NEO-BABYLONIANS AND NEBUCHADNEZZAR
Walls of Babylon
and Temple of Bel Babylon was reborn under the Neo-Babylonians (792 to 595 B.C.), also known as the Chaldeans, who succeeded the Assyrians and established a large empire. The empire reached its peak in the 6th century B.C. under Nebuchadnezzar, the famous Biblical ruler.
The Neo-Babylonians began as a little known Semitic people. They rebuilt Babylon and established it as their capital. Their army sacked Jerusalem and enslaved entire races of people. After the Assyrian empire collapsed Jerusalem enjoyed 70 years of independence before it was taken over by Nebuchadnezzar after a year and a half siege.
The Neo-Babylonians made great contributions to science, astronomy and mathematics, which were later passed on to the Greeks. Many of the achievements in these fields credited to the Babylonians were actually accomplished by the Neo-Babylonians.
Much of the debauchery associated with Babylon occurred under the Neo-Babylonians. According the Bible, debauched partiers at King Belshazzar's feast were warned by the prophet Daniel that their kingdom would fall with the words Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin . Daniel lived in Babylon. He impressed the Babylonian court with his prophetic interpretations of Nebuchadnezzar’s death
Books: Sumerian Dictionary of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania edited by Ake W. Sjoberg (University of Pennsylvania, 1984); The Sumerians, Their History, Culture and Character by Samuel Noah Kramer (University of Chicago Press, 1963); The Ancient Near East By William Hallo and William Kelly Simpson (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971); Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture by William H. Stiebing Jr. Experts and Sources: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; John Russell, an art historian at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston; Irene Winter, professor of art history at Harvard; McGuire Gibson of Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; Jeremy Black, Oriental Institute at Oxford University; Piotr Michalowski, University of Michigan.
Websites and Resources: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu ; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Interent Ancient History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/ancient ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia
Babylon Under the Neo-Babylonians
Nebuchadnezzar's Barrel cylinder Babylon declined under the Assyrians but was reborn and expanded to the east bank of the Euphrates under King Nebuchadnezzar II and the Neo-Babylonians.
Nebuchadnezzar returned Babylon to it place as the greatest city in the world. He built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the World; a stone bridge across the Euphrates; and the Ishtar gate, a huge monumental structure guarded by stone bulls and dragons. Processions honoring the god Marduk marched between the Ishtar gates and the Temple of Marduk, the chief Babylonian deity.
In Nebuchadnezzar’s time Babylon was built in the shape of a 1.6 mile square and was exquisitely planned. It was surrounded by massive walls and centered around 25 major streets paved with slabs of stone that were organized into a grid. Gates made of brass penetrated the walls. A massive bridge spanned the Euphrates which ran through the middle of the city. Mud brick palaces were adorned with glazed tiles of blue, red and green.
At its peak Babylon was a religious center that was the Jerusalem of its day. It was multi cultural and a free city for refugees. The most elaborate temple was dedicate to Marduk, the patron God of Babylon. Extemenanki—a brightly painted, 300-foot-high, stepped ziggurat—that stood near the Temple of Marduk may have been the inspiration for the Tower of Babel. The temples not only supported a caste of priests but also a sages and prophets such as Daniel. In the markets were silver, gold, bronze, ivory, frankincense, myrrh, marble, wine, grains, imported woods brought in by caravans and ships from as far away as Africa and India.
Babylon lost in position as a the most important city in the region when it was conquered by the Persians under Cyrus the Great in 539 B.C. but remained an important trading and commerce center. It was still going strong when Alexander the Great arrived here at the end of his great campaign of conquest. He reportedly died in one of Nebuchadnezzar’s palaces. His successor Seleucia built a new city along a part of the Euphrates with a deeper channel. After this Babylon declined and buildings were reduced to foundation as building materials were scavenged from them. Around A.D. 75 Babylon was abandoned.
Nebuchadnezzar's Dream Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled 604-561 B.C.) took Babylon from the Assyrians, repelled the Persians, captured Jerusalem, enslaved the Jews, revived Babylon and created a Neo-Babylonian empire. A cuneiform inscription from the Ishtar Gate from Babylon (575 B.C.) in the Pergamon museum in Berlin reads, "Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, the pious prince...the highest priest...the never tiring governor...the wise and humble man, the trustee of Esagika and Ezida [two religious shrines], the first born sun of Nabopolassar, King of Babylon—am I."
Nebuchadnezzar II should not be confused Nebuchadnezzar I. Nebuchadnezzar I (Akkadian: Nabu-kudurri-usur meaning "Nabu, protect my eldest son" or "Nabu, protect the border") was the king of the Babylonian Empire from about 1125 B.C. to 1103 B.C.
