Babylon in Toronto

Striding Lion terracotta relief, Babylon, Southern Citadel. 605 - 562 BCE. From the throne room facade of the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II © ROM 2013

The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is currently hosting the Mesopotamia: Inventing Our World exhibition, designed by the British Museum and curated by ROM’s curator of World Cultures, Clemens Reichel together with Sarah Collins, Early Mesopotamia curator at the British Museum (on display until January 5, 2014).

Babylon, photo by ROM 2013More than 170 artefacts are presented from the holdings of the British Museum, and augmented by ROM’s own collections, as well as the University of Chicago Oriental Institute Museum, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum, Philadelphia), and Detroit Institute of Arts.

Clay Tablet, Sumer, photo by ROM 2013

As the curator Sarah Collins explains, the significance of the various cultural innovations discovered in early Mesopotamia is ground-breaking. The cradle of Western civilization was formally traced to ancient Greece and Rome, but through the preserved tablets and texts of the Mesopotamian cultures, there is now enough evidence to trace the origins of Western civilization to ancient Iraq.

Statue of Ashurnasirpal II, photo by ROM 2013   Lyre Penn, Sumer, photo by ROM 2013   Mosaic Column Drum, Sumer, photo by ROM 2013

The exhibition is divided into three parts, following the three Mesopotamian civilizations of Sumar (2000-3000 BCE), Assyria (2500-605 BCE), and Babylon (2000-323 BCE). The emergence of cities can be traced to Sumar, and its largest city of Uruk that included administrative buildings, residential areas, streets, canals, and the cultic high terraces with temples. Sumar also holds the archaeological evidence of the first writing practices, found on clay tablets excavated in the cities of Uruk and Susa (southwest Iraq) about 3300 BCE.

Head-dress, Sumer, photo by ROM

After 1350 BCE Assyria emerged as a political and military empire, controlling an area that covered Iraq, Syria, Israel, Egypt, and parts of Iran and Turkey by 600 BCE. Assyrian cities were dominated by large palaces adorned with carved stone reliefs, recounting military achievements, deportations, punishments of rebels, and the role of the king.

Assyria, photo by ROM 2013

By 1750 BCE Babylon (central Iraq) controlled most of Mesopotamia, and following the fall of the Assyrian empire in 612 BCE, Babylon became the dominant power of the ancient world, and lasted until the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE.

Babylon, photo by ROM 2013

The exhibition features a 3-D computer-generated video that takes us on a fly-through the re-imagined city of Babylon, through the Ishtar Gate, past the Hanging Gardens and towards the Tower of Babel. Another highlight of the exhibition is the Striding Lion Terracotta Relief (from ROM’s collection) that once adorned the throne room façade of the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 BCE) – where Alexander the Great later died.

Babylon, photo by ROM 2013

Babylon’s mythical appeal continues to inspire urban and filmic imaginaries to this day. Babylon’s connection to Berlin is more than symbolic, as the Pergamon Museum in Berlin holds the Ishtar Gate and remnants of the processional way of the ancient city.

Seal showing gods, Sumer, photo by ROM 2013

Mesopotamian culture is responsible for innovations in writing (the exhibition features a comparison of an early administrative tablet with ancient scripts and a digital tablet pioneered by Apple in the last few years), accounting (the ancient counting system was based on 60, as opposed to 10, and influenced the way we count time), architecture, urban planning, art, literature, poetry (the exhibition also features a tablet recounting the epic poem of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest surviving works of literature), and many other cultural pinnacles.

Iraq Museum in Baghdad, photo by ROM 2013

In addition, the ROM also included a complementary photographic exhibition, Catastrophe! Ten Years Later: the Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past, originally developed by the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago in 2008, detailing the plunder of Baghdad’s Iraq Museum and the devastation of Iraq’s heritage.

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