Invisible cities

In myth, Babylon is a place of romance and wonder, but years of dictatorship and war have taken thei

Once upon a time, some 600 years before Christ, a king fell completely in love with his Persian concubine. He spent nights listening to her reminisce about the mountain meadows of her distant homeland. Fearing her restlessness, he vowed to replicate the verdant landscapes of Persia in his desert kingdom, and embarked on a building project that was to become one of the Wonders of the World. Yet the Hanging Gardens of Babylon remain one of the unresolved mysteries of human history.

The king's desperation to prove his love is mirrored ironically by the futile attempts of a long succession of historians and explorers, all hoping to uncover material evidence of the gardens. In this light, the many paintings and drawings inspired by the gardens can be read as a portrait of a man's jealous desire to become the sole object of his beloved's longing. He wanted to be, as the expression goes, everything to her.

To this end, no cost was spared. The complex machinery that endlessly pumped water from the nearby river was concealed from view. Situated on a hillside, mounting tier upon tier, the park resembled a theatre, Diodorus Siculus tells us. The Greek historian's account is deeply evocative and tantalisingly detailed:

When the ascending terraces had been built, there had been constructed beneath them galleries which carried the entire weight of the planted garden and rose little by little one above the other along the approach . . . Furthermore, the walls, which had been constructed at great expense, were twenty-two feet thick, while the passageway between each two walls was ten feet wide. The roof above these beams had first a layer of reeds laid in great quantities of bitumen, over this two courses of baked brick bonded by cement, and as a third layer a covering of lead, to the end that the moisture from the soil might not penetrate beneath. On all this again earth had been piled to a depth sufficient for the roots of the largest trees; and the ground, when levelled off, was thickly planted with trees of every kind that, by their great size or other charm, could give pleasure to the beholder.

And what did the intended beholder make of this exuberant gesture? Did she ever visit the building site and wonder whether she shouldn't have restrained her homesickness? Did she marvel when it was finally completed? Did she ever feel the obligation to exaggerate her marvelling? Did lovers meet secretly along the "galleries which carried the entire weight"? And what was planted up there? Did singing birds come?

This month an unusual exhibition was unveiled at the British Museum. "Babylon: Myth and Reality" poses more questions about that ancient, vanished metropolis than it answers. Drawing on the collections of four museums - in London, Berlin and two in Paris - the show brings together historical evidence and artefacts, juxtaposing these with later works of art inspired by the myth of Babylon. The show is as much a celebration of that city's place in the human imagination as it is a survey of what we know about it.

How did a civilisation so great and powerful end? According to Herodotus, "in magnificence there is no other city that approaches" Babylon. In it, or at least in its region, writing appeared for the first time. It was the only city that boasted not one, but two Wonders of the World. Besides the illusive hanging gardens, there was the mammoth city wall that stood nearly ten storeys high. On top was a carriageway with single-storey rooms on either side, "leaving between them", Herodotus tells us, "room for a four-horse chariot to turn". It encircled a great part of the city, running, according to some Greek accounts, for 65 kilometres. One hundred gates, each of solid brass, lined the wall. Though this structure, too, has been eaten away by time, we do have archaeological evidence of its existence. And tablets commissioned by Nebuchadnezzar II, the king who ruled Babylon for 43 years, from 605-562BC, mention the wall. One of the most wondrous paintings on show at the exhibition is a small Degas, depicting Queen Semiramis and her attendants standing on the wall taking in the view. It shows the sustaining influence that the various myths and realities of Babylon have had on art.

What we most wanted to see was Babylon, but our unsmiling guide would only say:

“We’ll see”

Another architectural legacy of the city is the Tower of Babel. It was one of the largest buildings of the ancient world, and before modern archaeologists discovered the ziggurat, it inspired much speculation. Some of the best-known examples of this appear in paintings by the 16th-century artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. He shows it as a circular structure, growing thinner as it rises, decaying with every progressive level, nothing but darkness coming through the doors and windows, the clouds disturbed by its presence. On the ground are scattered figures, all desperate to be understood. These paintings and others by leading Flemish and Dutch artists, as are most western depictions of the tower, were informed by the biblical story:

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.

