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Tower of Babylon: Cultural Cradle of Urban Dystopias

Introduction

Dystopian cultural works of the present are often inspired by modern examples, such as the Kowloon Walled City. Constantly recurring motifs are, among others, the facets of advanced urbanization: Vertical growth of cities in the form of high-rise buildings and skyscrapers as well as the association of urban life with negative effects on social fabrics. Often, however, much older sources of inspiration for such works are crucial: The legendary city of Babylon and its most famous building, the “Tower of Babylon” / “Tower of Babel”.

In almost all eras, the city and the tower are both a cultural cradle and a memorial to urban civilizations. They are continuously used as templates for different ways of looking at urban lifestyle. In addition, they often represent a symbol of the opposites of human coexistence in general.

In this article, we look at the historical background of the city of Babylon as well as the mythological and early artistic roots associated with the Tower of Babylon. Enriched with some examples from different film ages, modern adaptations of these antique and classic motifs are also considered.

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Babylon’s Historical Path as a Symbol of Urban Dystopias

In this section, we look at the historical backgrounds of the formative visual facets of Babylon, which have always been reinterpreted and adapted by all kinds of cultural media. The focus lies on the historical development of Babylonian architecture and the associated socio-cultural factors.

Historical Background

In 2. and 1. millenium BCE, between the Euphrates and Tigris in the southern part of the former Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq), Babylon took an outstanding scientific, economic and military position under the city states of that region and era. This was due to various interrelated factors such as geography, population migration and climatic factors. This special position of Babylon was accompanied by expansionist tendencies and political power.1

Because of these factors, the Babylonians also succeeded in setting new standards in the field of architecture. Large palaces served as administrative buildings and were also used as temples. These towers, also known as “ziggurats“, expressed regional power claims and showed the wealth, that got acquired in the early stages of Babylonian history.2

Babylon’s buildings became ever more imposing and larger under the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (in the late Babylonian period from 604 BCE to 562 BCE). The culturally defining historical image of Babylon was shaped in particular by this phase and its architecture. The symbiosis of colossal edifices linked to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II and the concomitant use of tribute from neighboring kingdoms such as Egypt and Syrian city states has often been taken up by religious and historical scholars. In particular, the often draconian punishment of rebellious regions and the unrestricted demonstration of military power were, regardless of divergent self-assessments of the Babylonians, in the foreground of the respective descriptions.3

The aspiration for building imposing public buildings and facilities was clear, including the Babylonian procession street, including massive city walls and the associated Ishtar Gate. The connected and spacious temple building of the Etemenanki with its step-shaped ziggurat underline this further. In addition to the technological aspects, this also influenced the design and reception of urban architecture and large settlements.4

The example of the temple complex of E-Mah also illustrates traditional Babylonian architecture: wide towers flanking large gates and high niches that climb the façades.5

In addition to these, for their time extraordinary, architectural achievements, the occidental image of Babylon was also marked by confusion from time to time: For example, remnants of the buildings of the Kassite society, which was in competition with Babylon, were believed to be the ruins of the Tower of Babel. In particular, Aqar-Quf, the fortress of Dur-Kurigalzu, near today’s Baghdad, with its more than 57 meters high ziggurat, left lasting impressions with early travelers. These impressions led to false assumptions about their origin and influenced the reception of ancient urban buildings across cultures.6

Tower of Babylon - Aqar-Quf Dur-Kurigalzu
Ziggurat Aqar-Quf Dur-Kurigalzu, in: Oates 1983, p. 118

Inspiration & Reception of the Tower of Babylon

The Tower of Babylon / Tower of Babel and its accompanying myth, have long been of particular interest for cultural adaptations of various kinds. As a recurring motive over many epochs, they found multifaceted use in cultural media works. Babylon and especially its Tower were often instrumentalized for different worldviews and the respective cultural currents of time.7

In this section, we take a look on both the early adaptations of the tower’s visual descriptions in saga stories and iconic paintings, as well as the use of those motifs in modern media content.

Mythological Use

Especially in Christian and Jewish mythology, the influence of this urban settlement and society is characterized by the links with negative characteristics and connotations of despotic rule, human hubris and social difference.

