History of ancient Babylon

Babylon is the name of an ancient city in Mesopotamia located on the Euphrates River about 200 kilometres southeast of present-day Baghdad (Iraq), near the modern city of Hilla. The name “Babylon” is sometimes used to refer to the entire Babylonian Empire.



The name of the city of Babylon undoubtedly comes from the pre-Sumerian word Babulu, which the Akkadians explained etymologically by bab-Ali (m), “the Gate of God”, later become bab-ilāni, “the Gate of the Gods “. This name has been translated into Sumerian according to the same meaning in KA.DINGIR.RA. The Greeks translated this name to Babylon, which Europeans later took over.

Phases of Babylonian History and its Urban Development
Babylon is mentioned for the first time in the XXIV century BC. Under the name of Babil, AD, in a cuneiform text, during the reign of Shar-kali-sharri, king of the Akkad empire of which she is a part. But the earliest evidence of settlement at the site dates back to Neolithic times, and levels from the Obeid and Uruk periods have been identified.

The city is a secondary administrative center of the Empire of Ur III. The city does not have the prestige of its neighbors to the South, like Nippur. It only became an important political center with the installation of an Amorite dynasty at the start of the second millennium.

Babylon under the Amorite dynasty

The Amorite dynasty of Babylon was founded around 1894 BC. BC by Sumu-album (1894-1881 BC) [1]. His successor, Sumu-la-El (1880-1845 BC), was the true founder of the Babylonian kingdom, which was important under his reign. His successors enlarge the kingdom, and under Sîn-Muballit (1812-1793 BC), Babylon becomes a power capable of competing with the great neighbouring Amorite kingdoms, Larsa, Eshnounna, Isin and Uruk. His son Hammurabi (-1793 – -1750) knew how to play his role intelligently in the international concert of his time, and this first Babylonian dynasty only became powerful under his reign.

After an unsuccessful first part of his reign, he succeeds in subjugating the kingdoms surrounding him: Larsa, Eshnunna, then Mari. He is also withdrawing from the teaching of Elam. Babylon then becomes the greatest political power in Mesopotamia. This is when the city also emerges as a leading religious and cultural centre.

The city’s site is a little eccentric compared to the other ancient and future capitals of Mesopotamia Agadé (Akkad), Eshnunna, Seleucia, Ctesiphon and Baghdad. However, it is close to where the Tigris and Euphrates are not far from each other. This brings a strong network of irrigation channels and hence high productivity of agricultural Land. Finally, after the time of Hammurabi, southern Mesopotamia saw a sharp deterioration in its demographic and economic situation for reasons that are still difficult to elucidate.

It was then that large metropolises such as Ur, Nippur, Uruk or Larsa were abandoned for long periods in favor of other cities, notably Babylon, in the heart of a prosperous agricultural zone. Babylon thus recovers the vital forces of these cities and integrates their cultural and religious traditions.

The cityscape of 2nd millennium Babylon is only known from texts, the ancient levels still being covered by those of 1st millennium Babylon and often flooded by the water table. From its foundation, the city extended from both the Arahtu, then a secondary branch of the Euphrates before becoming its main bed in the 1st millennium. On the right bank stretched a park, called “the garden of abundance”.

The eastern part of the city, on the left bank, is much larger. To the north of this part of the town were the royal quarters within the royal palace’s centre, built by Sumu-la-El. During the reign of Hammurabi, the palace population significantly increased because the Amorite kings had a tradition in the event of a victory to take the female population from the vanquished sovereign’s harem. However, this population close to the ruler remains little known.

From Mari’s records, we understand that the Amorite-era Babylonian Palace was designed with a single large gate to screen the entrances and has several buildings set around a large tree-lined courtyard. It is also known that Samsu-Aluna, the successor of Hammurabi, built a new palace.

In the centre of the eastern part of Babylon is the temple of Marduk, Esagil, which is already bordered by its ziggurat, Etemenanki. The other great temple in Amorite Babylon was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar. To the South were the commercial districts that served as residential quarters for notables and traders. The only Paleo-Babylonian levels of the city to have been excavated, where private archives were found, dating from the reigns of Samsu-iluna and his successors.

