Babylon The Golden

Apr 12, 2021 | Bible Archeology | 0 comments

The TV news report leapt off the screen – coalition troops were facing fierce resistance at Hilla as they continued their advance on Baghdad. US Marines backed by RAF Tornados seized a vital bridge and wiped out scores of Saddam Hussein’s prized troops. In the first ground battle against the ill-famed Republican guards, around 100 men in the crack “Nebuchadnezzar” unit were killed and dozens more captured during the ten-hour fight.

And all of this was happening near the ruins of ancient Babylon, where Nebuchadnezzar ruled the world 2,600 years ago. Talk about history repeating itself! This part of the world has been fought over more often than anywhere else as battles between competing empires have been waged and won in the deserts around Babylon.

Hilla is the modern name for a village located on the outskirts of ancient Babylon. Many of the mud-brick houses are made from bricks quarried from the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar’s famous city. From the village, the mounds of rubble that once the formed the walls of Babylon are clearly visible. The children of Hilla play in the ruins of the ancient city and the men dig up antiquities that they can sell. The nearby dam at Hindiya was built using rubble and bricks thousands of years old.

Nowadays, the central part of Babylon has been excavated. In good times, the site is an outdoor museum open to tourists and visitors. Baghdad is only 90 km to the north.

In 1990, Archaeological Diggings sponsored a tour of Iraq, the first time for many years that tourists could enter the country, and, as it turned out, the last for 13 years. Only weeks after we left Iraq, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The rest, as they say, is history.

Babylon was built on the Euphrates River, in the southern Mesopotamia, now called Iraq. In ancient times, this was a fertile delta between the two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates. The land was crisscrossed by canals and irrigated by pumps. But today, the flat landscape consists largely of desert sand interspersed by groves of date palms.

Not much is known of Babylon’s earliest history. According to the Bible, the founder of the city was Nimrod, great-grandson of Noah, who lived here after the Flood and became the first king. Babylon was the site of the famed “Tower of Babel,” a place of protection in case of another Flood, as well as a stairway to heaven. The original name of the city was “Babel” meaning “gate of the gods.” The Greeks pronounced the word as “Babylon.”

Little of Babylon’s history and features from the pre-empire period are known, since excavations have uncovered only the highest levels, and since the water table is higher now than in ancient times, the remains of earlier cities are below the water table.

Babylon became the capital of the First (or Amorite) Dynasty, to which the famous Hammurabbi belonged. Hammurabbi conquered his neighbours and established an empire that included all of Mesopotamia. A great administrator, Hammurabbi collected all the laws of Babylon and inscribed them on a black stone pillar, 21/2 metres high, which he set up in the city. Today this law code is in the Louvre Museum in Paris, taken there by its French discoverers. The relief shows Hammurabbi receiving the laws from the sun-god. These laws have given Bible scholars much better insight into the social world of Old Testament times, since many of them are similar to those of ancient Israel.

After Hammurabbi, Babylon was ruled by the Hittites, and then by the Assyrians but continued as a highly respected cultural and religious centre. King Merodach-Baladan, (721-709 BC) also mentioned in the Bible, attempted to overthrow the Assyrians. He sent ambassadors to Hezekiah, the king in Jerusalem, to enlist his help in a war against Assyria. But Merodach- Baladan was defeated.

Frequent rebellions by Babylon against Assyria continued. Sennacherib, king of Assyria, was so incensed that he destroyed the city in 689 BC, intending that it should never be rebuilt. However, public opinion in Assyria was against such a rash deed, and rebuilding began after Sennacherib’s death. Babylon continued to be a vassal kingdom of the Assyrian empire until 626 BC when Nabopolassar founded an independent Babylonian kingdom and rebelled against the Assyrians. Nabopolassar and his army destroyed the Assyrian capital of Nineveh by fire in 612 BC. The city was forgotten and covered by desert sand.

The Babylonian army next defeated the Egyptians at the battle of Carchemish. Commander of the Babylonian army was the young crown prince, Nebuchadnezzar. Marching west and south, he conquered Syria and Judah. In 605 BC, he attacked Jerusalem, and its king Jehoiakim, surrendered. Thousands of Jewish hostages were deported to Babylon. They were forced to march 2,000 km across the northern edge of the Arabian Desert, down the Euphrates River to Babylon.

Meanwhile, Nabopolassar died. Leaving his army to bring home the captives, Nebuchadnezzar hurried on ahead across the desert to claim his throne. Nebuchadnezzar was to rule for the next 43 years (605-561 BC).. He extended the power of Babylon to its greatest extent. By conquest and trade, Babylon became the richest city in the world. His empire became a legend; his palace, a marvel.

