after the ninth century BC but Aramaic brick inscriptions are not common, and Ker Porter recognised that this brick was ‘a very rare specimen’. The inscription gives the letter M, possibly a personal monogram, above the short word ‘QŠB’, which possibly translates as ‘B has presented’. ‘B’ may be an abbreviation of a god’s name.
Sir R. Ker Porter, Travels in Georgia, Persia, -1, 2 vols. (London, 1821-22)
R.D. Barnett, ‘Sir Robert Ker Porter – Regency artist and traveller’, Iran-2 (1972), pp. 19-24, plates 1-12
N. E. Vasilieva, ‘About the history of Sir Robert Ker Porter’s album with his sketches of Achaemenid and Sassanian monuments’, Archaeologische Mitteilungen a(1994), pp. 339-48, plates 104-11
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Coins from the Tigris hoard
From Characene (present-day Mesene, Iraq), about 2nd century AD
A coin collection from Babylonia
The Tigris hoard is named after the River Tigris in southern Mesopotamia (Iraq), where it was found in the early nineteenth century. The hoard included Greek and Persian coins of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, as well as 500 bronze coins from Characene at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, which dated to about the second century AD.
Many of the coins were acquired by Claudius James Rich (1786-1821), who collected coins, antiquities and manuscripts for the information they might reveal about the ancient world. Rich had joined the East India Company in 1803 and became British Resident at the Court of the Pasha in Baghdad in 1808. He was a brilliant linguist, who made himself familiar with the languages, customs and traditions of the local people. He also collected valuable information on the history and geography of Mesopotamia. Rich visited several ancient sites in southern Persia in 1821, but caught cholera in Shiraz and died at the age of only thirty-five. Some of Rich’s coins were bought by the British Museum in 1825.
These bronze four-drachm coins have a royal bust in profile on both sides. Sometimes the male figure is bare-headed, but often at least one side shows the local king wearing a tall Iranian hat. The Aramaic legend gives the king’s name as Maga, the son of Athabiaos.
G.F. Hill, Catalogue of the Greek Coins o (London, British Museum, 1922)
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Head of Pazuzu
Found at the site of Babylon, southern Iraq
The face of the ancient Mesopotamian god Pazuzu was said to be anathema to the demoness Lamashtu. It was, therefore, widely used on pendants worn to protect the wearer against evil.
This bearded snarling head made of bronze was acquired by Claudius James Rich (1786-1821), who successfully identified the remains of Babylon in 1811. The head was found in one of the graves there. Rich described it as ‘a little brass ornament that was found with a skeleton in a coffin at the Mujelibe’. This suggests that it had been re-used in antiquity, since later excavations at this part of Babylon have shown these graves to be much later in date.
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Hematite cylinder seal of Habde-Adad
Old Babylonian Dynasty, about 19th century BC From Mesopotamia
The design on this cylinder seal shows a typical scene of the nineteenth century BC of a presentation to a god. A king carries an animal offering, while behind him stands a goddess or lamma. A lamma is often shown leading the worshipper before the god but here she stands with her hands raised in prayer. The god holds a knife or saw, identifying him as Shamash, god of the sun and justice.
The cuneiform inscription identifies the seal owner as ‘Habde-Adad, servant of the king Ibiq-Adad’. At the time in northern Mesopotamia, around Babylon and Eshnunna, various Amorite and West Semitic princes were gaining control of cities. Ipiq-Adad II was an Amorite ruler whose dynasty had taken control of Eshnunna, north-east of modern Baghdad. He began to use seals with typical Babylonian designs.
The seal was part of a collection of antiquities assembled by Claudius James Rich, the first British Resident in Baghdad in the early years of the nineteenth century. Rich’s collection formed the foundations for The British Museum’s Mesopotamian collection in 1825.
D. Collon, First impressions: cylinder se (London, The British Museum Press, 1987)
D. Collon, Catalogue of the Western Asi-2 (London, 1986)
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Alabaster panel with a scene of the Martyrdom of St Thomas Becket
Medieval, about AD 1450-1500 – From England
This alabaster panel shows Thomas Becket (?1118-70), Archbishop of Canterbury, kneeling in prayer before an altar, on which stands a chalice. Four knights approach from behind and two of them attack him with swords. The figure with the cross, behind the altar, represents Edward Grim, a clerk from Cambridge who witnessed the atrocity. The murder was committed in a side chapel of Canterbury Cathedral, therefore violating the laws of Sanctuary, which ought to have given Becket immunity from arrest or molestation in a holy place. The knights responsible were Reginald Fitzurse, Richard le Bret, Hugh de Moreville and William de Tracy. They acted on a misunderstood instruction from King Henry II who was in dispute with Becket over the relative privileges of Church and Crown.
Alabaster panels such as this are of a standard size, and would have belonged to larger altarpieces. Alabaster is easy to carve and allows the creation of fine details. It can also take colouring, gilding and polishing. Some original polychromy and gilding survives on this example. Carved alabaster was among England’s most successful exports of art in the Middle Ages and they survive in collections all over western Europe.
T. Richard Blurton (ed.), The enduring image: treasures, exh. cat (British Council, 1997)
F. Cheetham, English medieval alabasters (Oxford, Phaidon-Christie’s, 1984)
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John Martin,The Fall of Babylon, a mezzotint with etching
England, AD 1831
‘The broad walls of Babylon shall be utterly broken, and her high gates shall be burned with fire; and the people shall labour in vain…’, Jeremiah (51:58)
John Martin (1789-1854) first interpreted the biblical scene of the destruction of Babylon in a huge painting exhibited at the British Institution in 1819.