The reign of Samsu-luna (1749-1712 BC) is marked by many revolts which weaken his kingdom. The following kings saw their territory disintegrate under the effect of revolts, attacks by enemy peoples, first and foremost the Kassites but also the Hurrians, all in a climate of agrarian crisis. Samsu-ditana (1625-1595 BC), whose kingdom only includes Babylon’s immediate surroundings, finally enters into a conflict against the Hittite king Mursili I, who succeeds in 1595 BC. a raid on Babylon. The city is plundered, and the Amorite dynasty disappears.

The Kassite period

After the Hittites’ surgeon Babylon, the Kassites, coming from the North, North-East, settled in Babylon and founded their dynasty by Agum. The date and the exact conditions of this seizure of power are unknown to us, the first decades of the Kassite dynasty being unknown to us. Around 1500 BC. J. – C., Burna-Buriash Ier ensures its domination on all lower Mesopotamia, then takes the name of Karduniash (Babylonia).

Little is known about the city of Babylon under the Kassite kings. During this period, the town’s final plan was fixed, with its quadrangular program divided into ten districts. The Esagil receives many lands in donations, as evidenced by the susurrus (engraved stelae) found for this period.

Babylon lost its role as political capital for a new foundation, Dûr-Kurigalzu (“Fort Kurigalzu”, named after its founder). But it asserts itself as the cultural and religious capital of lower Mesopotamia and acquires excellent prestige throughout the Middle East. The Babylonian clergy increasingly seek to make Marduk the greatest of the Mesopotamian gods.

In the 14th century, the Kassite kings faced the emergence of a formidable enemy, Assyria, which dominated upper Mesopotamia. Then began a centuries-old struggle between the North and the South of the Land of the two rivers. These conflicts end at the end of the thirteenth century in the capture and plunder of Babylon by the Assyrian Tukulti-Ninurta I, who would have knocked down the city walls.

And who in turn removed the statue of Marduk and texts literary works and had a large text written celebrating his victory (known today as the Epic of Tukulti-Ninurta). But he cannot prolong his domination over the region, which is then plunged into a very troubled period, which begins to benefit another neighbor of Babylon, located in the east, Elam.

After a reestablishment of power by the Kassites, the Elamite armies invested in Babylonia in the middle 12th century. Their king Shutruk-Nahhunte seizes the capital, plunder it, and takes the statue of Marduk, as well as many prestigious monuments of the cities of lower Mesopotamia. His son Kutir-Nahhunte III is responsible for maintaining Elamite power in Babylonia.

The second Isin dynasty and the period of weakening Babylonia
Shutruk-Nahhunte and his son disappear shortly after their conquest, and their successor Shilhak-Inshushinak fails to maintain a foothold in Babylonia. He was driven out of the country by King Isin (a local dynasty) Ninurta-nadin-shumi (1132-1127), who seized power in Babylon around 1130 BC. His successor Nebuchadnezzar I, succeeded in invading Elam a few years later and brought back the statue of Marduk from Susa.

The Isin dynasty period is crucial for the history of Babylon since it sees the culmination of the process that prioritizes Marduk over the other Mesopotamian gods, with the writing of the Epic of Creation (Enūma eliš), which tells how he became king of the gods. This story makes Babylon a city built by the gods and located at the center of the World, in contact with Heaven and Earth (materialized by its ziggurat, whose name means “House-link of Heaven and Earth”).

From this period also dates an exceptional document, named TINTIR (one of the alternative names of Babylon) [3], which is a topographical text describing the location of the great temples of the city, but also more modest places of worship (chapels, altars), as well as all places marked by religion: doors and walls named after gods, rivers (revered), streets crossed by processions. This text, therefore, participates in the consecration of Babylon as a holy city.

From 1050 BC. In AD, Babylonia was overwhelmed by the Aramaeans’ incursions, to which the Chaldeans were later added. The two constitute rival political entities of Babylonian power. The end of the reign of Nabû-Shum-libur (1032-1025 BC) marks Babylon’s beginning of inevitable chaos and frequent dynastic changes, the sources concerning Assyria and Babylonia dry up.

Babylon in the face of Assyrian domination.