Legends that originate mainly from the Abrahamic religions can be considered as basis of this inherent mythological element in the cultural usage of the tower. Among other things, these stories deal with the figure of King Nimrod as the builder of the tower. It is thanks to these legends of a predominantly tyrannical ruler that even today – despite the controversial historical authenticity of Nimrod8 – the building is considered a…

„[…]Cathedral of evil, shaped by the megalomania and pride of its legendary builder[…]“9

…and is synonymous with human overconfidence and colossal constructions of all kinds.

The designation of Babylon as “the great whore” from the old testament, as the epitome of idolatry, social decay and – at the same time – influential seductive power, illustrates this interpretation by the example of religious doctrine. This also underlines the lasting impact of this early metropolis.10

Early Artistic Uses

Especially in the Middle Ages, a large number of artistic works were created in which the image of the tower as well as the associated perception of urban architecture as an element of dystopian interpretations was sustainably shaped. At the same time, these works played a pioneering role for later pop cultural approaches of interpretation.11

In addition to numerous artists who adopted the Babylonian myth, the works of Pieter Bruegel, Monsù Desiderio – presumably the pseudonym Francois de Nomé – and John Martin are particularly significant for the epoch-spanning artistic use.

For example, Desiderio followed the Italian baroque style of its time12 and thus adapted the myth to be contemporary-specific rather than merely reproducing it.

Also the Dutch graphic artist Maurits Cornelis Escher, commonly known as M.C. Escher, took on the myth Babylon at the beginning of the 20th century. In contrast to the other works already mentioned, Escher’s picture focuses on the geometric structures of the tower and uses a higher point of view.

"Tower of Babel" by M.C. Escher, 1928
“Tower of Babel” by M.C. Escher, 1928, via Socks-Studio

Use in Modern Urban-Dystopian Cultural Media

Many cinematic works were inspired on basis of the mythological roots and the aforementioned artistic exploitations of visual Babylonian motifs. The forms of adaptation in modern media works are as numerous as varied. For this reason, this subsection provides a brief overview of some of the most important urban dystopian films in this respect.

Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis” is about a future city, which is socially characterized by the division into two main groups of people: On the one hand, there are the masses of workers who live below the earth’s surface, exploited for the operation of infrastructure and for the production of consumer goods, without rights. On the other hand, there is the wealthy upper class, not lacking any resources and, apart from comfortable administrative tasks, enjoying life in the upper parts of the city, characterized by high technology and rather dubious pleasures.

Tower of Babylon - Animation "Neuer Turm Babel", Fritz Lang's Metropolis, 1927 [Timestamp: 02:01:15 onwards]
Tower of Babylon – Animation “Neuer Turm Babel”, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, 1927 [Timestamp: 02:01:15 onwards, rewind-loop by Planet Dystopia]
The omnipresent center is the “Neuer Turm Babel” (“New Tower Babel”), the tallest building in the city. Striking because of its voluminous rotunda, the step-like levels, supported by monumental column projections and the far-reaching air landing sites near the top of the tower. It emphasizes the vertical division of society and is a visually strong reminiscent of the works of Bruegel, Desiderio and many other artists who raved on the subject of the Babylonian Tower in the past centuries creatively.

The tower also houses the city’s main energy supply as well as the administration of entrepreneur Johann “Joh” Fredersen (played by Alfred Abel), a gentleman of the city. From his spacious office at the top, he surveys and manages the city. This above-ground position of Fredersen emphasizes his social position by spatial arrangement. His numerous technological monitoring and surveillance instruments reinforce this: His omnipresent overview of the social conditions make him appear like a neo-feudal king. Fredersen’s mandate to create cybernetic units as new life forms to work for him further underscores this claim to absoluteness and is a clear analogy to the hubris of Nimrod and other mythical figures.

You can find more extensive information regarding this classic of urban dystopian cinema in the main article about Metropolis.

1984 (1956)

In the mid-twentieth century, director Michael Anderson addressed a film version of George Orwell’s dystopian vision, describing a totalitarian surveillance state. “1984” is about the piecemeal rebellion of the character of Winston Smith (played by Edmond O’Brien) against a repressive technocratic dictatorship.

The building of the “Ministry of Truth” at the beginning of the film is significant for the urban depiction: While the area of London’s city center continues to decline and to decay, the regime building – in analogy to the Tower of Babel – grows monumentally skywards.

The architecture is characterized by classic forms of high-rise construction, especially of the American cities at the beginning of the 20th century. However, the step-shaped, upwardly converging structure of the different planes reveals clear parallels to Babylonian ziggurat. The round windows are reminiscent of portholes of ships and submarines, which were perceived as a high technology at the time. At the same time, its design is reminiscent of numerous rows of watchful eyes, looking down on the city and its inhabitants.

