The Ancient City of Babylon and it’s History

This is the concise history of the ancient and fabled city of Babylon.

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.

History of Babylon

Let’s start with the beginning. The name “Babylon” is actually the Greek version of the city’s name. They probably had trouble pronouncing Babillu, the name used by the Babylonians themselves. The name means “gate of the gods”. It was a city of vital important to at least one god, Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon.

Early History

Head of Sargon of Akkad
Babylon though as we know it was founded before the reign of the great king Sargon of Akkad. He is said to have ruled from 2334-2279 BCE and is believed to have built several temples within there. Some scholars believe that he may have even founded the city. This though can’t be confirmed and may have just been a legend since Sargon was a legendary king, and considered by many at the time, a god in ancient Mesopotamia; any city that had been founded or even visited by him would have brought great prestige to a place generations later.

During Sargon’s time though, Babylon was most likely a relatively minor port town on the River Euphrates. Unfortunately, there’s not much in terms of artifacts or buildings that can be recovered from that time period. This is because those parts of the city silted up over the years and were also built upon over the centuries by the ever-expanding population of Babylon. It is believed though that the city rose to prominence with the arrival of a people from the west known as the Amorites, sometime after the collapse of the Third Dynasty of Ur.

Babylon takes to the world stage with the advent of an Amorite king named Hammurabi, who ruled from 1792-1750 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 ancient world. Through the treasure 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.
Code of Laws found at Susa, the old Elamite capital. Today it’s in the Louve.
Though he was a capable and able ruler, 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 pretty much united all of Mesopotamia under his rule and in the process, made Babylon into the most livable city of the ancient world.

Assyrian Rule of Babylon

Assyrian bas relief
All empires eventually fall, and Hammurabi’s was no different. Following his death, Babylon’s fortunes reversed until in 1595 BCE when it was sacked by a people from Anatolia known as the Hittites. Their rule was relatively short-lived as soon another people, the Kassites followed. It’s believed that they came from the western Zagros Mountains in what is today Iran and ruled the city for about 400 years until the Assyrians arrived in 1160 BCE.

Though they shared much in common, the Babylonians didn’t take too kindly to Assyrian rule. Still, they were too weak to revolt until the reign of the Assyrian King Sennacherib, who ruled from 705-681 BCE. Sennacherib however wouldn’t tolerate any dissent and in typical Assyrian fashion (they were known for being barbarically 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 harboring 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 court that he was later assassinated by his sons. His youngest, 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. It’s unclear exactly why this was so. Maybe he liked the weather. Or maybe he feared Marduk’s retribution.

Overall though, 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 sent priests to “purify” Babylon and its citizens of evil spirits which he blamed for the revolt. Ashurbanipal probably also feared Marduk, or at least learned from the assassination Sennacherib.

Home Rule and the Neo-Babylonian Empire

After Assurbanipal, 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. Like literally, the Assyrian army and their once beautiful capital of Nineveh were destroyed. After this, a Babylonian from the Chaldean tribe named Nabopolassar became the ruler of Babylon and greater Babylonia. Thus, was born the Neo-Babylonian Empire. This also marked the beginning of a renaissance in Babylonian art, literature, culture and overall prosperity for the city and 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 604-561 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar expanded the city and added several structures that would becoming 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, and a reconstruction of it with original materials can be seen at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Ishtar Gate in Berlin
We should also remember that despite its splendor, Babylon had a great ugly underbelly. According to the Bible’s Old Testament and other sources archaeological sources, Babylon was built with a lot of forced slave labor. This often was the plight of those on the losing end of a war, rebels, political troublemakers, convicted criminals or debtors.
Israelite captives being taken from Jerusalem to Babylon

Persian Conquest of Babylon

The Chaldean Empire went into decline after Nebuchadnezzar II’s 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 not of the Chaldean line, seized power in a coup by murdering the previous king, Labashi-Marduk. Nabonidus would go down in history as being the last Babylonian king. In 539 BCE, the Persian King Cyrus the Great defeated the main Babylonian army at the Battle of Opis. The city of Babylon on the other hand was deemed to have been impregnable. Legend has it that Cyrus’ 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 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.
Sketch of Cyrus the Great
So how could a foreign conquered, in this case the Persians, take over Babylon without much of a fight when previously the Assyrians had to fight tooth and nail for it? The likely reason for this was that Nabonidus had run afoul of the Babylonian priests by ignoring his ceremonial duties as king to their chief god, Marduk. Babylonian tablets that have been discovered claim that Nabonidus had been worshiping and building temples to another deity, the goddess 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 Sin.

Cyrus on the other hand depicted himself as a servant of Marduk and not only restored his temples and carried out the proper ceremonial rights, but also allowed the Babylonians to live their lives out in peace. He even left many of the former officials in their posts and made the city one of his administrative capitals. He even freed the Jews from the 80-year Babylonian captivity and gave them funds to start rebuilding their temple in Jerusalem. Compared to the Assyrians, Cyrus was an extremely benign ruler.

Other Persian rulers though were not always as accommodating. For example, Cyrus’ grandson Xerxes had to put down a revolt there, after which it is said that he melted down the statue of Marduk and closed his temple. Despite occasional rebellions, Babylon remained a cosmopolitan and prosperous city prospered and became one of the Persian empire’s main centers of commerce and learning.

The Decline of Babylon

Alexander in Babylon
The Persians ruled over the city for approximately 200 years. In 331 BCE, 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. He though didn’t stay very long and set off to conquer the rest of the empire and capture it’s last king, Darius III. Upon achieving this and extending his empire as far as India, Alexander returned to Babylon to plan new campaigns. Unfortunately for him, he fell sick after a heavy drinking party and died there in 323 BCE.

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 (deported is probably a better word) to the new Hellenistic city of Seleucia, capital for a time of the new Seleucid Empire. By the time the Parthians, Iranian successors to the Seleucids, took over Mesopotamia, the city of Babylon had all but been abandoned. Despite this, many people who lived within its vicinity, especially early Christian, Jewish and Mandaen communities, referred to the area as Babylon.

The city began to revive in the 3rd century during its rule by the Sasanians, though it was only a fraction of what it had been in centuries – no, millenniums, past. After the Arab-Muslim conquest of Mesopotamia, Babylon was forgotten and eventually became lost to the sands of time. It was only about a 1000 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 came for profit, others to discover the lands mentioned in the Bible. From 1899-1917, the German archaeologists Robert Koldewey did a lengthy and comprehensive excavation of Babylon’s ruins. This is what led to much of the information that we have today and why, well, you’re reading this.

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