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Towers of Babel

British Museum curator Irving Finkel © Trustees of the British Museum. Created by British Museum.

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Video transcript

The Tower of Babel built in the second millennium BC in the ancient city of Babylon in Iraq depicted by artists through the ages and a powerful symbol of both myth and reality When people think of the Tower of Babel they often think of this painting which is here behind me blown up much larger than life-size and it's how the Dutch painter Bruegel in the sixteenth century brought to life this amazing edifice which has towered over the world since genesis was first put to paper This really is a painting one has to look at very carefully It's full of extraordinary things not least the fact that part of the tower seems to be completely finished and part of it still in a rudimentary state and you might imagine that it would all be rudimentary and then all finished at once but if you've ever worked on a big building project you'll know that isn't the case What people don't often know however is that the Tower of Babel itself as imagined here was once a real building called the Ziggurat in the centre of the capital Babylon ruled over by Nebuchadnezzar II And parallel to this historical account the Old Testament tells us that the tower built so that its top may reach onto heaven became a symbol of human ambition when the whole world had just one language Nothing remains on the ground of Nebuchadnezzar's huge edifice the Ziggurrat nothing remains at all, all the bricks have vanished But when the surveyors investigated they established that the ground plan was about 91 meters squared so it was a huge building and when all the evidence is put together it's been concluded that the building itself must have been about 17 meters tall And on this model there are human beings put in to scale just to give it an idea exactly how huge it was and how this building in its hay day towered over people's lives just like the Tower of Babel does when you read the Bible The Bible tells us that man was to be punished for building his tower to the heavens and that punishment was to be the creation of different languages so that humans would be divided and unable to understand each other My fascination with the Tower of Babel began from about 1990 onward looking at for example Bruegel's famous painting Anne Desmet is one of the contemporary artists in the exhibition who has an enduring fascination with this image The Tower of Babel story is significant in that I find it as a symbol of human aspiration and folly that combination of the ambition of human ideals and human dreams and then perhaps overreaching themselves sometimes but there's still something wonderful in that ambition and I think there's something in our own generation when there are moments of apocalypse 9/11 was another one obviously an obvious one but it seems to make you think back to that historical tradition of the Tower of Babel it seems still a very relevant image for today