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Map showing the Babylonian territory upon Hammurabi's ascension in 1792 BC and upon his death in 1750 BC
Detail of the Ishtar Gate

Babylon was a city-state of ancient Mesopotamia, the remains of which are found in present-day Iraq, about 85 kilometers (55 mi) south of Baghdad. All that remains of the original ancient famed city of Babylon today is a mound of broken mud-brick buildings and debris in the fertile Mesopotamian plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Babylon was at first a small town which sprung up at the beginning of the 3rd millennium BC. The town flourished and attained prominence and political repute. Babylon eclipsed Nippur as the 'holy city' of Mesopotamia around the time Hammurabi first unified the Babylonian Empire, and became the capital city of the Neo-Babylonian Empire from 612 to 539 BC.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the Walls of Babylon were also famous.

Assyrian period

During the reign of Sennacherib of Assyria, Babylonia was in a constant state of revolt, and was suppressed only by the complete destruction of the city of Babylon. In 689 BC, its walls, temples and palaces were razed, and the rubble was thrown into the Arakhtu, the sea bordering the earlier Babylon on the south. This act shocked the religious conscience of Mesopotamia. After the murder of Sennacherib by two of his sons, his successor Esarhaddon hastened to rebuild the old city. He was crowned there, and made it his residence for part of the year.

In the later overthrow of the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonians saw another example of divine vengeance.[1]

Neo-Babylonian Chaldean Empire

Babylon threw off the Assyrian rule in 612 BC and became the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Chaldean Empire.[2][3][4]

With the recovery of Babylonian independence, a new era of building followed, and Nebuchadnezzar II (604–561 BC) made Babylon into one of the wonders of the ancient world.[5] Nebuchadnezzar ordered the complete reconstruction of the imperial grounds, including rebuilding the Etemenanki ziggurat and the construction of the Ishtar Gate — the most spectacular of eight gates that ringed the perimeter of Babylon. All that was ever found of the Original Ishtar gate was the foundation and scattered bricks.

Nebuchadnezzar is also credited with the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), said to have been built for his homesick wife Amyitis. Whether the gardens did exist is a matter of dispute. Historians disagree about the location, and some believe it may have been confused with gardens in Nineveh.

Persia captures Babylon

In 539 BC, the Neo-Babylonian Empire fell to Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, in the famous Battle of Opis. The walls of Babylon were impenetrable, and the only way into the city was through one of its many gates or through the Euphrates, which ebbed beneath its thick walls. Cyrus devised a plan to use the Euphrates as the mode of entry to the city. He ordered large camps of troops at each point and instructed them to wait for the signal. Awaiting an evening of a national feast among Babylonians, Cyrus' troops diverted the Euphrates river upstream, causing the Euphrates to drop to about 'mid thigh level on a man' or to dry up altogether. The soldiers marched under the walls through thigh-level water or as dry as mud.

The Persian Army conquered the outlying areas of the city's interior while most Babylonians at the city center were oblivious to the breach. The account was elaborated upon by Herodotus,[6] and is also mentioned by passages in the Hebrew Bible.[7][8] Cyrus claimed the city by walking through the gates of Babylon with little or no resistance from the drunken Babylonians.

Cyrus later issued a decree permitting captive people, including the Jews, to return to their own land (as explained in the Old Testament), to allow their temple to be rebuilt back in Jerusalem.

Under Cyrus and the subsequent Persian king Darius the Great, Babylon became the capital city of the 9th Satrapy (Babylonia in the south and Athura in the north), as well as a centre of learning and scientific advancement. In Achaemenid Persia, the ancient Babylonian arts of astronomy and mathematics were revitalised and flourished, and Babylonian scholars completed maps of constellations. The city was the administrative capital of the Persian Empire, the preeminent power of the then known world, and it played a vital part in the history of that region for over two centuries. Many important archaeological discoveries have been made that can provide a better understanding of that era.[9][10]

The early Persian kings had attempted to maintain the religious ceremonies of Marduk, but by the reign of Darius III, over-taxation and the strains of numerous wars led to a deterioration of Babylon's main shrines and canals, and the disintegration of the surrounding region. Despite three attempts at rebellion in 522 BC, 521 BC and 482 BC, the land and city of Babylon remained solidly under Persian rule for two centuries, until Alexander the Great's entry in 331 BC.


  1. Albert Houtum-Schindler, Babylon, in Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th ed.
  2. Bradford, Alfred S. 2001. With arrow, sword, and spear: a history of warfare in the ancient world, 47–48. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0275952592.
  3. Curtis, Adrian; Herbert Gordon May 2007. Oxford Bible Atlas Oxford University Press ISBN 978-0191001581 p 122 "chaldean+empire"&num=100 Google Books Search
  4. von Soden, Wilfred; Donald G. Schley 1996. William B. Eerdmanns ISBN 978-0802801425 p 60 "chaldean+empire"&num=100#PPA60,M1 Google Books Search
  5. Saggs H.W.F. 2000. Babylonians, p 165. University of California Press. ISBN 0520202228.
  6. Herodotus, Book 1, Section 191
  7. Isaiah 44:27
  8. Jeremiah 50–51
  9. Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia The British Museum. Accessed April 19, 2008.
  10. Mesopotamia: The Persians