The find the tenth century is marked by the reestablishment of the Assyrian monarchy by Adad-Nirari II. This one becomes threatening for Babylon, but it is pushed back by Nabû-Shum-ukin (880-860 av. J.-C.), who succeeds in temporarily improving his kingdom’s situation. After his death, a crisis of succession shakes Babylon, from which the Assyrian kings benefit. The remainder of the 9th century was marked by dynastic struggles in Babylon and Assyria, which in turn took advantage of one or the other of the two kingdoms to establish its supremacy over neighbours. The Assyrians eventually prevail around 800 BC.

AD and Babylonia fall into chaos again, with Chaldean kings attempting to settle in Babylon. These internal struggles benefit the Assyrian kingdom, which became a true Empire under the reign of Teglath-Phalasar III. After several years of work, he succeeded in taking Babylon in 728 BC. AD, and he proclaimed himself king there.

Assyrian domination is not ensured. The new ruler Sargon II (who restored temples and the ramparts of Babylon), must face a formidable adversary in Babylonia, Mérodach-Balaban, who succeeds in reigning over the city. Sennacherib, the successor of Sargon II, facing recent revolts in Babylonia, places one of his sons on the city’s throne. The latter held out for a short time, a new Babylonian revolution occurring.

The plotters capture him and deliver him to their Elamite allies, who execute him. Sennacherib’s reply is terrible, and the account he leaves of it is full of hatred against Babylon, which he wishes to eradicate, boasting of having razed her. The statue of Marduk is not removed but destroyed. His son Esarhaddon chose the path of appeasement.

He undertook to restore the city, a lengthy and costly undertaking (partly paid for with the booty of a campaign in Egypt), which did not end until the following reign, Assurbanipal.
Assurbanipal represented as a builder on a stele commemorating the restoration of Esagil.

The succession of Assarhaddon, in 668, had given rise to a particular.

political organization: Ashurbanipal ruled from Assyria, while his brother Shamash-Shum-ukin was placed on the throne of Babylon, in the position of the vassal. The latter finally revolted in 652 but was eventually defeated after a bitter war of four years.

During the siege of Babylon, he died, burned (perhaps voluntarily), a story that gave birth to the Greek myth of Sardanapalus. Assurbanipal turns out to be less brutal than his grandfather and restores Babylon, bringing back or remaking a statue of Marduk, a very symbolic act of reconciliation.

Even under foreign domination, the literate and merchant elites of Babylon fought energetically to maintain a wonderful religious city, whose inhabitants were exempt from any tax burden. A pro-Babylonian text of this time, the Mirror of the Prince, considers that the royal taxation cannot concern Babylon, as well as Nippur and Sippar.

The Chaldean dynasty and the heyday of Babylon.

This succession of revolts in Babylonia undoubtedly weakened Assyria. In Babylon, the resistance spirit was more potent and more robust, and the resistance members became more active and united. When Ashurbanipal died in 627 BC.

AD, his successors enter into a succession dispute which is fatal to their kingdom. Nabopolassar, probably the governor of the Land of the Sea region and probably of Chaldean origin, took advantage of the unrest in Assyria to seize power in Babylon in 625 BC.

He claims to support one of the Assyrian suitors, Sin-shar-ishkun, who grants him authority over Babylon in exchange for his military support. After a few years of conflict, he finally succeeded in bringing down the Assyrian Empire, with the king of Medes, Cyaxarus, between 614 BC. AD and 610 BC.

AD His son Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562) succeeded him. With him, Babylon knows its peak. He founded the so-called Neobabylonian empire, which covered much of the Near East from Egypt’s borders to the Anatolian Taurus and Persia’s outskirts.

Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar II’s reign corresponds to a period of profound transformations of the city, initiated by the first and completed by the second, known by numerous foundation inscriptions. These works will contribute to the legendary image reproduced by Herodotus of a city surrounded by walls 25 meters high.

In reality, Nebuchadnezzar is having the two traditional enclosures of Nimit-Enlil and Imgur-Enlil completely restored over a length of about 8 kilometres, which surround the built-up area of ​​the city. Then he built a second outer wall of about 11 kilometres which starts from the hill of Babil.

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