Babylon was the capital city. Totally rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar, the Euphrates River flowed through the city. A bridge built by Nebuchadnezzar connected the houses, palaces and temples on either side of the river. The only building materials were clay bricks. On every one of them Nebuchadnezzar stamped his name and royal titles. “These portals for the astonishment of multitudes of people, with beauty, I adorned.” “For the astonishment of men I have built this house. May it last forever.”

The city was built of bricks, since the alluvial soil of Mesopotamia contains no stone. Ordinary bricks were unbaked but public buildings were faced with backed or glazed wall bricks in different colours that gave the city a beauty unequalled by any other. The bricks of the outer walls were yellow, the gates blue, the palaces rose-red, and the temples white.

Under Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon became more than a city of brick. He made it the city of gold. He rebuilt the walls and towers and surrounded them with a moat. The Greek historian Herodotus who visited Babylon 100 years later described the city and its walls. He claimed the city was 90 km around with walls 50 metres high and wide enough for a four-horse chariot to ride between the towers. One hundred gates gave access to the city.

Allowing for some of his exaggeration, Babylon was still the largest city of the ancient world. It was an impregnable fortress, its citizens enjoying unappalled pleasure and luxury.

The excavator of Babylon was Robert Koldewey. Born in Germany in 1855, he studied architecture, archaeology and the history of art. As a young man he dug at Assos and on the island of Lesbos, and later in Syria, Sicily and southern Iraq. An unusual man, his passion for archaeology looked beyond the dry facts to the charm of his surroundings and peopled his imagination with the inhabitants of ancient times. He had a sense of humour and noticed the amusing incidents of every day. He was appointed dig director at Babylon by the German Orient Society in Berlin and commenced excavations in 1899. On 5 April, he wrote: “I have been digging for fourteen days and the whole business is a complete success.” He was to spend most of the next 18 years digging away the sand. Many of his finds are now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

He commenced digging a mound known as the Kasr, the citadel of ancient Babylon. The digging was extremely difficult. In some places, his 200 workers excavated over 20 metres of dirt and sand. His first strike was the wall of Babylon and his discoveries largely confirmed Herodotus’ description. Koldewey exposed a wall, 7 metres thick, made of common brick. Then, 11.5 metres outside of it came another wall, 8 metres thick. Still another brick wall lined the inner side of the citadel fosse. This third wall, 3.5 metres thick, was of kiln-fired brick. The fosse, during times of danger, could be flooded with water. The space between the walls was filled with earth up to the rim of the outer bastion, forming a path wide enough to accommodate two chariots riding abreast. Watchtowers were located every 50 metres. Koldewey estimated the inner wall had 360 towers.

Koldewey excavated the largest citadel the world had ever seen up to that time. The walls alone showed that Babylon was the largest city of the Middle East.

“I caused a mighty wall to circumscribe Babylon in the east,” wrote Nebuchadnezzar. “I dug its moats; and its escarpments I built out of bitumen and kiln brick. At the edge of the moat I built a powerful wall as high as a hill. I gave it wide gates and set in them doors of cedar-wood sheathed with copper…In order that no one might break through by way of the moat I heaped up earth beside it, and surrounded it with walls of brick. This bastion I strengthened cunningly and of the city of Babylon, I made a fortress.”

Nebuchadnezzar reconstructed the rest of the city on a monumental scale. Whereas his predecessors used sun-dried bricks that soon deteriorated, Nebuchadnezzar used fired bricks, especially in the fortifications. That is why more of Nebuchadnezzar’s buildings have been preserved. He restored the temple of Emach on the highest point of the citadel. He also rebuilt the numerous other temples. He enlarged the Arachtu Canal, and built the first stone bridge over the Euphrates River. He dug the Libil-higalla Canal and finished construction of the south citadel and its palaces. He rebuilt the Ishtar Gate with brightly coloured enamelled reliefs of animals.

The Ishtar Gate was the ceremonial entrance to Babylon. Lavishly decorated, Nebuchadnezzar and his court must often have passed through the gate. The gate was named after Ishtar, the goddess of fertility. Excavated by Koldewey, the gate has now been rebuilt inside the Berlin Museum. Koldewey was to spend years exposing its gatehouses, chambers and ramparts. Eventually he dug down through 25 metres of rubble to find that the gate had been rebuilt many times, each time higher than the last. The gate was the northern entrance to the city, and due to its position at the head of the Processional Way, was more impressive in its decoration than any other of the city gates. The gate consisted of two towers, each 15 metres high and decorated in blue glazed tiles. The towers projected about 6 metres from the wall and faced onto a broad plaza protected by more walls. Behind this facade were higher towers and walls making a complex bastion impossible for an enemy to penetrate. Inside the gatehouse, on either side of the narrow passage, were chambers used by the defenders to ambush enemy soldiers.

