At its height, Babylon was one of the largest, most important cities of the ancient world. It was located in central Mesopotamia, near the point where the Tigris and Euphrates flow closest to one another. This same region has been home to many capital cities over the centuries: Kish, Agade, Seleucia, and Baghdad among them. The city’s ancient name, Babil, may well be in an unknown language that predates Sumerian and Akkadian in Mesopotamia. It came to be understood in Akkadian as bab-ili, meaning “gate of the god,” also written in Sumerian as ka-dingir-ra, which has the same meaning. Babylon is the Greek version of the name. Today we refer to the southern half of ancient Mesopotamia—the region extending from around Babylon south to the Persian Gulf —as Babylonia, but in ancient times this land was called Sumer and Akkad.
The city of Babylon was well known to Greek and Roman historians. The Greek historian Herodotus, who may have visited the city in the fifth century BCE (or based his account on the reports of eyewitnesses), wrote that “it surpasses in splendor any city of the known world” (Herodotus 1972, 185). Classical authors also credited Babylon with one of the ancient wonders of the world: the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Babylon is mentioned frequently in the Bible. The Tower of Babel was certainly thought to have been located there; Babylon was the place to which Nebuchadnezzar II (reigned 605–562 BCE) exiled the Jews after the conquest of Judah; and the city was said to be home to Daniel. Therefore, unlike most other cities of the region, Babylon was not forgotten after its demise. Long after the buildings had disintegrated, the northernmost mound of the site even retained the name Tell Babil. What was forgotten, however, was the long history of the city before the period of Nebuchadnezzar.
Unfortunately, the underground water table at Babylon rose over the centuries, so even archaeologists have had difficulty fathoming the earlier history of the city. The occupation levels from the third and second millennia BCE are largely waterlogged. It is possible that, like the Assyrian city of Nineveh, the site was occupied long before written history, but there is no way to know. What we do know about Babylon before the first millennium BCE comes largely from textual records from other ancient cities.
The earliest known mention of the city of Babylon comes from the time of Sharkalisharri (reigned c. 2217– c. 2193 BCE), a king of Akkad and descendant of the empire-builder Sargon (reigned c. 2334–2279 BCE).The inscription mentions two temples in the city, but little else is known from this early time.
First Dynasty of Babylon
At the beginning of the nineteenth century BCE, the history of Babylon comes into sharper focus. Around 2000 BCE the native Sumerian and Akkadian peoples of Mesopotamia had been subject to an invasion of Amorites, “westerners” who had settled in the river valley and largely adopted local customs. Amorite, like Akkadian, was a Semitic language, but its speakers did not write it down. They continued to use Akkadian and Sumerian in written documents.
Amorite kings took control of several Mesopotamian cities, Babylon among them. Over the next century, the Amorite dynasty of Babylon, founded by Sumu-Abum (reigned 1894–1880 BCE), consolidated its control over the surrounding lands. By the early eighteenth century BCE, a dozen kingdoms, including Babylon, dominated Mesopotamia and Syria, some bound together by alliances, others often at war.
Hammurabi (reigned 1792–1750 BCE) is considered to be the greatest of the kings of the first dynasty of Babylon (also called the Old Babylonian period). From the beginning of his reign he emphasized that he was a king who was concerned with justice. It was traditional at that time to refer to years by names rather than numbers, and Hammurabi’s second year name shows his concern for justice: “The year that Hammurabi established equity and freedom in his land” (Horsnell 1999, 2:106). But it was not until very late in his reign that Hammurabi decreed the set of laws for which he has become best known. By that time he had brought much of Mesopotamia under his rule, from Mari in Syria (just north of modern Iraqi border) to the Persian Gulf.
Although Hammurabi was not the first lawgiver (written laws had existed in Mesopotamia for more than two hundred years when he came to the throne), his laws made a strong impression on subsequent generations of Mesopotamian scribes, who copied and studied them for centuries. His laws also had an influence on surrounding peoples such as the Hittites and Canaanites, and eventually on the Israelites and therefore on Biblical law.
