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Ancient Babylon: Center of Mesopotamian Civilization

According to legend, 6th-century Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had a colossal maze of waterfalls and dense vegetation planted across his palace for a wife, who missed her lush homeland. Archaeologists still debate the garden's existence. (Image credit: Photo Credit: A 16th century depiction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (by Martin Heemskerck))

Located about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of Baghdad in modern-day Iraq, the ancient city of Babylon served for nearly two millennia as a center of Mesopotamian civilization.

One of its early rulers, Hammurabi, created a harsh system of laws, while in later times the Babylonian language would be used across the Middle East as a way of communicating across borders. Another great accomplishment, if the ancient stories are true, is the construction of the Hanging Gardens, a wonder of the ancient world, which some believe was built by the biblical king Nebuchadnezzar II.

The ancient scientists who lived in the city made important discoveries in mathematics, physics and astronomy. Among their many accomplishments, they developed trigonometry, used mathematical models to track the planet Jupiter and developed methods of tracking time that are still used today. Ancient Babylonian records are still used by modern-day astronomers to study how the rotation of the Earth has changed. 

"Babylon, in all its manifestations, is at once remote to us and all around us. Like no other city, its history has become bound up with legend..." write researchers Irving Finkel and Michael Seymour in the book "Babylon" (Oxford University Press, 2008).

Early beginnings

The area that Babylon is located in is "subject to very high temperatures and lies well beyond the reach of rain-fed agriculture," writes Michael Seymour, a research associate at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in his book "Legend, History and the Ancient City of Babylon" (I.B. Tauris, 2014). He notes that an irrigation system that distributed water from the Euphrates and Tigris rivers had to be used to grow crops. "Once established, however, such a system could reap the benefit of rich alluvial soils and support extremely productive agriculture on the levees of canals."

This inscription, made in the name of Tiglath-pileser I, a king of Assyria, records the conquest of Babylon. It was made more than 3,000 years ago. (Image credit: The Schøyen Collection MS 2063, Oslo and Londo)

Archaeologically, little is known about the early history of Babylon. Ancient records suggest that more than 4,000 years ago, at a time when the city of Ur was the center of an empire, Babylon appears to have been a provincial administration center. "Babylon had not been an independent city," writes researcher Gwendolyn Leick in her book "The Babylonians" (Routledge, 2003).

She notes that in 1894 B.C., after the Ur-based empire had collapsed, the city was conquered by a man named Samu-abum. He was an Amorite, a Semitic-speaking people from the area around modern-day Syria. He proceeded to turn Babylon into a petty kingdom made up of the city and a small amount of nearby territory. Babylon would remain this way until, six kings later, a man named Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) ascended the throne. He was the ruler who would go on to turn this once small kingdom into a great empire.

The empire of Hammurabi

Leick notes that Hammurabi had to be patient before he could expand. Located between two larger kingdoms at Larsa and Ashur, he was cautious. He used his time wisely. "At home he concentrated on improving the economic basis of his kingdom by building canals and strengthening fortifications," she writes.

With the death of the king of Ashur, and the power vacuum resulting from it, Hammurabi was able to expand. After a series of campaigns, he defeated Rim-Sin, the ruler of Larsa, a man who had ruled a large kingdom for nearly 60 years. "This victory signalled the annexation of all the old urban centers, such as Ur, Uruk, Isin and Larsa," Leick writes. Further campaigns against Assyria and Mari further expanded Hammurabi's empire.

Archaeologists know little about what Babylon itself looked like during Hammurabi's reign. "The remains of Hammurabi's own city at Babylon are, unfortunately, almost inaccessible as the water table has risen too high to allow them to be explored," writes researcher Harriet Crawford in a paper published in the book "The Babylonian World" (Routledge, 2007).

While archaeological remains are scarce, textual remains are more illuminating. Leick writes that Hammurabi's stature was such that he became regarded as a god. She notes that parents gave their children names that meant "Hammurabi is my help" or "Hammurabi is my god."

Hammurabi himself would discuss the nature of his divinity in his famous law code.

Law Code of Hammurabi

While the Law Code of Hammurabi (now in the Louvre) is well known for its "eye for an eye" style of lawmaking, it also sets out the nature of the relationship between Hammurabi, the gods and the people he ruled.

