Despite the absence of significant archaeological traces, Babylon’s power to fascinate never waned in the modern era: literature, the visual arts, architecture, theater, music, and the movies were full of towers of Babel, hanging gardens, and feasts of Belshazzar from the sixteenth century up to the early twentieth.

Babylon–Rome during the Reformation

The ambivalence of the Babylon legend, caught between a very real ancient city and a symbolic one, inevitably appealed to people of the Renaissance. Around 1500, everything seemed to indicate that the Apocalypse was approaching: the moment when, according to John the Evangelist, the ultimate battle would take place between God and the forces of Evil. Indeed, scarcity, famine, plague, epidemics and revolts were rife; the Great Schism in the Church left lasting scars; the Turks advanced threateningly from the east; natural events such as the appearance of comets added further worry. In the clash between Good and Evil that was supposed to precede one thousand years of bliss, the Great Whore of Babylon, allied to the anti-Christ, was expected to play a major role by seducing whole nations. In his famous engraving of 1498, Albrecht Dürer lent her the features of a Venetian courtesan that he had painted several years earlier.

In the first half of the sixteenth century, Protestants symbolically associated the wicked city described in John’s Book of Revelation with the Church, to an extreme degree. Like Biblical Babylon, papal Rome was a cosmic center, simultaneously city and institution; like Babylon, Rome mingled temporal and spiritual power; like Babylon, it was built around a “grandiose construction project” (the new Saint Peter’s Basilica, partly financed through the sale of indulgences). Reinforced by the sack of Rome in 1527, the assimilation of its fall with that of Babylon—as divine punishment—would remain one of the great themes of the war of images fought between Protestants and Catholics, as demonstrated by countless engravings.

Babel-Babylon, superbia versus the glorification of legendary architecture

Right from the middle ages, the myth of Babylon merged with that of Babel. According to Genesis, after the Flood men settled in the land of Shinar and began to erect a building designed to reach the heavens. God punished their pride by instituting a multiplicity of languages. Babel therefore became the locus of a world of chaos, confusion, dispersion. In the mid sixteenth century, the fate of the tower was inevitably associated, in part, with the fate of the Old Testament’s cursed city: an etching by the Amsterdam artist Cornelis Anthonisz shows the destruction of the tower (which also evokes Rome’s Coliseum) through the action of celestial fire.

The idea of the dispersion of nations due to the plethora of languages also became associated with religious schism, with the translation of the Bible into common languages, and with the rise of nations that announced the end of a Christendom united in Rome. This might partly explain the vogue for depictions of the tower in the Low Countries, especially between 1550 and 1570, when they were undergoing violent political-religious conflicts (notably the Tower of Babel by Bruegel now in the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam).
The tale of the tower retained moral connotations in a humanist environment. For artists and patrons steeped in Biblical readings, it represented the expression of superbia, the deadly sin of pride. By placing self-love at the center of everything, this vice represented an attack on the divine order, as did the monstrous construction of Babel.

In contrast, the Renaissance also used the legend of Babylon-Babel to glorify the heroic conquest of man over nature. That was because this myth entailed the fusion of two sometimes antithetical traditions: the negative one of the Bible and the positive one of classical authors, starting with Herodotus. The tradition of the Wonders of the Ancient World was revived; Babylon enjoyed an honorable place with its hanging gardens and impressive walls. Several engraved series were published and became well-known, including: Philippe Galle’s engravings based on drawings by Martin van Heemskerck (1572); the Septem Orbis Admiranda after drawings by Antonio Tempesta (1608); and Admiranda et Prodigiosa Antiquitates Opera after Maertin de Vos (1614) and various commentaries based on ancient sources. Indeed Rome, in seeking to assert herself as the eighth wonder of the world, re-established a link with historic Babylon.

The 17th and 18 centuries

In the modern era, these “wonders” were celebrated for their technical and aesthetic qualities. The gigantic walls of the Mesopotamian capital were therefore perceived as a spectacular example of the use of brick as a building material while the hanging gardens were a model of the integration of architecture, nature, and hydraulic engineering.

Until the seventeenth century, however, scholars had difficulty in studying the fate of Babylon due to the almost total inexistence of archaeological data.

A book published by the Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher in Amsterdam in 1679, Turris Babel, provided the first synthesis of all travelers’ accounts and traditions. Kircher was the first to take a dialectical approach when offering a rational explanation of the Bible. With his encyclopedic mind, and relying on the most recent scientific discoveries, Kircher interpreted the history of the tower as the story of a grandiose project whose scale led to its undoing: the terrific weight of the building would have led to a cosmic catastrophe by shifting the earth from the center of the universe. God’s introduction of a plethora of languages, then, was not designed to punish humanity but to protect it from its own heedlessness. Kircher’s version proved truly modern—following Herodotus’s description, he proposed an original yet plausible reconstruction of the site.

