The Whore of Babylon

 

 

There are few words in English more evocative or thrilling than the name ‘Babylon’. As a child I believed the city was itself a fantasy – a biblical legend, the work of fabulous imagination. Western civilization, we were told at school, started in Athens and Rome. I knew little of Mesopotamia until I was about to go to Iraq and learned that Babylon and many other ancient cities besides lie within the country’s borders.

Founded on the banks of the Euphrates three thousand years before the birth of Christ, Babylon was the capital of two empires in its long history. Despite successive conquests and occupations the city was continuously inhabited for more than two thousand years.

In the sixth century BCE King Nebuchadnezzar II and his armies of architects and builders restored it to the imperial splendour it had enjoyed a thousand years before. They reinforced the citadel wall, which measured five miles in length. They diverted the Euphrates and built a new dock on the river’s eastern bank, and they restored a massive temple consecrated to Babylon’s patron deity, Marduk.

This huge ziggurat, the original Tower of Babel, was linked to other temples and palaces by a Sacred Way that led to an arched gate dedicated to the Goddess Ishtar. The magnificent buildings lining the boulevard were made with fired bricks – many inscribed with Nebuchadnezzar’s name – and adorned with gold, silver, ivory, precious hardwood and lapis lazuli. Around the temple complex the streets were built on a grid system. The houses, decorated with bright enamel tiles, rose to three or four stories high and in the sky above the city walls lush gardens were said to float – a mirage for eyes weary of rock and sand.

‘In addition to its size,’ the historian Herodotus wrote, ‘Babylon surpasses in splendor any city in the known world.’ Its people, perfumed and elegant, wore robes of linen and wool and carried sticks carved with roses, lilies, birds. Its palaces displayed archaeological treasures from ancient Sumer and its temples and private houses contained libraries of cuneiform texts. Travellers from Armenia, the Caucasus, India and Arabia mingled in the markets and many languages were spoken. Imperial capital, multicultural crossroad, centre of learning, art and commerce and home to more than two hundred thousand souls, Babylon was the world’s first metropolis.

It was in these streets that merchants traded the riches of the world, so lovingly described in the Biblical Revelations: ‘of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and of pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet . . . and marble, and cinnamon, and odours, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil.’ The frankincense, Herodotus explains, came from trees guarded by winged serpents. Cinnamon was stolen from great birds of prey and cassia grew in shallow lakes protected by bats ‘which screech horribly and are very valiant.’ The Arab merchants who regaled the Greek historian with these tall tales presumably wished to keep the secrets of the spice trade to themselves.

Stories, ideas and beliefs ebbed and flowed along these ancient trade routes like Chinese whispers. Many, shaped by conquest and expediency, were to find their way into the biblical scriptures as the patriarchs of the new religions struggled to overthrow the pagan traditions of the old. So it was that the God Marduk came to be eclipsed by the more notorious Ishtar, whose worship rippled out over the near east and the Mediterranean.

Goddess of Fertility, War and Love, Ishtar had many aspects and titles.  Ancient ceremonies to maintain the fertility of the land involved a Sacred Marriage rite between the Goddess and the shepherd God Tammuz and the love songs performed at these celebrations, written as dialogues between Ishtar and her lover, are full of tenderness and desire. Queen of the Heavens, Lady of the Never Falling Waters, Lady of Sorrow, Ishtar is shown winged like an angel, surrounded by stars and arrayed in Lapis Lazuli. The Babylonians associated her with the planet we call Venus, which they named ‘bright queen of the sky.’ The Greeks were to adopt her as Aphrodite, and as Asherah she was worshipped in Jerusalem where, the bible tells us, ‘the children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of the heavens.’

The British Museum recently acquired a terracotta plaque which represents either Ishtar or her sister Ereshkigal. The Burney Relief, as it is known, was cast from a mould in about 1765 BCE. This was a common practice at the time when specialist workshops produced such pieces as religious souvenirs for display in household shrines. Even to modern eyes there is something faintly shocking about ‘The Queen of the Night’ depicted on this relief. There is no trace of the modesty, the coy twisting, the bashfully lowered eyes or the strategically placed drapes that characterise western nudes from later eras.

Naked, full-frontal, voluptuous, she stares back at the beholder unabashed. Feathered wings sprout from her shoulders and in place of feet she has the talons of an owl – a strange Otherness that lends the Goddess extra power and erotic charge. This is a woman from before the Fall, from a time when sexual love was seen as a sacred aspect of the divine. She is shame-less in her nakedness.

In 597 BCE Nebuchadnezzar’s armies marched on Judea, destroyed both Jerusalem and its temple and deported many of its people. Exiled in an alien city of many deities and with no temple of their own, the Israelites found community in prayer. It was here in a land of scribes that the Torah was completed and the canonization of the Hebrew scripture began. In these stories Nebuchadnezzar, stricken with insanity, eats grass like a beast of the field. Jerusalem the longed-for will become the virginal holy city ‘coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’  and Babylon – realm of the Goddess of Love – will be branded a whore: ‘And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication:  And upon her forehead was a name written, Mystery, Babylon The Great, The Mother Of Harlots And Abominations Of The Earth.’

Viewed through the bitterness and yearning of exile Babylon becomes a symbol of seductive and forbidden otherness, the prototype Scarlet Woman. Enchantress and witch, her rape and burning – in an orgy of destruction described in Revelations – is the grand climax of the bible.

