A glance on Babylon
I was always thinking of Semiramis who, according to a legend, had taken the initiative to built Babylon...
In reality, at the sixth century B.C, a second Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II 's one, had been build on the elements of Hammurapi's capital.
I planned on going there at the beginning of autumn for it was not far from Bagdad, with 90 kilometres in south. Unfortunately, on September 22th 1980, the war between Irak and Iran broke out. During forty days, Iranian planes flew over the capital and bombed it. They made much civilian victims. As the other inhabitants of my district, I ended to get used to their ceaseless raids and I lived again in a more normal way.
Winter induced me to study. I began clever earches about the prestigious past of Babylon. I understood it clearly, it was becomen a mythical city that was reflected as in the water of the Euphrat, as in the ancient Jewish, Greek and Western sources. Former people had differently looked at it and even with contradictory ways.
Ishtar Gater -Berliner Museum
Mesopotamians saw Babylon as the good city”, the centre of the world. They called it Bâb-Ili, the God's gate for it opened on the spiritual vocation of humans and led them at Marduk' s feet, the almighty master of the pantheon, of which residence was built inside the walls. Some hundreds of temples et de chapelles, devoted to different divinities, stood at the corner of the streets.
Babylon begot by spirit. It surrounded soul, subjugated it.
For Hebrews who had ticklish relations with their rich and opulent neighbour, it was the haughty Bâb-El, very provocative. It fascinated senses with its nice appearance, its flourished fragrances, so cheerishing, its rites, its secrets. Setting down as a queen at the shore of the river, dressed with fine linen, purple and scarlet-coloured, ornamented with gold and jewels, it abandoned itself to luxury, play, debauchery, and got drunk on palm wine in the pleasantness of evenings.
At the fifth century B.C, Babylona showed to Greek travelers as Herodotus the historian or the physician Ctasias a so such surprising aspect that they lost their sense of moderation. They added kilometers to its walls; they went into great raptures about the colossal breast of its temples, its palaces, on the amazing beauty of its gardens. Filled with wonder, Herodotus wrote :
town is so splendid that no other city in the world could be compared.12
Subjected by Persians and Greeks, the Fair lost a few of its splendor. Pale, magic, it still however scrutinized the firmament with sharp eyes...
At the first century, another Greek historian, Diodorus of Sicily and a georgrapher, Strabo, recognized its great abilities of astronomer and astrologer. smelt again the scent of its past scent.
Then, a sky of oblivion fall on Babylon. The few Westerners who went through Mesopotamia, from the twelth to the nineteenth century, passed not far from it but nothing anything draw their attention. Some travelers compared it to a dethroned kings' dauthger, lying in dust and watched by owls and snakes. It seemed to be the victim of a curse.
At the middle of the last century, archeologists unveiled again the brow that was hidden under the debris of Babylon. Since and after 1899, the works of the German Robert Koldewey allowed a reconstitution of the features of its face, that had kept their nobleness.
In their turn, Iraqi people and government searched with assiduity, with nostalgia, all that remained of the city, that symbol of their greatness. They built, on ancient bases, imposing walls; they restored many gates and temples. Babylon came across, at the end of the twentieth century, its dazzling decoration, its history and its dryed up power. It played again its role of cultural capital.
Spring came back. I was longing to realize my dream, to become aware of the new beauty of this city that was always silhouetted at the horizon of my thoughts.
At the entering of the site, an enormous basaltic lion, heavy, hardly rough-hewed, stood up front of me, with an enigmatic look. I saw that it gripped in its paws a confused mani. Behind the animal, opened a long avenue paved with smooth flagstones, calcareous and breccia, excavated by Koldewey.
On the occasion of the celebration of the Babylonian New Year, the Akitu, Marduk and else gods's effigies, clad with splendid clothes, took down it. The sumptuousprocession passed then between the thick surrounded walls, ornamented with friezes of emailed bricks, that had each one on them a suite of sixty lions with blazing manes. With their low tails and their opened mouths, these majestuous creatures, symbolizing Ishtar, the goddess of War and Love, seemed to accompany the procession. On the blue overseased background of bricks, they made burst, with a symphonia of colours, their resounding tawny golden, virile red and full bloomed white notes.
I thought with emotion that this alley had seen not only the famous monarchs of Babylon, but foreigned kings too, as the Persian Cyrus and Xerxes, all of them swathed in the same ochred and blue enchantment..
