Beautiful Babylon: Jewel of the Ancient World

Beautiful Babylon: Jewel of the Ancient World

Ruled by Hammurabi, restored by Nebuchadrezzar, conquered by Cyrus—this city in the heart of Mesopotamia was both desired and despised, placing it at the center stage of the dawn of history.


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Anthropology, Archaeology, Sociology, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations

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Many of the world's first great cities were in the ancient region of Mesopotamia. Babylon was one of the very greatest. It stood between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Today, the region covers Iraq and other countries in the Middle East.

Unlike many cities that fell and disappeared, Babylon existed for thousands of years. It was attacked and conquered over and over again, but each time it rebuilt itself.

City Of Cities

Babylon first became a great city around 3,800 years ago, during the 18th century B.C.E. At that time, it was controlled by a people known as the Amorites. The Amorites made Babylon into the region's most important city. Hammurabi was Babylon's most well-known Amorite king. He is famous for putting together some of the world's first written laws.

After the Amorites lost control of Babylon, there were constant struggles over the city. It was ruled by Hittites and then Kassites. Later, Chaldeans and Aramaeans fought for control. Around 3,000 years ago, the powerful Assyrians took over. But Babylon kept falling to one conqueror after another. The Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered the city 2,600 years ago, and the Greek king Alexander the Great seized it 200 years later.

These many conquests each left their own mark on the city. Babylon did not really belong to one culture, in the way that Paris is a French city. Instead, it had many different traditions, mixed together over thousands of years.

Babylon's Golden Age

Babylon was at its most powerful between 2,700 and 2,600 years ago. During this period, it was perhaps the largest city in the world. By then, it was under the control of the Chaldeans, who had seized it from the Assyrians around 600 B.C.E.

The second Chaldean ruler was King Nebuchadrezzar II, also known as Nebuchadnezzar II. He is mentioned in the Bible. Nebuchadrezzar attacked and conquered the Hebrew city of Jerusalem. He then sent the captive Hebrews to Babylon, the capital of his new and mighty empire. Hebrews are the people who founded the Jewish religion.

Nebuchadrezzar used the wealth he gained by conquering other lands to rebuild Babylon. He built new city walls to keep out invaders. He also made the city more beautiful. He paved a street called the Processional Way with limestone, rebuilt temples and built the glorious Ishtar Gate. The Ishtar Gate was the entrance to the city. It was made of shiny blue bricks and decorated with bulls and dragons, and was both beautiful and breathtaking.

Babylonian citizens saw their city as a beautiful place and as the center of the world. The Hebrews saw it as a terrible place, though. Nebuchadrezzar forced the Hebrews to move to Babylon after taking over their home. The Bible says he also stole holy objects from a Jewish temple and took them back to Babylon. They were placed in the temple of Marduk, the highest god of Babylon.

The Hebrews believed this made God angry. A story in the Bible says that Nebuchadrezzar's empire became doomed after he removed the holy Jewish objects. The story takes place during the reign of Belshazzar, the king who came after Nebuchadrezzar. It says that Belshazzar once held a feast served on holy bowls stolen from Jerusalem. During the feast, a ghostly hand suddenly appeared. Upon a wall, it wrote the strange words, "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin." Daniel, an exiled Jew, was brought in by the terrified king to explain the writing on the wall. Daniel read it as: "God has numbered the days of your kingdom. It is given to the Medes and Persians."

Daniel's prediction came true. In 539 B.C.E., more than 2,500 years ago, Babylon fell to the Persian king Cyrus the Great, and the Jews returned home from exile. Around 200 years later, in 331 B.C.E., the city was conquered by Alexander the Great. Alexander planned to make Babylon the capital of his empire, but he died before that could happen. His Greek generals spent years fighting each other for control of his empire. In time, Babylon was simply abandoned, but its greatness was never forgotten.

Confusions And Truths

One of the most famous stories about Babylon talks about the Tower of Babel. The Bible tells how the survivors of the Great Flood wanted to build a tower that would reach the heavens. This angered God because it seemed as though the tower builders were trying to act like gods themselves. God then punished the builders by sending them to every corner of the Earth. God also forced humans to speak many different languages so they wouldn't understand each other.

Historians believe the tower mentioned in the Bible story may be the Etemenanki. This was a tower in Babylon built for Marduk. Whether it was or not, the Etemenanki certainly didn't reach right up to the heavens. It was probably around 200 feet tall. That's not small, but it's about one-fifth of the Eiffel Tower.

Another colorful story talks about the fabulous Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It is not clear where the gardens were or who built them. Some believe they were a part of the royal palace. One story claims that Nebuchadrezzar had them built for his wife, Amytis. Others believe the gardens were not in Babylon at all but in another city.

With or without the Hanging Gardens, Babylon was a truly great city. Its legend continues to this day.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Juan Luis Montero Fenollós
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

January 2, 2024

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