Solomon's Temple was partly destroyed and the Ark of the Covenant was lost when Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 586 B.C. In a Babylonian chronicle Nebuchadnezzar boasted theat he “captured the city and...took heavy tributes and brought it back to Babylon.” The Bible has a similar account except that the “tributes” are referred to as “all the treasures of the Temple and the royal palace.” The fate of the Ark is not known. According to one legend it was stolen by the illegitimate son of Solomon and Sheeba and taken to Ethiopia and placed in a church in Aksum, where only a guardian monk has access to it. A modest Second Temple was built in 539 B.C.
Conquest by the Babylonians and Destruction of the Jewish Temple
Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem Judah the southern kingdom survived until 597 B.C. when Jerusalem was raided by the Babylonians and 586 B.C. and conquered by under Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 B.C. ).
Solomon's Temple was partly destroyed and the Ark of the Covenant was lost when Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 586 B.C. In a Babylonian chronicle Nebuchadnezzar boasted theat he “captured the city and...took heavy tributes and brought it back to Babylon.” The Bible has a similar account except that the “tributes” are referred to as “all the treasures of the Temple and the royal palace.” The fate of the Ark is not known. According to one legend it was stolen by the illegitimate son of Solomon and Sheba and taken to Ethiopia and placed in a church in Aksum, where only a guardian monk has access to it. A modest Second Temple was built in 539 B.C.
In the Torah, the book of Lamentations describes the horrors endured by Jerusalem’s residents. It is also remembered in verses in the psalms: “O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance: they have defiled your holy Temple, they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble.”
Most of the events in the Bible after Solomon are believed to be based on historical fact. There is firm historical or archaeological evidence for: 1) the conquest of Israel by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C.; 2) the conquest of Jerusalem by Babylon's Nebuchadnezzar around 600 B.C.; 3) the exile of Jews to Babylon and the destruction of Solomon's temple in 587 B.C. Excavations in Iraq have turned up a list of rations given by Nebuchadnezzar to "Yaukin, king of Judah," which is believed to be a reference to the exiled Israelite king Jehoiachin whose release is recorded in 2 Kings 25.
Impact of the Conquest by the Babylonians
Image from Ishtar Gate During the centuries that followed the conquests by the Babylonians, the Jewish state fell under the auspices of various empires such as Persia, Hellenistic Greece and Rome. It was a bit like an ethnic state like Turkmenistan or Armenia in the Soviet Union, or a colony like pre-World War II India or Algeria.
Despite many warnings, according to the Bible, the Jews did not fulfill their end of the bargain in regards to the Covenant and were punished by their exile into Bablyonia. Through penitence their kingdom was to be restored. This never really took place and gave birth to ideas about a messiah.
When Jewish followers asked their priests why God had not kept his promise with David and their state disappeared so quickly, the priests told the followers that they had sinned and broke their agreement with God. They were told that once they had repented and been forgiven for their sin, God would sent a new leader, a messiah. The understanding was that this messiah would be a David-like military leader who would defeat the Jews’ enemies and oppressors in great battles.
Jews in Babylon
After Nebuchandnezzar captured Jerusalem in 586 B.C. many Jews were sent to Babylonia, which was ruled by the Chaldean Empire.
According to the Bible the Babylonian King Belshazzar hosted a feast with 1,000 courtiers and their wives during the captivity of the Jews. Golden and silver vessels taken from the Temple in Jerusalem were used to drink wine and make toasts. On some of the vessels appeared the words, “God hath humbled thy kingdom, and finished it. Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.” All these prophesies came true.
The Jews were kept captive and enslaved by the Babylonians from 586 B.C. to 537 B.C. But rather than dying out or being assimilated the Jews kept their identity and religion alive through reverence of the Torah. The first synagogue are believed to have been built during the Babylonian Exile when Jews were unable to reach the Jerusalem Temple.
Ishtar Gate at Pergamon Museum in Berlin
Hanging Gardens of Babylon and Ishtar Gates
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were one of the Seven Wonders of the World. They are said to have been built in 600 B.C. by Nebuchadnezzar for one of his wives who had tired of the barren plains around Babylon and wanted a reminder of her lush mountainous homeland. The gardens were reportedly destroyed by several earthquakes after the 2nd century B.C. Some wondered whether the really existed. They were not even mentioned by Herodotus who visited Babylon when they are said to have existed.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon may have inspired the story of the Garden of Eden. Based on descriptions that were written long after the gardens were said to have existed, the gardens were composed of gardens built on masonry terraces. They were called hanging gardens not because they were really hanging but because they seemed to hang.