Later, standing on his chariot, his leonine hair fired by the Sun, Alexander the Macedonian, had made a triumphant entrance in the town. Its oppressed inhabitants, impoverished by the Persian Achemenids who ruled them since 539 B.C, had welcomen their liberator with acclamations, flowers and crowns.
I let the sacred road and approached Ishtar gate that crossed it and was the main entrance of Babylon. It sparkled with green and blue. An Iraqi flag floated proudly by its side. Some palm-trees faned it. It was a double-gate, fixed on the ground, aimed to the skies. The uppered-part, that had heavy pannels of emailed bricks, had been removed from its hinges by the members of the German expedition before the First World War, and transfered to the Museum of Eastern Antiquities of Berlin. The lower part only remained, rebuilt as a miniature version, and equiped with a arched opening and four crenellated towers. It was decorated with white palmets, running grey-blued dragoons, with eagled and felined paws, Marduk's symbols. They alternated with the wild bulls of the Storm god Adad. With their sky-coloured furs, their large dreamy eyes, theses bovines impressed me.
All the animals emanated from the glaucous ground of the gate. Should I see in them the spirit and the memory of the city ?
As I watched them, captivated, they seemed to move. Light, almost unreal, they walked, anymore on a wall but on a mirror of water and took some fantastic appearances. Dazzled by this light of aquarium, I plunged in the past of Babylon...
Mesopotamia Babylonian map
The famous Nebuchadnezzar II had made arrange the processionnal way and Ishtar's Gate. He had let his name as stamped on the field of the great flagstones that covered the roadway. Compared with a dragon in the Bible, (Jeremiah, 51,34 ) he was known too by economical texts, royal inscriptions, ancient authors. In 1842, an artist as Verdi, gave his name to an opera, Nabucco, animated by a fiery patriotic inspiration.
Nebuchadnezzar remained an energetic and complicated man.
He was Nabopolassar's son, wha had founded about 625 B.C the Neo-Babylonian empire contributed to the collpase of Assyria in 612. He kept the stamp of his Chaldean origin, an Aramaïc tribe, the Kaldû, mentionned on the ninth century in Assyrian documents and who went to settle in Lower Mesopotamia.
In 605 B.C, Nebuchadnezzar succeeded with defeating Egyptians in Karkemish on the right of Euphrat. He pushed the gate of Syria-Palestine and penetrated in the area.
Disobedient, the Kingdom of Juda refused before long to pay a tribute, and revolted. On March 16th 697, the king of Babylon took Jerusalem and deported three thousands inhabitants. In spite of the advices of sumission of the prophet Jeremiah, the Jewish resistance didn't reduce. King Sedecias revolted at the beginning of 588 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar came back to besiege Jerusalem, made a rush on July 29th 587 B.C, burnt the temple, the houses. Nobles and craftsmen, some thousands people, bound their reins with the belt of captivity and walked toward Babylon.
These transportations, in Mesopotamia, were only small events in the life of the empire. They haven't any racist aspects. The elite of the Jewish population was transferred in a foreign country after a conflict between nations, and had been quite well treated.
Nebuchadnezzar received in his court the most handsome and the cleverest young men. He made them taught in his language, nurrished them at his own table, as told in the Bible the prophet Daniel.
Some exiled moarned to stay far away from the kingdom of Juda :
On the riversides of Babylon,
We were sitting and we cried,
We were sitting and we cried,
Sion. On the willows around,
On the willows around,
have hunged our harps. (Psalm 137)
Some others, the most numerous, adapted to their new way of life and prospered among Babylonians.
In 538, an edict of Cyrus II, the great king of Persia, who had becomed the master of the land of Sumer and Akkad, authorized transported people to come back in Palestine. Only a few number, imbued with the Chaldean wisdom, took to the road gain toward their native land for smelling its scents. The other Jews, seduced by the heady charms of Babylon, the extaordinary megalopolis, stayed in Mesopotamia. For
was in the Eternal's hand a golden cup,
That inebriated all the world. (Jeremiah,
Lion de la voie processionnelle
Nebuchadnezzar stood up to besiege Tyr during thirteenth years, then seized the city. If we confined ourselves to the inscriptions that commemorated his works, he did not set his vast empire on war. Valorous but wise, sensible, he merely conforted it.
