Last week an interesting article popped up in one of my social media feeds: “What Did Ancient Babylonian Songs Sound Like?” I couldn’t resist. The article discusses the work of a composer who teamed up with an expert on ancient instruments. Using lyrics that have been preserved in cuneiform, they sought to recreate the music of ancient Babylon.
Now I’m no musicologist so I can’t evaluate the merits of the project or the accuracy of the final product. (I will admit that I’m skeptical.) Still, regardless of how historically accurate this duo’s music may or may not be I love the idea of bringing such an intimate bit of history back to life. I especially love it as an art historian who has often taught Babylonian art to bored undergraduates as part of a large survey of art history.
What a help this—and projects like it—could be to make students realize that actual living, breathing human beings once populated the ancient world! Indeed, it can help all of us. Even for those of us who are the ‘experts’—who teach this material to undergraduates—ancient art can at times feel so removed from our reality that it becomes inaccessible. It can be challenging to remove the fetters of our world and see with the eyes of a culture that is long-gone. But music can help. It is immediate and personal and real.
So, today I bring you the textbook representative of Babylonian art, the Ishtar Gate (with optional musical accompaniment). Built in the sixth century BCE, as a main entry into the city of Babylon, this massive structure would have been a forbidding and beautiful welcome to any visitor. A variety of animals that refer to Babylonian gods are enshrined in a background of rich blue glazed bricks. To our eye, these animals look flattened and oddly still. But remove them from your contemporary context (with a little help from our musical friends?) and give them some serious contemplation, and they just might begin to pulse with their former vigor and immediacy.