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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The ancient region of Mesopotamia gave birth to many of the world's first great cities. The splendid city of Babylon was one of the greatest. Babylon was located between the waters of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers some 97 kilometers (60 miles) south of Baghdad. Unlike the many towns that fell and disappeared, Babylon hung on and rebuilt repeatedly, even as successive conquerors invaded and took over.

City Of Cities

The site of Babylon was first identified in the 1800s in what is now Iraq. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the German archaeologist Robert Koldewey carefully excavated the city. He established that it had been built and rebuilt several times, most notably on a grand scale by its king, Nebuchadrezzar II (reigned 605-561 B.C.E.), also known as Nebuchadnezzar II. Koldewey's findings revealed that the city was an ancient center of culture and political power.

Babylon first rose to prominence during the 18th century B.C.E., when it was controlled by a people known as the Amorites. A series of strong Amorite kings enabled Babylon to eclipse the Sumerian capital, Ur, as the region's most powerful city. Among these rulers was King Hammurabi, who is famous for compiling one of the world's earliest legal codes. 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, Chaldean tribesmen fought for dominance with another tribe, the Aramaeans from Syria. By 1000 B.C.E., the Assyrians, who had established a powerful empire in northern Mesopotamia, had gained the upper hand. However, despite periods of stable rule, Babylon continued to fall to one conqueror after another. Cyrus the Great conquered the city in the sixth century B.C.E. and Alexander the Great seized it 200 years later. Given this pattern of constant conquest, it is perhaps more helpful to see the city not as the expression of one culture, but as the product of varied traditions developed 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, the city 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 became notorious for both cruelty and opulence. He was Nebuchadrezzar II, the king who sacked Jerusalem and sent the captive Jews to the capital of his new and increasingly powerful regional 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, among other things, digging a moat and building new city walls. Beautification projects were on the agenda as well. The grand Processional Way was paved with limestone, temples were renovated and rebuilt, and the glorious Ishtar Gate was erected. Constructed of glazed cobalt blue bricks and embellished with bulls and dragons, the city gate features an inscription, credited to Nebuchadrezzar, that says: "I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that people might gaze on them in wonder."

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 had conquered Jerusalem in the early sixth century B.C.E. and exiled the Hebrews to Babylon. The Bible says that he also stole sacred objects from the Jewish temple and took them back to Babylon to place in the temple of Marduk, the supreme god of the people of Babylon.

In the Book of Daniel, the Bible recounts how Nebuchadrezzar's royal line becomes doomed by this act of disrespect. In the story, Belshazzar, the king who followed Nebuchadrezzar, holds a feast served on the sacred vessels looted from Jerusalem. During the festivities, a ghostly hand appears, and strange writing appears on the wall, forming the mysterious words, "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin." The exiled Jew Daniel is brought in by the terrified king to interpret the writing on the wall. Daniel reads it as: "God has numbered the days of your kingdom ...[it] is given to the Medes and Persians."

Daniel's prediction did come to pass: In 539 B.C.E., Babylon fell to the Persian king Cyrus the Great, and the Jews returned home from exile. The city would be conquered two centuries later by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C.E. Although Alexander had planned to make Babylon the capital of his empire, he died before that came to pass. After Alexander's death, various Greek generals spent years fighting each other for control of his empire. In time, Babylon was simply abandoned, and its splendors passed into the realm of legend.

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 struck the builders for their arrogance and dispersed them over the Earth. God 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. When the Etemenanki was surveyed in 1913, it was revealed that the tower that supposedly reached right up to the heavens would have been, in reality, around 61 meters (200 feet) in height.

Another colorful story to come out of the ancient city is that of the fabulous Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. There are many theories surrounding the gardens, from their exact location to who exactly their builders were. Some suggest the gardens formed a part of the royal palace in Babylon itself, while others believe they were built in another city altogether. One origin story claims that Nebuchadrezzar had them built for his wife, Amytis.

In the course of Koldewey's excavations of the ancient city, his team identified a mysterious structure in one corner of Babylon's southern palace. It was made of 14 long rooms with vaulted ceilings laid out in two rows. A complex of wells and channels were found at the site. Could this have been the site of the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Perhaps, but most archaeologists believe it was something much more ordinary — a storehouse used for the distribution of sesame oil, grain, dates and spices.

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.

Still, with or without the Hanging Gardens, Babylon was one of 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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