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 arose in the ancient region of Mesopotamia. Babylon was one of the very greatest. It was located between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers some 97 kilometers (60 miles) south of Baghdad. Unlike many cities that fell and disappeared, Babylon rebuilt itself repeatedly. It existed for thousands of years, even as successive conquerors invaded and took over.

City Of Cities

Babylon stood in what is now the Middle Eastern country of Iraq. At the turn of the 20th century, German archaeologist Robert Koldewey carefully excavated the city. He established that it had been built and rebuilt several times and that it was an ancient center of culture and political power.

Babylon first rose to prominence during the 18th century B.C.E. At that time, it was controlled by a people known as the Amorites. A series of strong Amorite kings enabled Babylon to become the region's most powerful city. Among these rulers was King Hammurabi, who is famous for putting together some of the world's earliest written laws. Although Babylon declined after Hammurabi's death, it remained an important city for thousands of years.

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 from Syria fought for control. By 1000 B.C.E., the powerful Assyrians took charge, but after periods of stability, Babylon kept falling to one conqueror after another. The Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered the city in the sixth century B.C.E., and the Greek king Alexander the Great seized it 200 years later.

Each of these many conquests left its own mark on the city. Babylon was not really the expression of one culture, in the way that Paris is a French city. Instead, it was the product of many different traditions, mixed together over thousands of years.

Babylon's Golden Age

Babylon was at its height during the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E., when 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 in the early 600s B.C.E. The second ruler of the Chaldean line was King Nebuchadrezzar II, also known as Nebuchadnezzar II. Nebuchadrezzar is remembered for sacking the Hebrew city of Jerusalem and sending the captive Jews to Babylon, the capital of his new and increasingly powerful empire. These events are famously described in the Old Testament of the Bible.

A successful military man, Nebuchadrezzar used the wealth he gained from other lands to rebuild Babylon. He completed and strengthened the city's defenses, by digging a moat and building new city walls. He also beautified the city. The grand Processional Way was paved with limestone, temples were rebuilt and the glorious Ishtar Gate was erected. The Ishtar Gate was the entranceway to the city. It was constructed of shiny blue bricks, decorated with bulls and dragons and was both beautiful and awe-inspiring.

Babylonian citizens saw their city as a paradise and as the center of the world. In the Hebrew tradition, however, Nebuchadrezzar was a tyrant, and Babylon a torment. The king conquered Jerusalem in the early sixth century B.C.E. and then exiled the Hebrews to Babylon. The Bible says he also stole sacred objects from the Jewish temple and took them back to Babylon. There they were placed in the temple of Marduk, the supreme god of Babylon.

The Hebrews believed this theft angered God. In the Book of Daniel, the Bible tells how Nebuchadrezzar's royal line became doomed following the removal of the sacred Jewish objects. In the story, Belshazzar, the king who came after Nebuchadrezzar, held a feast served on the sacred vessels looted from Jerusalem. During the feast, a ghostly hand suddenly appeared. Upon a wall it wrote the mysterious 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 did come true. In 539 B.C.E., Babylon fell to the Persian king Cyrus the Great, and the Jews returned home from exile. Around two centuries 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 came to pass. Various 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 is that of the Tower of Babel. The Book of Genesis of the Bible tells how the survivors of the Great Flood wanted to build a tower that would reach the heavens. In response, an angry God punished the builders for their arrogance and sent them to every corner of the Earth. God also forced humans to speak many different languages so they would no longer understand each other.

Archaeologists believe that the tower referenced in the Bible story may be the Etemenanki, a tower in Babylon dedicated to Marduk. Suggestively, its name means the "temple of the foundation of heaven and earth," which matches the description in the Bible story. However, the Etemenanki hardly reached up to the heavens. It was most likely around 61 meters (200 feet) in height.

Another colorful story concerns the fabulous and celebrated Hanging Gardens of Babylon. There are many theories surrounding the gardens, from their exact location to just who their builders were. Some suggest the gardens formed a part of the royal palace in Babylon itself. Others believe they were built in another city altogether. One origin story claims that Nebuchadrezzar had them built for his wife, Amytis.

So where in the city could those famous gardens have been? Perhaps nowhere at all. There is no text from Nebuchadrezzar II's time that refers to the building of any such gardens. The only written references come much later, from scholars writing at a time after Babylon had been abandoned.

With or without the Hanging Gardens, Babylon was one of the greatest cities of antiquity. 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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