Babylon was one of the most significant cities within the ancient Mesopotamian empire, situated on a broad plain between two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. The main part of the city was built on the banks of the Euphrates river, divided onto its left and right bank. Babylon was first a small Semitic Akkadian settlement, dating back to 2300 BC, which only later was expanded and gained its political meaning. The town first became independent with the onset of the Amorite Babylonian Dynasty in 1894 BC. The Amorite king, Hammurabi, also famous for his legal code, later conquered some of the neighboring cities to create a centrally ruled Babylonia. Here are some facts about the mythical city of Babylon.
1. Babylon could have been the largest city in the world from 1770 to 1670 BC, and between 612 and 320 BC.
The ancient city-state was not to be messed with. In its prime years, it could have reached a population of over 200,000, and its area is estimated to have been well over 900 hectares, or 2200 acres of land. Nowadays, Babylon is not as impressive anymore, as the city became reduced to mere ruins, but the remnants of Babylon in the present-day Hillah, Babil Governorate, Iraq still encompass some 85 kilometers of land south of Baghdad. Though what the tourists now witness is a heap of broken mud-brick structures and overall debris.
2. Saddam Hussein attempted to rebuild parts of Babylon.
Starting in 1983, Hussein had the vision of reestablishing the most prominent parts of the city, which to him was a symbol of the Arabian power and splendor. Moreover, the Iraqi leader gathered funds to rebuilt not only Babylon itself but also the nearby ancient ruins of towns such as Ninevah, Nimrud, Assur and Hatra. The restoration process was interrupted by the American invasion on Iraq, commencing in 2003. Saddam Hussein did not manage to construct the envisioned Saddam Hill modern building atop the ruins, but he did manage to place some of his portraits alongside those of the king Nebuchadnezzar, a historical ruler of Babylon.
3. The name of the city is highly disputed among scholars.
The English name, of course, comes from the Greek name, ‘Babylon’. But where that comes from, the scholars are no longer certain. Some say that this is a transliteration of the Akkadian ‘Babili’, but no one knows were ‘Babili’ originated from, as it hints to having distinct non-Semitic origins. By the 1st millennium BC, the name had gained a folk etymology, which traced the term to ‘bab-ili’, meaning „the Gate of God”. This resulted in the appearance of the term ‘Babel’, as it also appears in the Christian Bible. Many linguists also point to the connection of the word Babel with the Hebrew word ‘balal’, meaning confusion. Therefore, the Tower of Babel becomes the Tower of Confusion (of languages).
4. Hammurabi (1792–1750 BC) codified the laws of the Babylonian Empire.
Hammurabi was the sixth king of the First Babylonian Dynasty and the first one to be a truly powerful leader of Babylon. When his father, Sin-Muballit, resigned due to poor health, he ascended the throne and in 1792 BC started ruling the city. Babylon was not the only city-state ruled by the Amorites at that time, but in the course of many civil wars led, it proved to be the strongest. But, despite military power, Hammurabi was also looking for a way to strengthen the internal social structure of the city, and he did it by introducing new laws, the so-called Code of Hammurabi. This was a set of laws dealing with everything from petty offenses to major crimes. The best well-known rule included is perhaps the: ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ principle.
5. After Hammurabi, Babylon was ruled by several other dynasties.
The Amorite dynasty was at one point driven away by the Assyrians. And this was merely the beginning of the whole tumult. In 1595 BC the Assyrians were driven out of Babylon by the Hittites from Asia Minor, who by then had already established a considerable empire in the Middle East (they governed Petra, Jordan). Next, Kassites from the Zagros Mountains of northwestern Ancient Iran appeared along with a Kassite dynasty which continued to rule for over 430 years, until the year 1160 BC. In the 11th century BC, Chaldeans took over and ushered in a completely new era for the Babylonian empire.
Persians helped Chaldeans to destroy the Assyrians, and two allied ancient superpowers managed to do so sometime around 612 – 605 BC. The Neo-Babylonian empire is what we now commonly associate with the term Babylon, as we know more about it than about its old ancestral city. Under king Nebuchadnezzar II the city flourished, with the ruler putting much pressure on artistic and architectural development of the city. It is in this era that most of the remarkable buildings and landmarks were erected, including many temples and the splendid, blue-tiled Ishtar Gate, which acted as the northern entrance to the city.
7. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were constructed by Nebuchadnezzar II.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon have long since been declared one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. And although today they, unfortunately, can no longer be admired, excavations seem to confirm the thesis that they were once part of the royal palace in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar is said to have ordered the construction of the gardens especially for his wife, Amyitis, who was born in the green mountains of the Median Empire. The dessert landscape of Babylonia apparently was too harsh for her and so she was given a piece of perfect, ornamental greenery.
8. In 539 BC, Babylon was conquered by Persians in the Battle of Opis.
The two great armies of Cyrus the Great of Persia and Nabonidus of the Neo-Babylonian Empire clashed under Opis in fall 539 BC. Persia by then already kept most of the Asia Minor in check and was looking for more lands to conquer. Babylonia was pretty much the last bastion which put up a fight against Persians, but it lost. Cyrus proclaimed himself King of Babylonia and all its subject territories and merged the Neo-Babylonian Empire with the vast lands of the Persian Empire. This was the end of the Babylonian sovereignty as a city-state.
9. Babylon also got into the hands of Alexander the Great.
In 331 BC, Darius III, the last of the Persian rulers of Babylon was conquered by Alexander the Great. This took place at the famous Battle of Gaugamela. Under Alexander’s rule, the city once again became an important center for commerce and education. However, when Alexander the Great died with no designated heir (he did have children, but their legitimacy was disputed), the city once again became an object of dispute between his generals, the Diadochi. A series of wars, called the Wars of the Successors followed.
10. In 7th century AD, Babylonia was conquered by Muslims.
The Muslim forces managed to defeat the re-established Persian rule and the area underwent a period of Islamization. The last Iranian empire before the rise of Islam was in existence from 224 to 651 AD and it was ruled by the Sasanian dynasty. However, gaining in strength due to trading silk, frankincense and spices, the Muslim empire was truly a force to be reckoned with by 7th century AD. The final conquest was marked by the execution of the Sasanian King Khosrau II in the winter of 628. Eventually, the Muslims prevailed forming the Rashidun Caliphate and annexing the Middle East entirely.