Babylon: The History of the City
Today, we are going to talk about the ancient city of Babylon, one of the greatest cities of early antiquity. So without further ado, let’s begin. Located about 90 kilometers southwest of Baghdad along the route of the Euphrates River are the ruins of the great ancient city of Babylon. This is the city that appears both in the stories of the Old Testament, as well as the accounts of ancient historians such as the Greek writer and traveler Herodotus. I’m sure you yourself have also heard the name Babylon, but you might not know what its significance is.
So, let’s start at the beginning. The name Babylon is actually the Greek version of the city’s name. They probably had trouble pronouncing Babel, which is the original name of the city, and it’s what the Babylonians called it themselves. The name means “gate of the gods.” It was for sure, definitely important to one God – Marduk.
He was actually the patron deity of Babylon. Babylon, though, as we know, was founded before the reign of the great king Sargon of Akkad. He is said to have ruled from 2334 to 2279 BCE and is believed to have built several temples within the city. Some legends and even scholars believed that he was the actual founder of the city. This, however, though, can’t really be confirmed – and it’s probably not likely – because Sargon, you have to understand, especially in centuries after his death, was viewed more like a God than an actual man. Everyone basically wanted their little boys to be like Sargon, or at least what they thought Sargon was like.
So if you’re actually creating the beginning or origin of your city in this case Babylon, and you actually don’t have factual evidence for it, it’s easy to say that a great ruler like Sargon came and laid the founding stone. I mean think about it. This would be an awesome story to tell future generations and also it would bring a certain like sense of, if not sacredness, definitely a lot of prestige to your city. Anyway, let’s move on with this story. I think in a future episode or future video, we will cover Sargon in more depth, because his is a really fascinating story. During Sargon’s time, though, Babylon was most likely a relatively minor port town on the Euphrates River. Unfortunately, there’s not much in terms of artifacts or buildings that can be recovered from that time period.
Babylon: The Amorites and Hammurabi
This is because those parts of the city have silted up over the years and were also built up upon by the ever-expanding Babylonian population. The city, though, probably rose to prominence with the arrival of a people from the west, known as the Amorites some time after the collapse of the third dynasty of Ur. Babylon takes to the world stage with the advent of the Amorite king Hammurabi, who ruled from 1792 to 1750 BCE following the abdication of his father, Sin-Muballit. Hammurabi quickly transformed Babylon into one of the most powerful and wealthy cities in not only Mesopotamia but the entire ancient world through the treasure that he gained from his many neighboring conquests. Hammurabi invested heavily into his capital by building new temples, public works projects, fixing and improving irrigation networks, investing in the local economy and strengthening the city’s defensive walls.
However, Hammurabi’s real claim to fame lies with his code of laws – the first real known written law code in existence. By the year 1755 BCE Hammurabi had united all of Mesopotamia under his rule and in the process made Babylon into the world’s most livable city of his time. All empires, though, eventually fall and Hammurabi’s was no different.
Following his death, Babylon’s fortunes reversed until 1595 BCE, when it was sacked by a people from Anatolia, known as the Hittites. Hittite rule was relatively short-lived, and they in turn were conquered by another people known as the Kassites. It’s believed that the Kassites came from the Zagros Mountains in today’s southwestern Iran. The Kassites ruled for about 400 years and we don’t have too much information about them until 1160, when the Assyrians come onto the scene. Though they shared much in common with the Babylonians, the Assyrians didn’t really take kindly to Babylonian rule.
Still, they were too weak to revolt until the reign of the Assyrian King Sennacherib, who ruled from 705 to 681 BCE. Sennacherib’s, however, wouldn’t tolerate any dissent and in typical Assyrian fashion – for they were known to be extremely barbaric and cruel towards their enemies – he had the city razed to the ground and a good portion of its people massacred. His intent was to make Babylon a vivid example for other cities within his domain that harbored thoughts of rebellion. It seems, though, that Sennacherib may have gone a bit too far and his original plan backfired. In fact, his massacre of the city was seen as such an impious act by both his people and his court that he was later assassinated by his sons. His youngest son Esarhaddon took over after his death. In an almost total reversal, Esarhaddon began a process of restoring the once great city to something akin to its former glory. He even lived there for part of the year.
The Babylonians Revolt against the Great Assyrian King Ashurbanipal in 652 BCE
It’s unclear why this was so. Maybe he liked the weather, or maybe he feared Marduk’s retribution. Despite this, the Babylonians still were not too fond of the Assyrians. They revolted yet again in 652 BCE against King Ashurbanipal, the last of the great Assyrian kings. He also put down the rebellion but, unlike Sennacherib, spared destroying the city. In fact, he didn’t even blame the Babylonians for the revolt according to his chroniclers. He blamed it on evil spirits that had manifested themselves within the population.
He sent priests to purify Babylon and rid its citizens of these evil spirits. Ashurbanipal probably also feared Marduk or at least learned from the assassination of Sennacherib what could happen to him if he followed in his predecessor’s footsteps. After Ashurbanipal, Assyrian authority in the region began to wane until they were decisively defeated by an alliance made up of the Babylonians, Medes and possibly some Scythian and Persian tribes. The final blow came when the Medes and the Babylonians sacked the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, basically turning it into a wasteland. For the first time in several centuries, the Assyrians had been completely neutralized, no longer posing a threat to really anyone in the region.