Hammurabi venerated many gods, rebuilding their temples and presenting them with thrones and gifts, but he credited his successes mostly to the city god of Babylon, Marduk. The god’s statue was housed in a great temple in the center of the city. Marduk’s cult was an essential part of Mesopotamian religion from this time on.
Hittites and Kassites
Around 1595 BCE, the Hittites (a people from present-day Turkey and northern Syria) seem to have sacked Babylon and taken many Babylonians captive. They also captured the statues of Marduk and his wife Sarpanitum and took them back to their own land of Hatti, where the statues stayed for decades. Unfortunately, this event is poorly understood. It is almost unknown in Babylonian records and mentioned only briefly in Hittite records. No archaeological evidence exists because of the problems with excavating early levels at Babylon. But it is clear that the Hittites did not stay or attempt to rule Babylon.
The century after the conquest of Babylon remains something of a mystery, due to an almost complete lack of textual sources and little archaeological evidence, but by 1500 BCE a new foreign dynasty had taken control of Babylon: the Kassites. Their origin is unclear, their language known only from the evidence of their personal names. Like the Amorites, they adopted Babylonian ways, and they proved to be adept rulers. Mesopotamia was united and relatively peaceful during the centuries of Kassite rule. The Kassite kings of Babylon communicated regularly with the Hittite kings in Anatolia, the Syrian kings in Mittani, and the New Kingdom pharaohs of Egypt. Their correspondence, found in Egypt and Anatolia, shows that the Babylonian kings sent the Egyptian kings gifts of horses and lapis lazuli, in exchange for which they always wanted gold. They also wrote extensively about the marriage alliances that were set up between them. Several Babylonian princesses became queens of Egypt.
By the thirteenth century BCE, a new power began to assert itself to the north of Babylon: Assyria. From this time onwards, Babylonia and Assyria became the chief powers and rivals in Mesopotamia. Although the region suffered a decline during the twelfth and eleventh centuries BCE, during which time the Kassite dynasty collapsed, the division of the land into two halves continued.
Babylon during the Assyrian Empire
During the time of weakness that marked the end of the Kassite period, yet another foreign people from the west, the Arameans, entered the land in large numbers, sometimes as immigrants, sometimes as invaders. But whereas the languages of the Amorites and Kassites seem to have been lost over time, the Semitic language of these new arrivals, Aramaic, began to replace the ancient language of Akkadian as the spoken tongue of the Mesopotamian people. Aramaic was widely used in both Babylonia and Assyria, even though for centuries Akkadian remained the standard written language. Aramaic was to be the predominant language in the region until the spread of Arabic over 1,500 years later in the seventh century CE.
Between the end of the Kassite dynasty and the eighth century BCE, six local dynasties ruled Babylon, none of them able to achieve the type of power that had been characteristic of Hammurabi’s dynasty or of the Kassite kings. They were sometimes on good terms with the Assyrians, but at other times they were hostile, especially as Assyria became more and more powerful.
The Assyrians seem always to have respected Babylonian culture and venerated Babylonian gods. Their powerful emperors generally treated the Babylonians with much more generosity than they did their other neighbors. But still, warfare often broke out between the two lands, with several Neo-Assyrian kings claiming direct control over Babylonia or placing puppet kings on its throne.
In the eighth century BCE a fourth major group of settlers and invaders appeared in Babylon. These were the Chaldeans, who came from the marshes in the south. Although they seem to have spoken the same Akkadian language as the local Babylonians, they were regarded as the enemies of the Babylonians for many years. Eventually, though, the Chaldeans, like the Kassites and Amorites before them, became rulers of Babylonia.
The Neo-Babylonian Period
The second great period of Babylonian dominance, the Neo-Babylonian period, came a thousand years after Hammurabi’s empire collapsed. The Babylonians, collaborating with the Medes, overthrew the Assyrian empire in 612 BCE and took over control of much of the region. The dominant figure from this time was the Chaldean king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II, who was both a conqueror and a prolific builder.
