A Babylonian New Year

And so we’re off! — 2014, a new year, ready or not. Resolutions or not, there’s something about recognizing the end of a year and the beginning of a new one that’s downright refreshing.

The earliest public celebrations that we know about are Babylonian, dating back thousands of years. I’ve been spending a lot of time in ancient Babylon (in my head) these past few years, and it occurs to me that for all our distance from an Iraq of the B.C. years, we share some things in common. Take New Year’s. Sure, there are loads of differences. For one thing, the Akitu New Year festival happened around the time of the spring equinox and went on for days. But at its heart was this sense of putting aside the old and beginning anew with hope and possibility.Marduk

A Woman, the Bible, and Babylon, 560 B.C.

These mid-August days, some 2500 years ago, witnessed a violent turn-about in power — regicide followed by a week of king-less days. Imagine for a moment the uncertainty, the chaos. Imagine the mother of the assassinated king. Still alive, for the time being — a foreigner in a court conflicted about its cosmopolitan nature, a court leaning toward xenophobia. She fled.

The overturn of thrones was itself not unusual. But the ripples it sent would wash up against shores for thousands of years to come and as far away as our own. After all, this was Babylon, ancient Iraq, when the texts that would become the Bible were beginning to take shape with the thoughtful care and no doubt spirited debate of exiles far from home, committed to tradition, and dedicated to their God.

Cyrus the Great and the Ishtar Gate

If I had to pick one grand architectural image to go with the Cyrus Cylinder, I think it would be the Ishtar Gate (though built by Nebuchadnezzar II, not Cyrus). Oddly enough, the best place to see the ruins from Babylon of a gate complex named for the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war is in Berlin, Germany. The Pergamon Museum has reconstructed (with some reproduction) a display of the impressive gate. Here’s a great, informative video: Ishtar Gate on YouTube

Outtakes from a Novel — Tower of Babel

I was just thinking: wouldn’t it be fun to have a spot to feature artifacts, documents, persons, architecture, anything concrete related to my historical fiction set in ancient Babylon and Persia? Perhaps provide a wee bit of commentary, maybe how the things fit into the story,…? In the absence of any nay-sayers (admittedly none nearby capable of weighing in — one dog is asleep, the other staring fixedly at a groundhog hole), the verdict is “yes!” So, here goes, a first installment.

The Many Faces of Babylon

Babylon, bab-ilu, Babel, “Gate of the gods” was the Big Apple of its day. Yet we get “the whore of Babylon” and the “Tower of Babel,” Bob Marley’s Babylon site of oppression and reputation for excess. The biblical view of Babylon is no less real in its critique than the grandeur that we know Babylon exhibited, 2500 years ago — different perspectives informed in no small way by theology. As I follow the king of Persia who built an empire surpassing any the world had seen before him and attempt to carve out his story, I’m finding Babylon developing as a character almost as compelling as the man himself.

Cyrus’ Problematic History

I finally broke down and went all junior-high with my research — different colored pens for the different accounts of Cyrus’ taking Babylon. The most ancient records are notoriously problematic. Each one has a either a bone to pick or a bridge to sell, and they simply don’t agree on the facts. Did or did not Cyrus engage in a military encounter? When he arrived at the gates, were the Babylonians settling in for a seige, were they partying their brains out oblivious to this Persian from the north, or did they throw open the gates to welcome this beloved new ruler? Though both Herodotus and Xenophon have lots of great things to say about Cyrus, the Greeks finally aim to portray the Persians as corrupt, depraved, or at best weak. They figure that Cyrus took Babylon by force. One (Berossus, a Babylonian nationalist writing for the Greeks) claims that Cyrus flat out destroyed Babylon’s magnificent walls. The Persian side presents Cyrus as a liberator, excelling all others in moral standing, magnanimity, and grace, setting to right the wrongs of the wayward Babylonian king and beloved of the gods. The Babylonians ushered him in with joy. It’s tough to keep track of these different voices and to winnow for a grain of what really happened. In the meantime, it occurred to me that since junior high, computers have really come a long way. So, I put away the colored pens and have begun a file recording the different accounts in different fonts. Among them, Herodotus gets “Algerian,” Berossus is in “Bradley Hand ITC,” and the Nabonidus Chronicle is in “Arial.” Hopefully, this will help. If nothing else, it sure is pretty.

Weeping Willows of Babylon

Did you know that even though the weeping willow came from China, its scientific name associates it with Babylon… because of the Bible? Diana Wells explains in her new book The Life of Trees that it’s called Salix babylonica because of the biblical tradition of Jews weeping for Zion after being taken into exile by their Babylonian conquerors. Think: Psalm 137 which begins,”By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there, we hung up our harps for our captors asked us there for songs. Our tormenters, for amusement, ‘Sing us one of the Zion songs…” Or Godspell, where the psalm is rendered into a beautiful, melancholic song. There it’s associated with Matt 26:20-30, a Last Supper scene, which concludes with reference to singing the psalms. In the Godspell version, some lyrics have “hung up our lives” rather than “our lyres” — mistake or reinterpretation?