Berlin goes Babylon

Babylon’s strange hold on contemporary culture spurs Daniel Miller to sort myth from truth at a new exhibition at Berlin’s Pergamon Museum.

Berlin goes Babylon
Photo: Pergamon Museum

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Babylon?

That reggae phase you went through in high school? Steel Pulse irie! A bad science fiction series? You’ll never get those hours of your life spent in front of the TV back. Or perhaps traumatic moments as a kid during bible study?

Babylon has a strange hold on contemporary culture. In the film “Ghostbusters,” an ancient Sumerian spirit takes the form of huge marshmallow man and tries to conquer New York. In the seminal cyberpunk book “Snow Crash” – which inspired virtual reality worlds like “Second Life” – Babylonian spirits attempt to invade the internet.

Playing on the cliché of a corrupt Babylonian society, the US film industry has been labelled Hollywood Babylon and a film about rebuilding post-reunification Berlin plays off the ancient city’s supposed hubris. The uncompromising American feminist writer Camille Paglia once even suggested that “popular cultural is the new Babylon… our imperial sex theatre, supreme temple of the western eye.”

Click here to see a photo gallery of the exhibition.

The strength of our fixation on Babylon is one of the two topics addressed in the gigantic “Babylon: Myth and Truth” exhibition currently on show at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Heavily promoted across the city over the last few weeks, the exhibition is really two shows in one. Each section occupies a separate part of the building and each is put together by a different curator.

The juxtaposition is significant. Whereas the “Truth” section is an exercise in archaeology taking in ancient relics from all over the world, the “Myth” section is a diverse and eclectic art exhibition.

Among the artists represented are the Weimar expressionist George Grosz, the apocalyptic Victorian etcher John Martin, and the hyped-up contemporary art star Dash Show. A clip from D.W. Griffith’s historical epic Intolerance plays in one room, while a disturbing sound installation by Timm Ulrich jars visitors in another. It seems fair to say that there surely aren’t many art exhibitions in which a beautifully-illustrated fifteenth century edition of Saint Augustine’s “City of God” and Snow’s semen-stained copies of the New York Post are able jostle happily for the attention of visitors.

A Babylonian moment

Unconcerned that it might be some type of museum Rorschach test, I headed for the “Myth” section located on the top floor of the Pergamon first.

“Myth” begins with piece of video art entitled “Zid/Wall” by the Sarajevo-born artist Danica Dakic. The piece shows sixty-four close-up shots of lips moving feverishly, recounting different stories in different languages. The cumulative, and fitting, result was inchoate babble. “The talking wall,” the caption noted helpfully, “reflects the linguistic condition of our time.”

The two big ideas of the Babylon show are that our civilization is currently going through a Babylonian moment, and that our civilization is haunted by Babylonian themes. Dakic’s piece turned on this first idea, while the second came across strongly in a video installation entitled “Black and White (Babylon)” by Douglas Gordon, who is famous from his film about Zinedine Zidane. Gordon’s piece depicts a buxom nineteen-fifties stripper, hypnotically swaying in black and white slow-motion in the guise of the ubiquitous Babylonian whore.

While “Myth” was mainly do with ideas, “Truth” was visceral, and instilled a sheer sense of awe. Featuring as its centrepiece is the Pergamon’s reconstruction of Babylon’s stunning blue-glazed Ishtar Gate. The sheer scale of the subject matter reduced me to silence. After a while I stopped taking notes, unsure as to what I could meaningfully say about an exhibition, built on two centuries of scholarly research about an entire civilization.

Despite the provocative tone of the posters dotted around Berlin, the “Truth” show was more concerned with clarifying the extent of our Babylonian influences then with refuting them. We don’t discover that there a Tower of Babel never existed, but rather that the actual structure was sharper and more ziggurat-like then the famous painting by Brueghel. Elsewhere, we learn of the finer points of Babylonian government, law, science and economy, as well as the intriguing tale of the rise of Marduk from a small-time local deity to the king of gods.