The idea behind the Hanging Gardens of Babylon was to create a man-made mountain of lush vegetation. The result was believed to be a square building, 400 feet high, containing five terraces supported by arches that ascended upwards and were planted with grasses, plants, flowers and fruit trees, irrigated by canals and pumps worked by slaves and oxen. There was an avenue of palms. Water came from the Euphrates The queen set up her court inside surrounded by dense vegetation and artificial rain. There was said to be a terrace where she and Nebuchadnezzar sat, admiring their city.
The Seven Wonders of the World were first mentioned in the 2nd century B.C. by a man called Antipater of Sidon. The seven wonders are: 1) the Pyramids of Giza (Egypt); 2) Hanging Gardens of Babylon (Iraq); 3) the Tomb of King Mausolus (Turkey); 4) Temple of Diana (Turkey); 5) Colossus of Rhodes (Greece); 6) Statue of Olympia (Greece); 7) The Pharos of Alexandria (Egypt).
The magnificent Processional Way and Ishtar Gate from Babylon now lies Pergamonmuseum in Berlin, Germany. Built during the reign of Nebuchadnezar II, it taken piece by piece from Iraq between 1899 and World War II, rebuilt inside the museum. The magnificent crenelated walls of the gate and walkway are made of blue, gold and red tiled bricks and features rows and walking bulls, lions, dragons and long-necked dogs. Most of the bricks were made in Germany but the animals were pieces from original Babylonian bricks. A cuneiform inscription read, "Nebuchadnezzer, King of Babylon, the pious prince.
one artist's vision of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Descriptions of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
There are a number of Greek references to the Hanging Gardens written several centuries after they are said to have existed. In Geographies , Strabo (62 B.C. - A.D. 24) wrote: “The hanging garden are called one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The garden is quadrangular in shape, and each side is four plethra in length. It consists of arched vaults, which are situated, one after another, on checkered, cube-like foundations. The checkered foundations, which are hollowed out, are covered so deep with earth that they admit of the largest of trees, having been constructed of baked brick and asphalt — the foundations themselves and the vaults and the arches. The ascent to the uppermost terrace-roofs is made by a stairway; and alongside these stairs there were screws, through which the water was continually conducted up into the garden from the Euphrates by those appointed for this purpose. For the river, a stadium in width, flows through the middle of the city; and the garden is on the bank of the river."
In 50 B.C. Diodorus Siculus, wrote: "The Garden was 100 feet (30 m) long by 100 ft wide and built up in tiers so that it resembled a theatre. Vaults had been constructed under the ascending terraces which carried the entire weight of the planted garden; the uppermost vault, which was seventy-five feet high, was the highest part of the garden, which, at this point, was on the same level as the city walls.The roofs of the vaults which supported the garden were constructed of stone beams some sixteen feet long, and over these were laid first a layer of reeds set in thick tar, then two courses of baked brick bonded by cement, and finally a covering of lead to prevent the moisture in the soil penetrating the roof. On top of this roof enough topsoil was heaped to allow the biggest trees to take root. The earth was levelled off and thickly planted with every kind of tree. And since the galleries projected one beyond the other, where they were sunlit, they contained conduits for the water which was raised by pumps in great abundance from the river, though no one outside could see it being done."
another artist's vision of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
End of the Neo-Babylonians
After Nebuchadnezzar II’s death in 562 B.C. there was a seven year power struggle, with Nabonidus finally emerging as the new king but he alienated the priestly class by embracing the unpopular noon god Sin and was forced into exile in a remote desert town. Babylon grew weaker.
After Nebuchadnezzar’s death, Babylon once again declined. Babylonian was given up to the Persians without a fight as Cyrus the Great and his armies marched westward out of Iran. According to Herodotus the Persians under Cyrus caught the Babylonian completely by surprise and even as the Persians were breaching Babylon’s outer defenses the people “engaged in a festival; continued dancing and reveling.” When Cyrus entered the city he forbade looting and freed the Jews. See Persians
With the end of the Neo-Babylonians the Mesopotamian age came to an end. The focal point of the Middle East and the Mediterranean switched to Persia and then Greece and then Rome. The Hanging Gardens withered along Nebuchadnezzar's empire. They were gone by the time Pliny the Elder visited referred before his death in A.D. 79.
From 539 B.C. to 637 AD, Mesopotamia and the Middle east was ruled by a succession of foreigner usurpers that included the Persian in 539 B.C., Alexander the Great (who died in Babylon in 323 B.C., the Parthians (who ruled for 350 years) and then the Sassanids, Arabs and Turks. Ancient Mesopotamia today lies mostly by Iraq.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Mostly from National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine and New York Times articles, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988. Also from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011