In his view, the gods sent him to rule, with some level of compassion, over his empire. The preamble to the code says that "then Anu and Bel [both gods] called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak ..." (Translation by L.W. King)

While Hammurabi claimed to be compassionate, his code was harsh, making liberal use of death sentences (in some cases even for stealing) and allowing the hacking off of body parts. This is a change from an earlier law code, created centuries ago by a ruler of Ur, which was more inclined to impose fines. 

Leick also notes that debt slavery was a problem, and Hammurabi, and later his successors, had to occasionally cancel debts. These acts "hint at a less rosy picture of crushing debt burdens incurred through falling agricultural productivity and high interest rate on loan capital taken out to meet tax demands and other obligations."

Women did not always receive equal treatment under Hammurabi's code. One law reads, "if a finger has been pointed at a man's wife because of some male but she has not been caught copulating with another male, she shall leap into the River for the sake of her husband," (translation by H. Dieter Viel). 

However, the code did have rules that protected woman who had to live with another man because their husband had been captured in war. There were also rules that stipulated that a widowed woman should receive an inheritance and that an unmarried woman should receive financial support from her brothers after the death of her father. 

Kassite period

Ultimately, Hammurabi's empire was not to last, falling into decline after his death. In 1595 B.C., the Hittite ruler Mursili I captured Babylon, bringing the rule of Hammurabi's successors to a close. Researcher Susanne Paulus notes in a 2011 paper published in the journal Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für Altorientalische und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte (Supplements to the Journal of Ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Legal History) that, adding insult to injury, the Hittites seized the statue of Marduk, who had become a principal god of the Babylonians.

In the chaos that followed these events, a people called the Kassites (also known as the galzu) came to power in Babylon. They had access to good horses, giving them a military advantage.

They appear to have made an effort to win over the people of Babylon, "they brought back the statue of the major deity, Marduk, which had been stolen by the Hittites, and restored his cult in Babylon" Paulus writes. "The Kassite kings restored the temples of the Babylonian gods, while their own pantheon had little influence."

Leick notes that Kassite rule "brought five hundred years of stability, prosperity and peace" to Babylon.  

While Babylonian writing may have become more professionalized and exclusive during this period (Leick notes there appear to have been far fewer personal letters written) the language itself became widely used across the Middle East.

It turned into a "lingua franca for the whole Near East from the fifteenth to the end of the thirteenth century," Leick writes. Babylonian works could be found in Turkey, Syria, the Levant and Egypt, as well as Mesopotamia. "Babylonian scribes were very much in demand at foreign courts ..."

Marduk's battle with Anzu. Assyrian relief (Image credit: public domain)

Wars with Assyria and Elam

The period from roughly 1200 to 600 B.C. would be a rocky one for Babylon, one filled with many wars and some successes. Around 1200 B.C., the whole eastern Mediterranean suffered calamity as a wave of migrants called the "Sea People," perhaps spurred on by crop failures and environmental problems, swept over much of the Middle East, felling cities in Turkey and the Levant and contributing to problems that would see the break-up of Egypt.

Babylon suffered as well. A war with Assyria resulted in a Babylonian king being led to Ashur in chains while one with Elam led to the statue of Marduk being stolen yet again. A new Babylonian ruler named Nebuchadnezzar I (1126-1105 B.C.) came to the rescue, so to speak, defeating Elam and bringing the statue back. Leick writes that with his success, the New Year festival became increasingly important.

"This complex ritual, which involved the gathering of all important Babylonian deities at Babylon, the recitation of the Creation Epic (enuma elish) and the confirmation of kingship by the god Marduk, was given new impetus, if it was not altogether invented at this time," she writes.

Babylon struggled over the following centuries, and the Assyrians would invade again. Leick notes that the city was put under direct Assyrian rule from 729-627 B.C. and during a rebellion in 689 B.C. was said to have actually been flooded, with the statues of its gods seized or destroyed by the Assyrians. It would take a war waged by a king named Nabopolassar (allied with an Iranian people called the Medians) to free Babylon and eventually conquer the Assyrian capital at Nineveh in 612 B.C.

Out of Nabopolassar's efforts a new golden age would emerge for Babylon. In 605 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar II, of biblical fame, would take over, and he was now in a position to build an empire.

