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Posts tagged babylon

from "The Virtual Public Square," by Alan Jacobs, The New Atlantis, Spring 2009

[T]he Babylonian captivity of the Israelites produced social and, yes, technological developments that permanently altered Judaism—that, one might say, made Judaism as a way of life separate from the cult of the Temple in Jerusalem. For it was in that captivity that the synagogue developed—the place for reading and interpreting Torah—and along with it the scribal system by which the debates of the rabbis were recorded, organized, displayed, and passed down to future generations in what we now call the Talmud. And when the Israelites were given the opportunity to return from exile and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and the Temple, many—among them some leading rabbis and their devoutest students—chose to stay in Babylon. They had come to prefer the new social structures they had made, and the new technologies formed to sustain those structures.

For those of us residing in the American Babylon, this sounds suspiciously like a parable; but it’s important to see that those who chose to stay behind were often neither frivolous nor culpably assimilated into Babylonian life. Moreover, wise historians doubt whether Judaism could have survived its ultimate diaspora were it not for the cultural forms originally built in that captivity.

from "At the British Museum," by Peter Campbell, London Review of Books, 18 December 2008 :: via Polymeme

Held in the hand, a typical cuneiform tablet is about the same weight and shape as an early mobile phone. Hold it as though you were going to text someone and you hold it the way the scribe did; a proverb had it that ‘a good scribe follows the mouth.’ Motions of the stylus made the tiny triangular indentations of cuneiform characters in the clay. The actions would have been much quicker and more precise, but otherwise rather like the pecks you make at a phone keypad.

Some tablets are of course larger. Gilgamesh, thousands of words long, is an epic in 12 tablets more than a foot high, and inscriptions carved in rock are more expansive still. But it is the small tablets with tiny writing that are the most tantalising objects in Babylon, Myth and Reality (at the British Museum until 15 March). Can one, through them, get beyond archaeological evidence and inference, bypass the fevered imagination of William Blake’s and John Martin’s Bible illustrations and hear the voice of a Mesopotamian Pepys?

Well, not exactly, but the range and character of what is written down give some idea of the texture of everyday life in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. The majority of tablets may be the equivalent of office files – letters, legal documents, contracts, mortgages, lists of goods – but there are also messages addressed to the gods, some of them expressing indignance that good behaviour has not been rewarded. Astronomical observations are detailed and medical texts full of diagnostic descriptions. There are records of refurbishments: the kings, who had responsibility not just for religious ceremonies but for the maintenance of temple structures, celebrated their building works.