Lining the walls were 575 sacred animals. They were made of moulded bricks, pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle and covered with glazed tiles. They portrayed a religious procession going through the gate into the temple. The bull symbolized the storm-god, Hadad, while the sirrush represented the god Marduk, the god of the city. The sirrush was a dragon-like figure named Mush-hush-shu and was a composite beast made up of the body and head of a snake, the front paws of a lion, and the rear talons of an eagle. From its mouth projected a split tongue while a horn stuck up out of the flat skull. Using the cuneiform script of ancient Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar wrote an inscription on the walls of the Ishtar Gate. The letters were moulded onto the glazed bricks and assembled like a mosaic. Never known for his humility, the inscription proclaims his royal name and titles: “Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, the pious prince appointed by the will of Marduk, the highest priestly prince; beloved of Nabu; of prudent deliberation, who has learned to embrace wisdom; who fathomed the godly beings and pays reverence to their majesty; the untiring Governor, who always has at heart the care of the cult of Esagila and Ezida, and is constantly concerned with the well-being of Babylon and Borsippa; the wise, the humble, the caretaker of Esagila and Ezida; the first born son of Nabopolassar, the king of Babylon, am I.”

The Processional Way began at the Ishtar Gate. On either side of the street were high walls, forming an inner line of defence for 250 metres. Along the walls were friezes depicting ferocious lions, each 2 metres long, striding regally down the Processional Way. The lions were representations of the goddess Ishtar, worshipped in Babylon as the Mistress of Heaven and the goddess of love. In addition she was the protector of soldiers in battle. Not only were the lions on each side different-those on one wall had their left feet forward, while on the opposite wall, they had their right feet forward-but their colouring varied. Some had white fur and yellow manes, while others had yellow fur and red manes. The lion frieze was set against a background of dark blue tiles bordered by rows of white rosettes with yellow centres and set between geometric bands of yellow, black and white. The road itself was divided into a central traffic lane, with pedestrian walkways running along the sides.

Running in a straight line for a kilometre into the heart of Babylon, the triumphal road led to the temple of Marduk. Down this triumphal road Nebuchadnezzar marched with his armies, his captives following in chains. The road is 7 metres wide, paved in white limestone slabs, each 105 cm square and 35 cm thick. The stone was brought from the mountains of Lebanon and northern Syria. The slabs were bevelled on the sides and caulked with asphalt so that the seams were virtually invisible. Every stone is inscribed: “I am Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. Son of Nabopolassar, King of Babylon am I. I paved this road for the procession of the great Lord Marduk. I decorated the street magnificently with stones from the mountains. May Marduk give me eternal life.”

Nebuchadnezzar built two palaces for himself. The summer palace was beside the river, a kilometre north of the city and formed part of the outer defences. The other palace was beside the Ishtar Gate in the citadel. Within the palace were five courtyards, surrounded by hundreds of rooms for living quarters. Massive walls separated the garrison from the private apartments and the harem. In the heart of the palace, a huge gateway gave access to the throne room. On the wall were reliefs of lions, sculptured in the bricks and overlaid with glazed tiles. Nebuchadnezzar saw his kingdom as the “lion kingdom.”

Lions were a familiar theme in Babylon. When the Hittites invaded Babylon they brought with them a victory trophy – a huge stone lion brought hundreds of kilometres from the nearest mountains. Carved in typical Hittite style it shows a man being mauled to death by a lion.

But Nebuchadnezzar’s greatest achievement was the artificial mountain he built in the middle of the city. Constructed next to the palace, it rose as a series of terraces and balconies. Wide steps led to each level. Known as the “Hanging Gardens” it became famous as one of the “seven wonders of the world”. Nebuchadnezzar built it as a token of his love for his beautiful Median queen who was homesick for the hills of her native land. Water was pumped 100 metres to the summit and then flowed down through fountains and waterfalls. Within the complex were richly decorated rooms for the queen and her court, cooled by the breeze.

Next to the palace was a building probably used for the royal archives. Numerous tablets were found in its foundations, including one recording the food rations provided for the Jewish king Jehoiachin, (also known as Jeconiah) taken captive to Babylon in 597 BC. In the Babylonian tablets his name is written as “Ya’ukinu”. Another tablet, known as the Babylonian Chronicle and now in the British Museum, describes Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem in that year – how he “encamped against the city of Judah and on the 2nd day of the month Adar he seized the city and captured the king. He appointed there a king of his own choice, received its heavy tribute and sent them to Babylon.” The details agree exactly with the Biblical description of this battle (2 Kings 24:8-16).

The Bible portrays Nebuchadnezzar as the great builder of Babylon. “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built?” (Dan 4:30). But this fact was lost to history within a century of Nebuchadnezzar’s death. Archaeological discoveries have confirmed the Bible claim.