This was also the beginning of a renaissance in Babylonian art, literature, culture and the overall prosperity of the city and most of its inhabitants. Nabopolassar set the stage for his son Nebuchadnezzar II to become probably the greatest king of Babylon after Hammurabi, ruling from the years 604 to 561 BCE. Nebuchadnezzar expanded the city and added several structures that would become extremely famous throughout the ancient world. These included the Ishtar Gate and the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, though no actual evidence of the Hanging Gardens have been found. The Ishtar Gate has been found and a reconstruction of it with original materials can be seen at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
Nabonidus, a Man from Babylon, Was the Last Native King in 539 BCE
We should also remember that, despite its splendor, Babylon had a great ugly underbelly according to the Bible’s Old Testament and other sources, mostly archaeological. Babylon was built with a lot of forced slave labor. This often was the punishment for those on the losing end of a war or rebels, political troublemakers, convicted criminals or debtors, but the Aldean Empire went into decline after Nebuchadnezzar. The second death, though, information is scarce. The sources we have indicate that there was some squabble over which of his sons or relatives would succeed him. Eventually, a man named Nabonidus, who it seems was questionable when it came to being child II in line, seized power in a coup by murdering the previous king, Labashi Marduk. Nabonidus would go down in history as being the last native Babylonian king in 539 BCE.
The Persian king Cyrus the Great defeated the main Babylonian army at the Battle of Opis, with the main Babylonian army defeated, or at least immobilized, Cyrus made his way to the capital of Babylonia, the city of Babylon itself. Legend has it that Cyrus’s troops diverted the course of the Euphrates so that they could cross it and enter the city unnoticed on the day of a Babylonian religious festival. Whether or not this actually happened is debatable, but what is known is that the city was spared any major damage and was most likely taken without a fight. So how could a foreign conqueror, in this case of Persians, take over Babylon without much resistance? Remember the Assyrians fought tooth and nail and, in the end, could only pacify the city of Babylon by massacring its population.
The likely reason for this is that Nabonidus had run afoul of the Babylonian priesthood by ignoring his ceremonial duties as king to their chief god, Marduk. Babylonian tablets that have been discovered from the period claimed that Nabonidus had been worshipping and building temples to another deity, that god is sin. In fact, he had even left his son Belshazzar in charge of Babylon, while he went for years on a retreat to some desert shrine dedicated to the goddess Sin. Cyrus, on the other hand, depicted himself as a servant of Marduk and not only restored His temples, meaning Marduk temples, and carried out the proper ceremonial rites, but he also allowed the Babylonians to live their lives out in peace. Unlike the previous conquests by the Hittites and Assyrians, the city was pretty much spared any bloodshed. He even left many of the former babylonian officials in their posts and made the city one of his administrative capitals. He also freed the Jews from their eighty year Babylonian captivity and gave them funds to start rebuilding their temple in Jerusalem.
Cyrus and Alexander of Macedonia in Babylon
Compared to the Assyrians and other conquerors, Cyrus was an extremely benign ruler. Babylon, during the Persian Empire, remained one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cultured and prosperous cities. It was very much like what New York and London are today, but add to that some Parisian architecture and the historical legacy of a city like Rome or Istanbul. The Persians ruled over Babylon for approximately 200 years. In 331 BC Alexander of Macedonia, who by then had conquered half of the Persian Empire, arrived in Babylon and took over the city in much the same way as Cyrus had peacefully. However, he didn’t stay in the city long. After all, he wanted to conquer the entire Persian Empire and was basically chasing the last Persian King Darius throughout Iran and Central Asia. Eventually, he did catch up with Darius, but the latter was already dead by the time Alexander reached him.
Alexander, though, didn’t stop with Darius’s death. He basically extended his empire as far as India. He would have gone further, but his troops were sick of fighting and demanded to go back home. Alexander finally gave in to their demands and headed back east. He arrived back in Babylon in 323 BCE, where it is said that he died after a heavy drinking party. After Alexander’s death, his remaining generals fought over who would control his vast empire. Their constant battles forced many residents to leave the city.
According to one tablet, from 275 BCE, the residents were relocated or actually deported is probably a better word to the new Hellenistic city of Seleucia, capital for a time of the new Seleucid empire, basically one of Alexander’s successor states. By the time the Parthians, Iranian successors to the Seleucids, took over Mesopotamia the city of Babylon had all but been abandoned. The city revived somewhat during the Sasanian empire. But, however, it never came back to the former glory that it once had. After the Arab Muslim conquest of Mesopotamia Babylon was forgotten and eventually became lost to the sands of time. It was only about a thousand years later in the 17th and 18th centuries that European explorers began to take interest in the ancient history of the region and return home with mysterious artifacts. These strange objects intrigued historians, universities and wealthy adventurers who, by the 19th century, were coming in droves. Some of them came expecting huge profits, others to discover the lands mentioned in the Bible. From 1899 to 1917, the German archaeologist Robert Koldewey led a lengthy and comprehensive excavation of Babylons ruins. This is what led to much of the information that we have of the city today.
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