Blade Runner (1982)

The all-time classic of cinematic cyberpunk, the film “Blade Runner”, is based on Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”. Director Ridley Scott created this masterpiece, which takes place in a fictitious high tech Los Angeles in 2019. Private detective Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford) seeks to track down and liquidate so called “replicants” – human-like life forms, produced with biotech processes, forbidden on Earth.

ToB - Corporate HQ in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, 1982
Corporate HQ in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, 1982 [Timestamp: 00:02:52]
The building of the influential “Tyrell Corporation” forms the core of the city and is at the same time the most monumental structure of the cityscape presented in the film. The step-like rise and the pyramid-shaped outer facades, which are illuminated by countless windows and elevators, show the power of the corporate world in the presented society.

This gets underlined by the location of Dr. Eldon Tyrell (played by Joe Turkel), the company’s leader, senior scientists and the unofficial lord of the city. Located on the highest level of the structure, Tyrell enjoys a similar view like his counterpart Joh Fredersen in “Metropolis”. Tyrell and Fredersen are both spatially and socially at the top of each of the represented societies and both have an inherent creative power. While this is expressed by Fredersen through the commissioned creation of artificial life, Tyrell’s huge potential for power and design capabilities reveals itself in the large-scale industrial production of new forms of semi-biological life.

ToB - Police Station in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, 1982
Police Station in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, 1982 [Timestamp: 00:10:34]
Also noteworthy is the building of the police station, which Rick Deckard pays a visit: A tall rotunda, which is similar in shape and design to the main building in Metropolis (and thus like the Tower of Babel). Some landing sites for flying vehicles are also available on the roof. The police building is monumental in itself, yet it is small compared to many other buildings that shape the cityscape. It can thus be regarded as a symbol of the decaying social order and symbolically for an executive that keeps losing its influence.

Brazil (1985)

The plot of Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil” covers the career of a bureaucrat named Sam Lowry (played by Jonathan Pryce), who gets caught between the fronts of an almost omnipresent centralist administration, the freedom struggle of a rebel faction and his own bizarre daydreams.

The city depicted in the film is characterized by narrow, sometimes surreal, high-rise urban canyons, similar to the cityscape of Metropolis, yet with darker tones – in this world upper and lower city are alike. The vertical segregation has merged with the totalitarian approach of an encompassing bureaucracy.

One of the central places of the portrayed regime is the state surveillance authority, which is the headquarter of one of the most influential and dreaded institutions. The building is a monumental structure with high walls, whose step-shaped, cuboidal levels are characterized by laterally fixed towers reaching up to the ground, including deep horizontal inlays. This is reminiscent of both Babylonian and Kassite architecture, but – due to the design and shape of the cubes – also includes elements of sober administrative buildings of bureaucratic-totalitarian regimes.

Equilibrium (2002)

The plot of director Kurt Wimmer’s film “Equilibrium” plays in the fictitious totalitarian city-state “Libria”. Created after a devastating world war, the small state is characterized by a rude handling of emotions and culture: All forms of art are forbidden and even the feeling of emotions is highly illegal. Violations are punishable by death. Responsible for prosecution and conviction are the so-called “Grammaton Clerics”, a paramilitary elite unit of the government. The main character John Preston (played by Christian Bale) is a member of this unit and gets, due to the unintentional withdrawal of the emotion-suppressing drug “Prozium”, in contact with his unknown world of feelings and thoughts. At the same time, he gets caught between the ranks of the authorities and the underground opponents of the regime.

Tetragrammaton Building in Equilibrium, 1997 [Timestamp: 00:11:25]
Tetragrammaton Building in Equilibrium, 1997 [Timestamp: 00:11:25]
Apart from the chaotic conditions of the otherwise dark outside world, the regime is portrayed as worshipers of monumental buildings. Public buildings such as the so-called “Tetra-Grammaton” – both the headquarters and training center of the Grammaton Clerics and also the name of the ruling faction of Libria – is characterized by a massive rotunda and large archways as well as columns of ancient form.

The only color accents are formed by the sovereign flags of Libria: Decorated with the white cross symbol of the ruling organization, the dominance of the faction in the otherwise predominant gray of the city is underlined with dark blue shades, especially compared to the dreary cloud curtain.