Yet depictions still basically rested on the interpretation of ancient or sacred texts; it was not until the late eighteenth century that the first physical vestiges arrived in the West.

Art versus archaeology: 19th-century depictions of Babylon

Unlike sites in Assyria such as Khorsabad, excavated as early as 1842 by the French consul, Paul-Emile Botta, Babylon had to wait until the very end of the century for material vestiges to render up a more exact idea of its historical and physical reality, thanks to a German team led by Robert Koldewey, assisted by Walter Andrae. Yet expeditions had been seeking physical traces of Babylonian civilization ever since the late eighteenth century. In particular, starting in 1811 British explorer Claudius James Rich began writing up a description of the site of Babylon that would be published in English in 1815 (and translated into French by 1818). This book was a primary source for artists who, like John Martin, wanted to depict Biblical scenes; another source was an illustrated edition of Sir Robert Ker Porter’s Travels in Georgia, Persia, Armenia, Ancient Babylon during the Years 1817, 1818, 1819 and 1820 (published in London in 1821 and 1822).

In the absence of sufficient remains, Babylonian subjects were handled by painters and set designers in terms of archaeological discoveries made in Egypt and Persia between 1780 and 1830, and then in Assyria from the 1840s onward. In 1824, a performance of Rossini’s Semiramis at La Scala in Milan was still set in an Egyptian palace. But with the discovery of Khorsabad and the arrival of Assyrian artifacts in Paris and London, local color could no longer be conveyed by Egyptian or Persian references. “Egyptomania” was thus superseded by “Assyriomania,” as testified by a painting by Georges Rochegrosse, The Fall of Babylon, even though it failed to deliver a picture of the real Babylon. The myth still prevailed.

Starting in the 1820s, British artist John Martin, who illustrated the Bible, imitated Turner in making a specialty of depicting Biblical catastrophes and the last days of ancient cities. He wanted to give his pictures a certain archaeological rigor that reflected recent publications such as Rich’s. In his paintings of The Fall of Babylon (1819) and Belshazzar’s Feast (1820), as well as in his engravings of The Fall of Babylon and The Destruction of Babel, Martin revived neoclassical composition by allotting a crucial role to lavish—but hopefully historical accurate—architecture. Orientalism thereby came to the rescue of the imagination. What is more, in London Martin’s archaeological fantasies led to actual buildings and urban development projects labeled “Babylonian”: they employed the massive scale and basic shapes associated with primitivism. If Martin depicted glamorous ancient cities at the height of their degree of civilization, it was designed to intensify the moment of their fall all the more. The tension between the destruction and (re)construction of Babylon thus surfaced once again.

In the Romantic era, allusions to Babylon were used as a metaphor for the modern metropolis sapped by the demons of vice, corruption, and the side-by-side coexistence of luxury and poverty. The Biblical tradition of the wicked city thus reappeared in a modern, secular form.

D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance: Babylon finally resurrected

In 1916, D.W. Griffith made one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of the movies: Intolerance. The film does not follow a linear narrative structure, but interweaves four separate stories that illustrate the effect of intolerance throughout the ages. Parallel to scenes of the final days of Christ, of the Saint-Bartholomew’s massacre, and of a modern story in which a young man is unjustly sentenced to hang, a Babylonian sequence portrays Belshazzar’s feast and the capture of the city by Cyrus due to betrayal by the priests of Bel. Intolerance was the most expensive film ever made at the time. Fully one-third of the budget was swallowed up by the Babylonian episode, for which Griffith recreated the city walls, the throne room, terraces fifteen meters or fifty feet high, and larger-than-life stone elephants. Yet Intolerance, whose pacifist message was ill-timed just prior to America’s entry into World War One and whose amazing formal modernism could be unsettling, was a flop.

Through non-sequential editing, Griffith reinserted Babylon into a historical discourse stressing the endless series of empires that rise and fall, the recurring catastrophes that give way to new births. And yet the movie’s happy ending, in which the convict is saved by technological progress (a train ride allows a young woman to arrive at the site of execution at the last minute), plus the leitmotif of a mother rocking a child, add an intermittent note of hope to the eternal cycle of civilizations destined to be destroyed and reborn. If history no longer means the reign of intolerance, then Babylon will not have fallen in vain.