Fallen, fallen . . .


The ruins of Babylon.

Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the images of her gods lie shattered on the ground.
Isaiah 21.9

The ruins of Nineveh.

Nineveh is devastated; who will bemoan her?
Nahum 3.7

The outline of the ancient Neo-Assyrian walls of Nineveh is clear, even though the suburban sprawl of Mosul has resulted, shockingly, in a swath through the middle of the city being built over. Nearly nothing architectural survives. On the palace mound, a corrugated metal roof protects what’s left of the Assyrian throne room. Good riddance.

The ruins of Babylon are likewise encroached upon, though with more sinister implication. The three round shapes are artificial conical hills that the late, unlamented ruler of Iraq built to accomodate a few palaces for himself, with a view of ancient Babylon’s ruins, which he intended to resurrect to glory. The outline of the ziggurat is perhaps the most striking feature: it is now simply a sodden pit, as after Alexander the Great removed the bricks in order to facilitate its rebuilding, he died, and it was never rebuilt. The glazed and fired bricks were then looted to build various structures nearby. The walls and remains of the ancient suburb to the west across the river are now obliterated, though the moat around the city proper does trace the remnants of the walls.

In both cases, cruel as their masters were, two of the greatest, most beautiful, wealthiest cities in the ancient world are now heaps of mud and sand: ugly, unimportant, and uninteresting aside from their pasts. Who could help but think of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most famous poem?

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said : Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear :
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings :
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias, 1817.

Ozymandias is a corruption of the praenomen of Ramesses the Great, Usermaatre, which in his own time would’ve been pronounced something like “Usermāria.” Shelley, here, was indulging in a bit of poetic hyperbole. The statue is indeed fallen, but Ramesses’ statues invariably show him with a slight, mysterious smile, never with a “wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.” The shattered statue which inspired the poem is now known as the Ozymandias Colossus and stands not where “lone and level sands stretch far away,” but in the very impressive ruins of the Ramesseum, which is the mortuary temple of Ramesses the Great in the necropolis of Thebes.

Lastly, this post is filed in the category Poetry, not only for the poem quoted immediately above, but for the poetic justice meted out to the capital cities of the Assyrians and Babylonians, from which was directed the ruin of so many cities of so many tribes and nations.


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