These design features of the cityscape are also emphasized with the staging of the tallest building in the city, also called “Equilibrium”. The building serves as the main distribution and administrative center for the emotion-suppressing drug Prozium. While the building gets visited by the figure of Preston: The view glides from the top of the building, immersed in glistening sunlight, tips over many uniform floors and endless rows of windows, to the flanking bases at the bottom and the high walled entrance area of the building.

Tower of Babylon - Equilibrium Building in eponymous film, 1997 [Timestamp 00:23:25 - 00:23:38, image montage by Planet Dystopia]
Equilibrium Building in the eponymous movie “Equilibrium”, 1997 [Timestamp 00:23:25 – 00:23:38, image montage by Planet Dystopia]
The camera moving from the top to the ground segment on the building transports the spectator into the ego perspective of Preston, allowing the viewer to see the imposing size of the building. At the same time, this combination of monumental architecture and individual perspective underlines possible intentions of Wimmer and his design team to create parallels with earlier cinematic and artistic works of dystopian motifs and to re-adapt ancient motifs.

Conclusion

The use of visual stylistic elements of Babylon in cultural media represents a phenomenon that crosses epochs and cultural alike. It’s a story about the fascination of scholars of many professions and cultural artists and creators of many directions.

Starting with mythological traditions from an era that is deep down in the darkness of the time, via the early paintings of the (no less) troubled times of the Middle Ages and via the works in times of the progressing industrialization, up to cinematic adaptations of the turbulent and accelerated modern times.

The use does not only reflect motives and visual parallels – regardless of time and culture, many facets can always be re-discovered and adapted to new contemporary situations. The constant recombination of well-known elements and their popularity are not only due to the laziness of some media workers, but also due to the fact that some fundamental questions are getting asked and some artists even try to answer them:

Issues of dealing with new technologies and accelerated urbanization. Questions that revolve around social and economic structures of power and domination – the above and below (figuratively as well as literally). Questions that touch on the self-image of humanity, grazing the boundaries between individual self-realization and societal goals. Where we come from, where we go to – on every level of perception.

Based on this combination of questions, the fundamental significance of Babylonian motifs for urban-dystopian works will continue to grow.

JHS

 

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  1. Cf. Oates, J.: Babylon. Stadt und Reich im Brennpunkt des Alten Orient. Bergisch-Gladbach: G. Lübbe, 1983. p. 11 ff
  2. Cf. op. cit., p. 94 f & p.99 f
  3. Cf. op. cit., p. 155 ff
  4. Cf. Oates 1983., p. 230 f ; Allinger-Csollich: Der Turm von Babel. Idee und Nachleben. In: M. Wullen, G. Schauerte, & H. Strzoda (Publ.): Babylon. Mythos und Wahrheit. (Vol. 2). Berlin ; Munich: Hirmer, 2008. p. 573
  5. Cf. Oates 1983, p. 188
  6. Cf. op. cit., p. 118 f ; Allinger-Csollich, p. 578
  7. Cf. Wullen, M.: Mythos Babylon. In: : M. Wullen, G. Schauerte, & H. Strzoda (Publ.), Babylon. Mythos und Wahrheit. (Vol. 1). Berlin; Munich: Hirmer, 2008. p. 11 ff
  8. Cf. Van der Veen, P. & Zerbst, U.: “…wie Nimrod, ein gewaltiger Jäger vor dem Herrn!” Ist der biblische Nimrod eine historische Persönlichkeit? In: Studium Integrale Journal (2nd Edition). Baiersbronn, 2000., p. 75-80
  9. Strozda, H. & Wullen, M.: Turm. In: M. Wullen, G. Schauerte, & H. Strzoda (Publ.), Babylon. Mythos und Wahrheit. (Vol. 1). Berlin ; München: Hirmer, 2008. p. 85, Translation by JHS / Planet Dystopia
  10. Cf. Rissi, M.: Die Hure Babylon und die Verführung der Heiligen. Eine Studie zur Apokalypse des Johannes. Stuttgart; Berlin; Cologne: W. Kohlhammer, 1995. p. 49 f
  11. Cf. Strozda & Wullen 2008, p. 85 ff
  12. Cf. Engel, H.: Turm zu Babel. In: M. Wullen, G. Schauerte, & H. Strzoda (Publ.): Babylon. Mythos und Wahrheit. (Vol. 1). Berlin ; Munich: Hirmer, 2008, p. 87

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