The city of Babylon was the largest and wealthiest in the ancient world at its peak in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E. The sprawling settlement in modern-day Iraq grew as large as Chicago under the ruthless and ambitious King Nebuchadnezzar II, and boasted towering temples, ornately tiled palaces, and imposing city walls thick enough for two chariots to pass each other side by side. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (see sidebar), and a hubristic sky-scraping temple that some historians believe inspired the biblical Tower of Babel may have also been located there, according to legend.
Hanging Gardens of Babylon
An artist's impression of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
However, Babylon's heyday was brief. The grand city was conquered by the Persians in 539 B.C.E., as prophesied by Old Testament prophets, and gradually crumbled over centuries of foreign invasions and occupations. Despite the fact that Babylon was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019, there isn't much left of the once-invincible empire that dazzled Greek historians and enslaved its rivals, most notably the biblical Kingdom of Judah. Today, if you went to Babylon, which is 55 miles (85 kilometers) south of Baghdad, you'd see a tacky recreation built by Saddam Hussein in the 1970s that has been partially destroyed by decades of war. It's a depressing end for such a fabled city.
Hammurabi and His Code
The most well-known of Babylon's rulers was Nebuchadnezzar, but he wasn't the first. Several empires rose and fell on the same coveted land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers over millennia. In the 18th century B.C.E., the remarkable Hammurabi was the first king to unite warring Mesopotamian tribes into a single powerful city-state. During Hammurabi's 43-year reign, he not only conquered or formed alliances with Babylon's fiercest enemies, but he also transformed Babylon into a showcase for ancient engineering and criminal justice innovations.
Hammurabi built intricate canals to provide fresh water to Babylon's citizens and strengthened the city's defenses against invaders. In a city that represented something entirely new in the ancient world — the mingling of hordes of people from wildly different cultures — he was concerned with food distribution and public safety. Hammurabi created his famous Legal Code, which is essentially a detailed list of crimes and their associated punishments, to keep the peace among people without blood or religious ties:
"If a person takes out another person's eye, that person's eye will be taken out as well.
If he breaks another man's bone, he will break his own.
If a man knocks out his equal's teeth, he will have his teeth knocked out as well."
The ancient Hebrews' code of laws, known as "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," is thought to have been based on this early system of retributive justice, which is inscribed on an 8-foot (2.4-meter) diorite obelisk inscribed in the Louvre in Paris. The singular genius of Hammurabi as a military and domestic leader was not passed down to his successor. Babylon's old enemies declared their independence and prepared their armies for invasion just days after Hammurabi's death. The Babylonian kingdom was shattered, and the city would not be rebuilt for another 1,000 years.
"By Babylon's Rivers" It was Nebuchadnezzar II, the great and terrible, who rebuilt Babylon as a magnificent paean to the creator god Marduk. Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled from 605 to 562 B.C.E., expanded the Babylonian empire across Egypt, Syria, and the Kingdom of Judah, seizing Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E. and dragging tens of thousands of Israelites to Babylon as forced laborers, where they "wept" in exile by its rivers, according to the Bible.
The Persian emperor Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.E., as depicted in this illustration.
Babylon became shorthand for everything ungodly in the Judeo-Christian tradition because of Nebuchadnezzar's imperialist cruelty and penchant for golden shrines to pagan gods. The "Whore of Babylon," as described in the New Testament Book of Revelation, is "adorned with gold, jewels, and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality." According to historians, Nechuchadnezzar re-located conquered people throughout the empire to prevent them from plotting against him, and Babylon grew to be the largest and most modern city in the ancient world under his leadership. He was responsible for the stunning Processional Way, a wide thoroughfare lined with ornately tiled walls depicting lions and dragons in bright blues and yellows, in addition to the colossal city walls of Babylon. The Processional Way led to the city's grand northern entrance, the Ishtar Gate.
The temple of Marduk, which sat atop a 300-foot (91-meter) ziggurat and was accessible by a ramp that curved around its exterior, was one of Nebuchadnezzar's most well-known construction projects. Writing centuries after Babylon's heyday, the Greek historian Herodotus described eight towers stacked on top of one another. It's not hard to believe that the Tower of Babel was inspired by the Marduk temple, also known as the "house of the frontier between heaven and Earth."
Babylon was conquered by the Persian conqueror Cyrus II only a few decades after Nebuchadnezzar's death, and the city was reduced to a mere outpost in his vast, Iran-based empire. Alexander the Great planned to make Babylon the jewel of his Asian empire two centuries later, but he died in the city in 323 B.C.E. Babylon never recovered after being sacked by the Parthians in the second century C.E. Babylon was reduced to ruins after two millennia of looting and warfare. German archeologists discovered remnants of the Processional Way in the early twentieth century and reconstructed its blue-glazed tile murals at Berlin's Pergamon Museum.
Saddam Hussein took up Nebuchadnezzar's mantle and attempted to restore some of Babylon's former glory, but ended up with "Disney for a despot," according to art historians. Saddam Hussein raised city walls of 38 feet (11.5 meters) and built a Roman-style arena on the ruins of the original Babylon, much to the chagrin of archaeologists. He even carved his name into the bricks, just like Nebuchadnezzar. Although some of the recreations were damaged during the prolonged occupations of the Iraq War (2003-11), many of the colorfully painted structures, including Saddam's Babylonian palace, remain open to the public. In Babylon, what else can you see? "Visitors can stroll through the ruins of the brick and clay structures, which span 10 square kilometers [3.8 square miles], and see the famed Lion of Babylon statue, as well as large portions of the original Ishtar Gate," Reuters reported in 2019. While Babylon is mostly a ruin, it is only a few miles from Hilla (or al-Hillah), a modern city with a population of about 500,000 people.
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