In the event Nebuchadnezzar ruled for forty-three years and Babylon survived long after his death, conquered first by the Persians and then the Greeks. So the great learning of the Babylonians and the Sumerians – their technology, mathematics and astronomical observations, their legends and myths – were assimilated and passed to East and West.

In 75 AD astronomers were still recording data in the city but by the second century Babylon was caught between the expanding empires of Parthia and Rome. A provincial town with a dwindling population, its temples were forsaken and whole quarters of the city were left derelict and abandoned. By the time the Hebrew scripture was being translated into Greek the real Babylon was fading away and its transition into a fable – a torrid metaphor for evil – had begun. By the tenth century only a village remained and this, too, was eventually abandoned. The Euphrates changed course and flooded the west of the site. Fired bricks blazoned with Nebuchadnezzar’s name, the ancient script forgotten, were covered with windblown sand or quarried by the rural poor to build new homes.

Only parts of the city have been excavated. In the early nineteen hundreds a German expedition discovered the main boulevard and the remnants of the Ishtar Gate. The glazed tiles and bricks of lapis Lazuli which had decorated its façade were taken and the fabulous archway reconstructed in a museum in Berlin. Statues of lions, bulls and dragons that once lined the Sacred Way are now in museums in Gothenburg, Paris, Munich, Ontario and cities of the United States.

In 1978 the Iraqi government began excavations and reconstruction at the site, sparking controversy both at home and abroad. The modern bricks, too, were stamped with regal graffiti – ‘Rebuilt in the era of the leader Saddam Hussein’ – and were themselves to become archaeological booty after the next invasion of Iraq. By the nineteen-eighties a hundred and fifty thousand people were coming to visit Babylon each year. The Gulf War and continuing blockade put a stop to that and the ruins were left in solitude once again. On a hot April day in 1994 I went there myself. The only other visitors were a party of Iraqi students.

Hello, Hello!’ one of them said, ‘You are welcome in Iraq!’ He stepped close to me as he shook my hand. ‘I would like to talk to you more but we are not supposed to speak to foreigners.’

By the time of my visit ‘Operation Desert Storm’ and three and a half years of economic sanctions had already bought conquest, war, famine and death to Iraq’s people. Four years later Dennis Halliday would forfeit his long and distinguished career at the United Nations by resigning as the Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq. The blockade, he said, was genocidal: ‘We are in the process of destroying a whole society. It is as simple and terrifying as that.’

‘Thus,’ reads Revelations, ‘with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all . . . and no craftsman, of whatsoever craft he be, shall be found any more in thee; and the sound of a millstone shall be heard no more at all in thee; And the light of a candle shall shine no more at all in thee; and the voice of the bridegroom and of the bride shall be heard no more at all in thee . . .’

In 2003 the region was invaded once more, this time by the North Americans and the British. A brief search on the internet reveals that this particular attack on ‘Babylon’ was invested with prophetic power by those who hope to ascend to heaven in the ‘rapture’ described in Revelations. For Christian Fundamentalists the prophesied destruction and occupation of Babylon is a precursor to Armageddon and the second coming of Christ. The latter-day Patriarchs of the West – the Bushes and Clinton and their acolyte Blair – consistently framed our long war against Iraq as a righteous battle of Good against Evil in the person of that self-styled Nebuchadnezzar, Saddam Hussein. Could it be that these self-proclaimed men of god, even as they exonerated themselves from the sixth commandment, were beguiled by the fantasy they were to be the executors of a biblical curse?

In true imperial style the North American army occupied the site of Babylon and built a military base there, which they called Camp Alpha. US Soldiers tried to steal the moulded brick dragons from the Ishtar Gate and damaged them irreparably. They drove tanks over the Sacred Way and crushed a brick road that had endured for twenty four centuries. They bulldozed trenches into the ruins. They levelled swathes of the ancient city to build a parking lot and a helicopter landing pad. Precious archaeological evidence was scattered all over the site.

But human history shows that stories, ideas and beliefs are not so readily destroyed as bodies, temples, homes, museums and cities. Even the stern dogma of the biblical patriarchs and their vengeful god has been subverted, embellished and embroidered over the years. The Babylonians had their families of deities – a Goddess of the Loom and Spider, a Master of the Dark City, gods of Dreaming and of Corn. Christians have gathered a host of saints – saints of childbirth and of mariners, saints who offer protection from madness and wild beasts, Saint Elmo who was fed by a raven. Muslims practice rituals with candles and incense and tie ribbons on shrines. People, it seems, crave magic. And we want a Goddess, too, so even Great Ishtar, Whore of Babylon, is rehabilitated. She is disguised it is true, apparently shorn of her power, a modest virgin. But she keeps her crown of stars. And she is still arrayed in lapis lazuli which the artists of renaissance Europe ground into pigment to colour Mary, Queen of Heaven’s robes.

Illustrations: The Burney Relief; Madonna by Don Lorenzo Monaco; Immaculate Heart of Mary by Charles Bosseron Chambers

Sumerian Love poem from: The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL), Oxford 1998-. Copyright © J. A. Black, G. Cunningham, E. Robson, and G. Zôlyomi 1998, 1999, 2000;2001. Reading Sumerian Poetry by Jeremy Black, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 1998. Illustrations: The Burney Relief; Madonna by Don Lorenzo Monaco; Immaculate Heart of Mary by Charles Bosseron Chambers
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