Nebuchadnezzar II's Babylon

Through military conquests, Nebuchadnezzar II would come to rule an empire that stretched from the Persian Gulf to the borders of Egypt. He captured Jerusalem twice, in 597 B.C. and 587 B.C., events that led to the destruction of the first temple, the deportation of many Jewish inhabitants to Babylonia and the capture of the Ark of the Covenant

At Babylon itself, he began a major building and reconstruction program, the city having an inner and outer wall. "Babylon reached its greatest glory as a city during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II," writes University of London professor Andrew George in a chapter of the book "Babylon." Religion played a key role. "At its heart were fourteen different sanctuaries, and another twenty-nine were distributed throughout the rest of the city. That was quite apart from the hundreds of street site chapels and shrines."

One of the biggest shrines was named Esagil, dedicated to Marduk. Located south of a great ziggurat, George says it 280 feet (86 meters) by 260 feet (79 m) in size with gateways 30 feet (9 m) high. "Nebuchadnezzar lavished attention on the cult-rooms: there were gold, silver and gemstones everywhere..."


Nebuchadnezzar II's city would have no less than three major palaces. The southern palace was 1,065 feet (325 m) by 720 feet (220 m) in size. It included a throne room with a glazed brick panel showing palmettes, floral reliefs and lions. The tiles were glazed in blue and yellow, something common among the most important structures in Nebuchadnezzar II's Babylon.

The king also had a northern palace (which hasn't been fully excavated) and a summer palace, on the northern tip of the outer wall. It was "for use in summer when the city air was stifling and its smells at their worst," writes George.

Ishtar Gate

Built by Nebuchadnezzar II and named after Ishtar, a goddess of love and war, the Ishtar Gate served as the ceremonial entrance to the inner wall of Babylon, a route that ultimately leads to the ziggurat and Esagil shrine. People passing by it in antiquity would see glazed blue and yellow bricks with alternating images of dragons and bulls carved in relief. A reconstruction of it that incorporates surviving materials is currently in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Vorderasiatisches Museum in Germany.

Joachim Marzahn writes in a chapter of "Babylon" that the "amazing Ishtar Gate, composed of an ante-gate in the outer wall and the main gate in the larger inner wall of the city, with a 48 meter-long (158 feet) passage, was decorated with no fewer than 575 depictions of animals (according to calculations made by excavators)," noting that these "pictures, of bulls and dragons, representing the holy animals of the weather god Adad and the imperial god Marduk, were placed in alternating rows."

In addition, Marzahn writes that a processional way ran through the Ishtar Gate, and for about 590 feet (180 m) had images of lions carved in relief. The mouths of the lions are open, baring their teeth, and the manes of the creatures are finely detailed. 

Every spring the king, his courtiers, priests and statues of the gods traveled along the processional way, traveling to the Akitu Temple to celebrate the New Year festival. 

"The dazzling procession of the gods and goddesses, dressed in their finest seasonal attire, atop their bejeweled chariots began at the Kasikilla, the main gate of the Esagila (a temple dedicated to Marduk), and proceeded north along Marduk's processional street through the Ishtar Gate," writes Julye Bidmead, a professor at Chapman University, in her book "The Akitu Festival: Religious Continuity and Royal Legitimation in Mesopotamia" (Gorgias Press, 2004). 

The Tower of Babel?

Although largely destroyed today, in ancient times the ziggurat of Etemenanki (whose name means roughly the "Temple Foundation of Heaven and Earth") would have towered over the city, located just to the north of the Esagil shrine. Like the shrine, it was dedicated to the god Marduk.

The Greek writer Herodotus (opens in new tab), who lived in the fifth century B.C., describes it as a "solid tower" which is "two hundred and twenty yards long and broad; a second tower rises from this and from it yet another, until at last there are eight ..."

He says that "in the last tower there is a great shrine; and in it stands a great and well-covered couch, and a golden table nearby. But no image has been set up in the shrine, nor does any human creature lie there for the night, except one native woman, chosen from all women by the god, as the Chaldaeans say, who are priests of this god." (Translation by A.D Godley, through Perseus Digital Library)

Herodotus may have exaggerated its size somewhat with modern-day scholars believing that it rises up seven rather than eight levels. Also Herodotus believed it was dedicated to the god Bel rather than Marduk.

Still, rebuilding the structure would have been an impressive feat and, as some scholars believe, may have inspired the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. The story reads in Genesis:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly."

They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth."

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other." 

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel — because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:1-9, NIV)

In 2011, an ancient stele with an image of Nebuchadnezzar II was formally published. In it the king is shown standing beside the ziggurat. The artifact has been given the name "The Tower of Babel Stele."