It is the Babylon of his reign that is the best known— a city of unprecedented size and grandeur. This is the city that was described by Herodotus and the one that has been excavated and partially reconstructed. The immense city walls were 18 kilometers long, with at least eight monumental gateways, and they surrounded an area of 850 hectares. Inside the city, the ziggurat (stepped tower) of the temple to Marduk, the Esagila, was built up to great height, visible from far and wide. It is believed to have been the inspiration for the Bible’s story of the Tower of Babel. Unfortunately, it was completely dismantled in ancient times, so no one can reliably determine how tall the tower actually stood.
Everywhere, construction was of baked brick, not the usual sun-dried brick that had dominated Mesopotamian architecture for millennia. Whole regions of the city, such as the processional way leading to the Ishtar Gate, were faced with glazed bricks in a vivid blue, decorated with images of lions and dragons sculpted in relief and glazed in bright shades of yellow, black, and white.
Archaeologists have found no clear evidence for the famous Hanging Gardens, which are described in classical sources as terraced gardens on an artificial structure —a “wonder” because of the technology it would take to grow trees on top of a building. Nor did any contemporary source mention the gardens. Even Herodotus fails to mention them in his otherwise detailed description of Babylon. It has recently been suggested that these gardens were not, in fact, in Babylon, but were located in Assyria. The Assyrian king Sennacherib (reigned 704– 681 BCE) boasted of creating just such a terraced garden, watered by an aqueduct, in his capital city of Nineveh.
The Neo-Babylonian period proved to be short-lived, lasting less than a century. The last of the Babylonian kings was an elderly, eccentric man named Nabonidus (reigned 555–539 BCE) who neglected the annual festival in honor of Marduk and who was deeply devoted to the moon god. The Babylonian population seems to have disliked him so much that they put up little resistance to the Persian emperor Cyrus II (c. 585–c. 529 BCE) when the latter invaded in 539 BCE.
Persian and Hellenistic Periods
Initially, under Cyrus and his successors on the throne of Persia, life in Babylon was relatively unchanged. Cuneiform documents that recorded the business transactions of Babylonian merchants and entrepreneurs show that Babylon was still a rich city. The kings of Persia spent their winters in Babylon and seem to have been well disposed to the place. This was true, at least, until the reign of Xerxes I (reigned 486–465 BCE). Xerxes was infuriated by a rebellion mounted by the Babylonians, and he took out his anger on the beautiful buildings of Nebuchadnezzar, even destroying the temple to Marduk. It is unclear whether the temple was ever properly rebuilt after that time. Xerxes imposed crushing taxes on the Babylonians once he had brought the rebellion under control.
When Alexander of Macedon (reigned 336–323 BCE) took over the Persian Empire in 330 BCE, he seems to have fallen under Babylon’s spell. He thought that it would be one of his capital cities and had grand plans to rebuild the ziggurat of Marduk’s temple. His workmen did succeed in dismantling the ruins of the earlier ziggurat, but a new one probably was not constructed before Alexander’s death. The Macedonian king died in Babylon on 13 June 323 BCE, perhaps of malaria or alcohol poisoning.
Alexander’s successor in Mesopotamia, the general Seleucus (reigned in Babylon 312–281 BCE), was less fond of Babylon. He built a rival city just 90 kilometers to the north and called it Seleucia; it became the Royal City in 275 BCE. Gradually trade and business activity began to move to Seleucia, making Babylon less relevant to the local or imperial economy. An edict issued by Antiochus I (281–261 BCE) required all Babylonian residents to move to Seleucia. It is clear, however, that they did not all obey, because Babylon continued to be occupied, though it was much less important than it had been. By the first century BCE, just a few buildings were left standing in Babylon, surrounded by the still-impressive city wall. The grand avenues that had once been flanked by tall buildings were gone, turned into grazing grounds for sheep and goats.
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