Over the past few years, Neil MacGregor and his staff at the British Museum have displayed an almost eerie ability to hold up mirrors to the various convulsions of the age. No sooner did they lay on an exhibition devoted to Sudan, for instance, than the country promptly erupted into civil war, while the showcasing in 2005 of treasures from ancient Persia witnessed the simultaneous election in Iran of the sabre-rattling President Ahmadinejad. Only last year, the enthroning of the First Emperor in the Reading Room appeared to offer a translation into terracotta of the myriad opinion pieces on the rise of modern China. Now, however, as the credit-fuelled orgy of the past decade finally catches up with us, and the writing appears on the walls of merchant banks and Michelin-starred restaurants across New York and London, the Museum has surely excelled itself. MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN: has there ever been a more appropriate time for us to reflect upon the glory and ruin of Babylon?
‘Alas, alas, that great city, that was clothed in fine linen, and purple, and scarlet, and decked with gold, and precious stones, and pearls!’ Saint John, describing his revelation of the Whore of Babylon, was in fact lambasting Rome; today, the long vanished capital of ancient Mesopotamia continues to serve