He was keen to make prints after his paintings, as a ‘means which would enable the public to see my productions, and give me a chance of being remunerated for my labours’. Martin did not see his prints just as commercial reproductions, but as works of art in their own right. He took personal responsibility for every stage of print production. He even inked his own plates, a job which was normally left to specialist printers.
The mezzotint was the ideal medium for creating painterly effects. A metal plate (usually copper but in this case steel) is evenly roughened with a serrated ‘rocker’ that would print as a dark area if inked up. A design is formed by burnishing down the plate to create smooth areas that print as light tones. This process creates dramatic chiaroscuro (light and shade), which well suited the drama of Martin’s apocalyptic subject matter.
The eccentric, English dilettante, William Beckford wrote:
‘I have been three times running to the exhibition … to admire ‘The Capture of Babylon’ by Martin. He adds the greatest distinction to contemporary art. Oh, what a sublime thing.’
M.J. Campbell, John Martin: visionary printma (City Art Gallery, York, 1992)
A. Griffiths (ed.), Landmarks in print collecting (London, The British Museum Press)
F. Carey (ed.), The Apocalypse and the shape o (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)
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Jean Duvet,The Apocalypse, Chapters Four and Five, an engraving
France, AD 1555
St John being summoned to Heaven
The figures in this crowded composition are all described in chapters four and five of the last book of the Bible (the Apocalypse). The signed and dated image is hard to read because Duvet has distributed the images across the surface of his plate, not arranging them in space, as a painter might, but a manner that betrays his training as a goldsmith. He has signed his work on the miniature tablets at the bottom of the image.
Duvet lived first in Dijon and then moved north to Langres, far from established centres of printmaking. He studied the prints of Mantegna, Marcantonio, and Dürer, and adapted his metalworking skills to what he could absorb from their example. The twenty-three engravings of his Apocalypse are loosely based on the sixteenwoodcuts of Dürer’s great Apocalypse. However, where Dürer stressed the visionary nature of the scene by setting it high above a spacious landscape, Duvet fills his frame with the vision, leaving only a scrap of landscape in one corner. The style is claustrophobic, but there is a strong emotional charge in the earnest gestures of his figures.
Kneeling below, St John hears the voice ‘like a trumpet’ and sees the open door of heaven. He weeps because no one is worthy to open the book with seven seals. Then one of the twenty-four elders points out the Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, who will break the seals.
A. Griffiths (ed.), Landmarks in print collecting (London, The British Museum Press)
F. Carey (ed.), The Apocalypse and the shape o (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)
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Alabaster panel showing the signs of the Last Judgement
Medieval, about AD 1420-60 – From England
In the Middle Ages it was believed that the Last Judgement would be preceded by fifteen signs of its coming. They derived from Revelation, the last book of the Bible, and the teachings of St Jerome, and were itemized in the Golden Legend of Jacopo da Voragine (died 1298). This thirteenth-century text was second only to the Bible in popularity and its imagery influenced many medieval works of art.
This alabaster panel depicts the tenth sign of the Last Judgement, which describes how men will emerge from caves where they have retreated, unable to speak and out of their senses. Other apocalyptical signs included the rising and falling of the sea, earthquakes, stars falling from the sky and Heaven and Earth burning. The thirteenth sign, where all the living shall die, is illustrated by another alabaster held by The British Museum.
The angel hovering beneath an architectural canopy holds a scroll that would have carried an inscription (now lost) explaining the significance of the scene. Traces of coloured paints survive, as a reminder that alabasters were originally highly coloured, decorative works of art.
P. Nelson, ‘A Doom reredos’, Transactions of the Historic S, 34 (1919), pp. 67-71
J. de Voragine (translated by W. Granger Ryan), The golden legend: readings on (Princeton University Press, 1993)
F. Cheetham, English medieval alabasters (Oxford, Phaidon-Christie’s, 1984)
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Albrecht DürerThe Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a woodcut
Germany, AD 1498
The New Testament vision
When the 27-year-old Dürer published the text of the Book of Revelation with 15 woodcut illustrations, he realized a three-fold ambition. He secured for himself a new source of income, transformed the appearance of the illustrated printed book, and found an outlet for his religious imagination. The Four Horsemendemonstrates how complete was his success.
Dürer has compressed eight verses describing St John’s visions (Revelation 6:1-8) into one scene. The first rider with a bow represents pestilence. The second, with a raised sword, represents war. The third, with the empty scales, represents famine. In front rides Death, sweeping citizens and a king into the jaws of Hades.
The descriptive power of Dürer’s new woodcut style is evident. He has created light and dark tone with parallel and cross-hatched lines, and introduced luxuriant textures into the clothes, the manes of the horses, and the billowing clouds.
Since he was publishing the book himself, Dürer had to pay skilled block cutters to cut around his drawn lines. This was slow, dificult work and therefore expensive. However when the task was complete, the blocks provided him with an income for the rest of his life.
E. Panofsky, The life and art of Albrecht D (Princeton University Press, 1945, 1971)
G. Bartrum, German Renaissance prints, 149, exh. cat. (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)
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  1. One sunbeam lights a room .One candle wipes out darkness .One heart can know what’s true .One life can make a difference .You see, it’s up to you .

  1. 14 de Novembro, 2008
  2. 8 de Março, 2009
  3. 30 de Abril, 2009
  4. 2 de Dezembro, 2009
  5. 5 de Março, 2010

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