One tablet, written by Nebuchadnezzar, records the building of his royal palace and the rebuilding of the mightiest temple of Babylon, the temple of Marduk. The temple of Marduk could be entered through 12 gates that led into a vast courtyard. Dozens of gold and silver altars stood inside. A 7 metre high statue of Marduk, made of solid gold, stood in the innermost chamber. At every celebration of the New Year festival, the king “grasped the hand” of the god and the statue of Marduk was carried on a chariot along the great processional way.

Dominating the skyline was the Tower of Babel, known in Nebuchadnezzar’s time as Etemenanaki, “the House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth.” Rising 100 metres above the plain, the tower was built as a series of 7 platforms, one on top of another. The uppermost terrace formed the base of temple that could be seen from all directions on the flat landscape. A wall and other buildings surrounded the sacred zone for the priests. Known today as a ziggurat, the word is derived from the Assyrio-Babylonian word ziqquratu, meaning pinnacle, or mountaintop. More than 100 of these have been discovered in Iraq and Iran. The ziggurats were the world’s first pyramids, built for the worship of the sun, moon and planets.

All that is left of the Tower of Babel is the lowest stage, surrounded by the excavation trenches that have now filled with water. Alexander the Great demolished the ancient structure in preparation for rebuilding the tower. In the distance are mounds of rubble removed by his soldiers. But Alexander died before he was able to complete the project and the foundations were covered by sand and rubble.

But another tower still stands at Birs Nimrod, 20km from Babylon. This too was a temple tower, or ziggurat, 55 metres high. Consisting of mud bricks, cemented together with bitumen, it was constructed in exactly the same way as the original Tower of Babel. About 600 BC, Nebuchadnezzar built a tower on its summit, the remains of which can still be seen. From the top of the tower, visitors can view the plain of Shinar below. Many believe that it was here that Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden statue of himself and commanded everyone to bow down and worship.

The religion of Babylon was based on the worship of the sun, moon and planets. The concepts of astrology originated here and the priests of Babylon forecast the future by means of the signs of the zodiac. A common method of divination was a clay model of a sheep’s liver. Divided into 55 squares, each square contained a magical formula or omen. A chicken was sacrificed and its entrails draped over the liver. The appropriate squares were then read off to forecast the person’s fortune!

But even before the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, the Judean prophet Isaiah predicted Babylon’s fall. “Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It shall never be inhabited, but wild beasts of the desert shall lie there and owls shall dwell there” (Isa 13:19-21).

The prophecy was fulfilled. Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 BC. He was followed by a series of weak rulers culminating in the rule of the unpopular king, Nabonidus. He retired from Babylon to live in Tema in Arabia and appointed his son Belshazzar to rule in Babylon.

Long-standing rivalry with Persia came to a head when the Persians under Cyrus the Great surrounded the city in 539 BC. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Cyrus placed one part of his army at the gate where the Euphrates River entered the city, and another part where the river left the city. A third part of his army travelled north and dug a canal and a dam to divert the water into a large lake. When the river level at Babylon had dropped sufficiently, the waiting Persian soldiers waded up the river, under the river gates, and up inside the city. The Babylonian soldiers were drunk at the height of a feast in honour of the gods of Babylon and the gates lining the riverbanks were open. Belshazzar himself was entertaining a thousand of his lords at a banquet in the palace, as recorded in Daniel chapter 5. At the height of the feast “the writing on the wall” announced Belshazzar’s doom. On the night of 12 October 539 BC, Belshazzar was killed and the city fell to the Persians.

Cyrus actually improved the city’s defences and attempted to complete some of the building projects started by Nebuchadnezzar. Although Susa was the Persian capital, Babylon was retained as a secondary capital and it continued to be a prestigious, splendid city. But 60 years later the Babylonians rebelled against the Persians. Xerxes crushed the revolt, demolished many of its buildings and destroyed the strong outer walls.

Power shifted from Persia to Greece. Alexander the Great marched through Babylon on his way to India. He returned to Babylon to make it is his capital. But in 323 BC he died of malaria after a drinking bout. His empire was divided between four of his generals, and the glory left Babylon as Seleucia, 185 km to the north, became the new capital of the East. The city became a vast quarry. For centuries, the people around have used the bricks for building their own houses. The city was soon in ruins and covered by sand.

More recently, Saddam Hussein ordered the major buildings, including the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, to be rebuilt. Millions of modern bricks were made, each stamped with the name of Saddam Hussein, and the walls of the palace and other buildings were “restored” in an act of supreme self-centredness. While providing excellent photographs, the action is also an act of supreme disregard for either archaeology or the long-term preservation of the original foundations as discovered by Koldewey.

Article used with permission of Diggins Online. You can find more useful material at Apologtetics Courses, Free Courses and Brethren Assembly. Secular materials can be found at Coins Encyclopedia and Guide For Income

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