Most of the actual exhibits on show in “Truth” are, in truth, weird lumps of rock. But the presence of huge numbers of sweating visitors bustling through the rooms, and talking in dozens of languages, cast an interesting light on them.

The last piece in the show is a fictional time capsule from the future, cast from the perspective of the fast-coming day when our own civilization turned to dust, and explaining our downfall through Babylonian terms. I suppose it’s up to us whether that becomes truth or myth.


German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Walk around the German Alpine village of Oberammergau, and the chances are you'll run into Jesus or one of his 12 disciples.

German town resurrects 400-year-old biblical play tradition

Of the 5,500 people living there, 1,400 — aged from three months to 85 — are participating this year in the once-a-decade staging of an elaborate “Passion Play” depicting the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Dating back to 1634, the tradition has persisted through four centuries of wars, religious turmoil and pandemics — including the most recent Covid-19 crisis which caused the show to be postponed by two years.

“I think we’re a bit stubborn,” says Frederic Mayet, 42, when asked how the village has managed to hold on to the tradition.

Mayet, who is playing Jesus for the second time this year, says the Passion Play has become a big part of the town’s identity.

Oberammergau Passion Plays

Posters for the 42nd Oberammergau Passion Play – which was originally scheduled to take place in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmth

The only prerequisite for taking part in the five-hour show, whether as an actor, chorister or backstage assistant, is that you were born in Oberammergau or have lived here for at least 20 years.

“I remember that we talked about it in kindergarten. I didn’t really know what it was about, but of course I wanted to take part,” says Cengiz Gorur, 22, who is playing Judas.

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‘Hidden talent’ 

The tradition, which dates back to the Thirty Years’ War, was born from a belief that staging the play would help keep the town safe from disease.

Legend has it that, after the first performance, the plague disappeared from the town.

In the picturesque Alpine village, Jesus and his disciples are everywhere — from paintings on the the facades of old houses to carved wooden figures in shop windows.

You also can’t help feeling that there is a higher-than-average quota of men with long hair and beards wandering the streets.

Religious figurines Oberammergau

Religious figurines adorn a shop window in Oberammergau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

An intricate image of Jesus graces the stage of the open-air Passion Play theatre, where the latest edition of the show is being held from mid-May to October 2nd.

“What has always fascinated me is the quality of the relationship between all the participants, young and old. It’s a beautiful community, a sort of ‘Passion’ family,” says Walter Lang, 83.

He’s just sad that his wife, who died in February, will not be among the participants this year.

“My parents met at a Passion Play, and I also met my future wife at one,” says Andreas Rödl, village mayor and choir member.

Gorur, who has Turkish roots, was spotted in 2016 by Christian Stückl, the head of the Munich People’s Theatre who will direct the play for the fourth time this year.

“I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I probably would have ended up selling cars, the typical story,” he laughs.

Now, he’s due to start studying drama in Munich this autumn.

“I’ve discovered my hidden talent,” he says.

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Violence, poverty and sickness

Stückl “has done a lot for the reputation of the show, which he has revolutionised” over the past 40 years, according to Barbara Schuster, 35, a human resources manager who is playing Mary Magdalene.

“Going to the Passion Play used to be like going to mass. Now it’s a real theatrical show,” she says.

In the 1980s, Stückl cut all the parts of the text that accused the Jews of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, freeing the play from anti-Semitic connotations.

“Hitler had used the Passion Play for his propaganda,” Schuster points out.


Christian Stückl, the director of the Oberammergau Passion Play, holds a press conference announcing the cancellation of the play in 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Angelika Warmuth

The play’s themes of violence, poverty and sickness are reflected in today’s world through the war in Ukraine and the Covid-19 pandemic, say Mayet, the actor playing Jesus.

“Apparently we have the same problems as 2,000 years ago,” he says.

For 83-year-old Lang, who is playing a peasant this year, the “Hallelujah” after Christ has risen for the final time in October will be a particularly moving moment.

“Because we don’t know if we’ll be there again next time,” he says, his eyes filling with tears.

By Isabelle Le Page