At 2,100 acres, Babylon was the largest and most important urban center in ancient Mesopotamia for over 2,500 years. The ancient city is located on the east bank of the Euphrates River, about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad in modern Iraq. Boasting monumental palaces, temples, and ziggurats, as well as ordinary houses and shops, Babylon was an important political and religious center for several ancient Near Eastern societies, including the Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, and Greeks. Examination of their texts and architecture reveal that the Babylonians’ dedication to religion, philosophy, and astronomy is misrepresented in our modern popular imagination, which considers Babylon a city of decadent and immoral inhabitants.
Scholars have pieced together the city’s history through archaeological excavations, cuneiform records, and classical sources. While a high-water table has flooded the city’s first architectural levels, early sources mention that Akkadian King Sargon destroyed the city around 2340 BCE. The city’s importance was elevated in 1894 BCE, when a dynasty of Amorites, formerly nomadic kings, took control of the city. When Hammurabi ascended the throne in 1792 BCE, he expanded the city’s control to dominate the entire Mesopotamian region. As the capital of the Old Babylonian empire, Babylon laid claim to several large temples dedicated to important deities such as Marduk and Ishtar and surrounded by monumental city walls and gates. The Old Babylonian empire would not last; Hittites from Anatolia sacked the city in 1595 BCE. For the next 400 years, a nonindigenous group called the Kassites ruled Babylon, a period that scholars are only now beginning to examine. Babylon gained its independence after the death of the last Kassite king, beginning a period of independent but politically unstable rule.
In northern Mesopotamia, the increasingly powerful neo-Assyrian empire conquered Babylon in 729 BCE. Although the Assyrians looked on the city as an important religious center, Babylon did not escape the wrath of Assyria’s strongest king, Sennacherib, who destroyed the city’s important temples to suppress a revolt. The reconstruction of the city’s holy centers in the subsequent decades signifies Babylon’s religious importance to the Assyrians.
Starting in 626 BCE, Babylon grew in size and wealth when the city became the capital of the neo-Babylonian empire for the next century, replacing the Assyrians as the dominant force in the Near East. The city’s temples were rebuilt, the city was substantially refortified, and new palaces were erected during this period. Like the Assyrians before them, the Babylonian empire declined under King Nabonidus’s rule, and it was not long before the Persians under Cyrus would take control of Babylon in 539 BCE. Although not the capital of the Persian Empire, Babylon continued to thrive as a royal seasonal residence for the ruling dynasts.
Babylon remained an important political and religious center in the ancient Near East despite the city’s inhabitants’ attempted revolts against their Persian superiors. The city’s significance in the ancient world continued upon Alexander the Great’s conquest in 331 BCE. Alexander wished to make Babylon the capital of his world empire and made resources available to repair the city’s important temples and construct a Greek theater.
Upon Alexander’s death and the dismantling of his empire into three districts, the Selucid dynasty established its capital 50 miles north of Babylon, demoting the city to a level from which it would never regain its supremacy in the region. The Greek rulers, recognizing the city’s religious importance to the indigenous population, continued to support Babylon’s religious institutions, while at the same time ordering the inhabitants to relocate to more prosperous cities. Babylon’s condition did not improve much under Parthian rule beginning in 122 BCE. The city was largely abandoned when the Roman emperors Trajan (116 CE) and Septimius Severus (199 CE) visited the city during their campaigns against the Sassanians.
Excavated architectural remains as well as surviving cuneiform documents, and Classical sources (e.g., Herodotus and Pliny) permit a reconstruction of the city during the latter half of its history. An inner-city precinct reserved for palaces and temples sat within a larger thriving urban metropolis. The Euphrates River bisected the city, dividing it into two halves. Monumental fortifications encircled both the inner and outer cities, and kings spent considerable energy repairing them, especially during the Old Babylonian, Kassite, and neo-Babylonian periods. At least eight gates permitted entry into the city, the most famous being the Ishtar Gate, leading into the inner precinct. The Ishtar Gate was rebuilt several times; its latest version, now displayed in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, consisted of glazed bricks depicting bulls, lions, and dragons, symbols of the city’s patron gods, in relief. Leading through the gate was the Aiburshabu, a processional way that played an important role each year when the city’s gods were paraded through the streets to a designated temple, the Bit Akitu, in a celebration marking the new year.
The Esagila was the most important temple in Babylon and was the dwelling place of Marduk and other important deities. The temple precinct, Etemenanki, lay slightly north of Esagila and contained a high ziggurat with a shrine to Marduk at its summit. Many believe this structure to be the Tower of Babel, whose destruction is described in Genesis 11:1—9. Other smaller temples, such as Emah dedicated to the goddess Ninmah and a shrine for Ishtar in the Merkes quarter, sat in the shadow of Esagila and Etemenanki.
Babylon’s most important royal residences, the northern, southern, and summer palaces, were constructed in the city during the neo-Babylonian period under King Nebuchadnezzar and were located in Esagila and Etemenanki’s vicinity. Some nonelite residences have been excavated in the Merkes district dating from the Old Babylonian to neo-Babylonian periods.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, dozens of explorers visited Babylon, some of which conducted limited excavations. But it was not until 1899 that the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft sponsored a 15-year excavation project under the direction of Robert Koldewey. Koldewey’s team worked year-round to uncover the neo-Babylonian city plan; the results were published in extensively detailed reports in German. Since 1958, Iraq’s Department of Antiquities has carried out annual excavation and restoration projects.