Inside the borders, the sovereign proved to be a remarkable administrator. He controlled agriculture, developped the trade with the Indo-Iranian Eastern, the Mediterranean, encourage arts and sciences like mathematics, astronomy, that are the ground of our knowledges. He was interested too by the past.
With all these huge qualities, then, who could raise so highly than him ? Here is that wondered the prophet Daniel :
" O King, you are the king of kings, for the God of heaven gave you the empire, power, strengh and glory; he handed you, anywhere they lived, human's children, the beasts of fields and the birds in the sky, and he made you dominated all of them : You are the golden head ( Daniel, 2, 37-39 )
The golden head means the most achieved, the most perfect being of Creation.
Under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, then, the country forgot itself in peace.
So the king could devote himself to works of architecture. He sword to restore, embellish his beloved capital, that had then nine hundred hectares within itself, and sheltered a population of one hundred thousand inhabitants.
Among all the inhabited places, I made no town more famous than you, Babylon !
And indeed, he enlarged the canals and the enclosure of the city made by two walls separated by a large distance. He erected monuments, of among which a splendid temple devoted to Marduk, and a vast palace, a residence of majesty.
Standing front of Ishtar Gate, I was emerging slowly from the blue and luminous night of the Babylonian past... I slipped under the archway and went inside the citadel. I was burning now to visit the magnificent Nebuchednazzar's residence. It was raised on my right, toward the Euphrat. Though it was in restoration, it was still opened to the public. I entered in one of the large courts, crossed the threshold of a vaulted gate and stayed unmoved front of the huge throne chamber, formerly ornamented with palms, stylized flowers, running lions in a forest of volutes. I invoked the monarch's ghost, sumptuously clad, sitting down in a niche, facing the central opening, seeming to be almost a god ....
I called no longer after another ghost, the prince Bel-Sharra-Usur's one, the Belschatsar of the Bible. He was Nabonidps' son, the last king of Babylon. Did not he give, in this room, a legendary banquet that, later, Rembrandt immortalized in a famous picture, inspired with the sacred text ?
The prophet Daniel told that during a meal, Bel-Sharra-Usur, struck with amazement, saw appearing a man 's hand. It traced on one of the walls some mysterious words, aramean graffiti with numbers. The messages announced that Babylon would be taken soon by Persians. (Daniel, 5, 26 )
Very dreamy, I left the palace. Just before going away, I turned back, trying to see, at the corner of the citadel, the beautiful hanging gardens that had been described by Diodorus of Sicily and Quintus-Curcius, the Latin historian, as the seventh wonder of the world. According to them, the breeze balanced, above the high walls, the dazzling and hudled peaks that were raising to the sky.
Gardens of freshness and pleasure, gardens of Eden, created by the nostalgia of a languid queen with subdued dark eyes, who regretted the mountains and the woods of her native Media : Amythys, the grand-daughter of King Astyages, Nebuchadnezzar's wife.
Here are steps that fly away towards vaulted terraces, supported by columns and adorned with vigorous trees of all species, well irrigated by an ingenious system : Cypress, peach, apricot, fig and granada trees, and rose-trees of Persia and Bactrian.
At evening, when mauve shades dance in the plain arround, Amythis goes up towards the platforms, her heavy golden bracelets tinkling on her wrists. She slips under the young foliages, searching for the green plenitude. She rests under the shadow of her childhood memories.
Years flee by through the hanging gardens, that are already legends. But the queen of Babylon comes back always for getting back in touch with her inner self.
Often, I cross in dream these elegiac gardens where grass doesn't become yellow, where plants are always emerald green, where jasmines perfumes the air for eternity. I have a feeling to have already lived there before, like in a blissfull island. Life spreads the scent of Youth. There, I reviewed my soul...
Near to these gardens, in a room of the palace, in June 323, Alexander gave his last banquet. There he drunk a wine older than thousand years. Some days later, being delirious by fever, unable to speak, he greeted by screwing up his eyes, the Macedonian veterans who marched in silence front of his ceremonial bed.
The sun layed down behind the towers of the city, tinging them with scarlet, when the king breathed his last.
The Babylonians scanned the sky and its evening lights; they guessed a missing, harmful for the great project that wanted to make their city the capital of a universal empire. In a certain way, they will miss Alexander.
from « The epic of the Tigris and the Euphrat »,
Editions lHarmattan, Paris, 1999 , ch.12