Hanging Gardens

Scholars do not know where the Hanging Gardens were in Babylon, or even if they really existed, but ancient writers described them in detail. The gardens are considered to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Philo of Byzantium writes (around 250 BC) that:

"The Hanging Gardens [is so-called because it] has plants cultivated at a height above ground level, and the roots of the trees are embedded in an upper terrace rather than in the earth. This is the technique of its construction. The whole mass is supported on stone columns, so that the entire underlying space is occupied by carved column bases ..." (Translation by Professor David Oates)

Another, later, account is by Diodorus Siculus (first century B.C.). He writes that the Hanging Gardens were built "by a later Syrian king to please one of his concubines; for she, they say, being a Persian by race and longing for the meadows of her mountains, asked the king to imitate, through the artifice of a planted garden, the distinctive landscape of Persia."

Modern-day scholars have noted that Herodotus, who lived earlier than Philo, does not mention the Hanging Gardens. There are also no known Babylonian records of the site.

The ruins of Babylon as they were in 1932. (Image credit: Photograph from the G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, in public domain)

Loss of independence and ruin

Ultimately, Nebuchadnezzar II's empire would not last much longer than the one built by Hammurabi. In the sixth century B.C., the Achaemenid (Persian) empire would rise to the east, a kingdom so powerful that it would one day try to invade territories as far west as Greece.

Leick notes that on Oct. 29, 539 B.C., Babylon fell to Cyrus the Great, the legendary Persian leader. Nabonidus, the last king of independent Babylonia was taken to Iran to live out the rest of his life in exile. Cyrus claims that his troops faced no resistance when he took Babylon in an ancient inscription which is now in the British Museum and called the "Cyrus Cylinder." Cyrus claimed that "I went as harbinger of peace into Babylon," Cyrus claimed (translation by Irving Finkel) and that he "I founded my sovereign residence within the palace amid celebration and rejoicing."

If there was a warm welcome for the Persians it didn't last. In 528–526 B.C., Babylon and the area around it was hit by a famine that was brought about by the failure of barley crops, said Kristin Kleber, a lecturer at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, in a paper published in 2012 in the journal Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und vorderasiatische Archäologie. The workers "who rebuilt the city wall of Babylon in the years 528–526 B.C. must have felt as though they were in the antechamber of hell," writes Kleber, noting that ancient texts mention discontent among the Babylonians. 

However Babylon would never be independent again. The next millennia would see the city fall under the sway of several different empires, including that of Alexander the Great (who died in Babylon in 323 B.C.), the Seleucids, the Parthians and even the Romans. In the end, it would be "buried under the sands" Leick writes, along with many other ancient Mesopotamian cities.

Modern day

"Most of the city was rebuilt by Saddam in the mid to late 1980s to recreate it as it was in the era of King Nebuchadnezzar, 600 B.C.," writes journalist Robert Galbraith in his book "Iraq: Eyewitness to War - A Photojournalist's Diary" (self-published, 2004). Galbraith reported from Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion and visited Babylon shortly after the U.S. occupation of Iraq began. Galbraith notes that around the time of the invasion the ancient city was looted and a group of U.S. Marines were eventually assigned to guard the site. 

Saddam Hussein had constructed a palace at Babylon that "looms over the city" but "is strikingly out of place," writes Galbraith. "It is a beautiful finely carved sandstone castle, and looks like an Arabian palace. But that's the problem; it is obtrusive, misplaced and tacky to the limit. It appears that Saddam tried to buy his way into the history books by building his monument overlooking the ancient city," writes Galbraith.

Babylon would be turned into a U.S. military base. While this deterred some looting it caused damage to the ancient city and left more modern remains (including a basketball hoop) at the site that had to be cleaned up. After U.S. forces left, some cleanup and conservation work was done and the ancient city has been re-opened for tourists. In 2010 the U.S. government announced that it would spend $2 million to conserve Babylon's Ishtar Gate. 

Groundwater has been a problem at Babylon and a proposal to use underground dams to lower and control groundwater at the site was published in 2015 by a team of scientists from the University of Babylon, in Iraq, in the "International Journal of Civil Engineering and Technology."

ISIL forces failed to reach Babylon during their 2014 offensive and, as such, the city was spared the destruction that befell other ancient sites occupied by the terrorist group.  

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Owen Jarus
Owen Jarus

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.