The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

“Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.

That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

(Genesis 11:5-9)

Babylon is inextricably linked with the Bible. In 597BC, wanting to secure the western borders of his empire, Nebuchadnezzar II sacked Jerusalem, capturing the king of Judah and a large number of prisoners. Ten years later he returned, destroying the temple of Solomon and deporting even more people to Babylon. The Judaean exile did not end until almost 50 years later, when the Persians conquered Babylon. A large number of Judaeans chose to remain, however, and it is to them that modern Iraq's Jews owe their origins. This history cemented the folly of pride and scattering of tongues narrative: that Babylon fell because of its arrogance and defiance of divine will. It makes for a compelling story, and offers a theological explanation for the existence of many languages, but it did not stop us building towers. Every one of these, from the winding minaret of the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, owes its existence to Babel.

I had first read the name Babylon in the pages of One Thousand and One Nights. Describing a woman reclining, Scheherazade says: "Her face was radiant as the full moon and all the witchcraft of Babylon was in her eyes. A paragon of Arabian grace, she was like a star twinkling in a cloudless sky or a golden dome shimmering in the night." That is enough to get any boy wondering.

In 1988 I came very close to visiting the ancient city. My father was invited to a conference in Iraq, and his hosts insisted that he bring his family. So, in August of that year, while the Iran-Iraq War was still raging, the four of us left bustling and unruly Cairo and landed at an almost deserted Saddam International Airport. I was 17 and my brother Ziad was 21.

The temperature was in the mid-fifties. The drivers waiting for us outside opened the doors with their hands gloved in rags. The car Ziad and I were in was driven by Muftah, the government minder who was to accompany us everywhere we went. The Iraqi dictatorship benefited from a ruthless efficiency. The streets were spotless and you got the feeling that everyone was conscious of being watched. Even Muftah held his shoulders tightly. The only visible sign of the eight-year-old war was the occasional building that had had a chunk bitten off by a rocket.

Every morning for the following 12 days Mother, Ziad and I were taken to see the sights. Muftah never smiled, and wherever we went he seemed to wait with a mixture of impatience and irritation. Once, when we were approaching the gate of a museum, he would not slow down. When the guard saw the number plates he ran to lift the barrier, saluting us as we passed. "Feeling sleepy?" Muftah threw at him, and did not wait for the stuttering guard to explain. His ego seemed to press against the ceiling.

What the three of us most wanted to see was Babylon, but every time we asked Muftah, he would nod earnestly and say: "We'll see, we'll see." Muftah means "key" in Arabic. This is why, in Muftah's absence, Ziad would refer to him as Mr Lock. Ziad was beginning to develop a theory about Iraq, inspired by Mr Lock. "Egypt could never become like this; even though there, too, a dictatorship rules, fascism is possible only in the absence of an ingenious humour, and Egyptians have an ingenious sense of humour. They know how to laugh."

I liked Ziad's theory but wanted to test it, so I asked Muftah if he could tell us a typical Iraqi joke. He said he never could remember jokes.

On our last day, and after much persistence, Muftah agreed to drive us to Babylon. He wanted to set off at the worst possible hour, midday. Fearing he would change his mind, we agreed. An hour into the journey we had apparently lost our way. Muftah would turn into an unsigned dirt road before making a U-turn and trying another. You could feel the noon sun pressing down on the roof. After about an hour of this pointless searching we headed back to Baghdad.

On our silent way back, Mother said: "I cannot believe you don't know the way to Babylon."

Muftah did not reply. But after a long silence he turned to me, sitting beside him, and said: "I just thought of a joke. What do you call a bad guide? Muftah."

We all laughed. Now, after all the madness that has befallen Iraq, I wonder what happened to him and the ruins of Babylon.

"Babylon: Myth and Reality" is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 15 March 2009. Details: www.britishmuseum.org