Isthar Poort 1925

In antiquity, Babylon was one of the largest cities in the world. It is best known for the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It lies on the River Euphrates in Iraq, approximately 85 kilometres south of Baghdad. The name Babylon is a Greek corruption of the Akkadian word Bāb-Ilim, which means “the Gate of God”. After many years of lobbying, Babylon was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2019.

Sites of interest in Babylon today include a replica of the Gate of Ishtar, a goddess of ancient Mesopotamia, and a statue of the Lion of Babylon. Archaeologists have still to prove the existence in ancient times of the famous Tower of Babel and Hanging Gardens.

Impression of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon by Ferdinand Knab (1886)

The city and its many towers were built of clay, most of which has crumbled away. Only a small part has been excavated and ex-dictator Saddam Hussein had a palace built on the ancient ruins. Various walls have also been rebuilt, resulting in considerable damage to the original structures. Further damage was caused by the invasion of the United States in 2003.

Ruins of ancient Babylon with the restored walls in the background.

Babylon was the hub of the worship of the god Marduk. Babylon was already a major city at the time of the Ur conquest of middle and south Mesopotamia (2112-2004 BC). Its highest point came in the 18th century BC under King Hammurabi when it was the capital of Southern Mesopotamia. Hammurabi was the most important of all conquerors of Babylon. He ruled over an enormous empire which was as large as the UR empire which preceded it.

Restored walls at Babylon

One important legacy of Hammurabi is a code of law chiselled in stone. This was found early in the 20th century and is one of the oldest legal texts ever found. Only those of the Sumerians are older (by 3 centuries). This legal code gives us a valuable insight into the Babylonian civilisation.

Babylon was inhabited for a long time. The earliest layers lie deep under piles of more modern structures. Much of the material is jumbled together, making it difficult to interpret the history of the various layers. Nevertheless, the many excavations have provided a picture of sorts. We know, for instance, that Babylon was conquered by the Assyrians in the first millennium BC and twice destroyed later in the 7th century BC.

In 625 BC the city declared independence and Nabopolassar named himself king. His son (Nebuchadnezzar II) completely rebuilt the city and the Babylon that we see today dates from his reign.

For a long time after the Iraq War, Babylon was occupied by American soldiers

From 1899 to 1917 German archaeologists excavated the eastern part of the city and greatly added to our knowledge of the ancient city. Much of the material they found was taken to museums in Berlin.

Babylon lay on the banks of the River Euphrates, with the most important buildings on the east bank. To the north stood a fort which can still be seen as a hill 25 metres high. The city itself was surrounded and protected by an 8 kilometre long double wall and a ditch. This wall had eight gates, each one dedicated to a divinity, of which Ishtar was the most important. The Gate of Ishtar was a double gateway, extending through both walls. Next to it stood two prominent towers which served as sentry posts. The gates were covered with glazed tiles decorated with dragons and bulls. These gates have now been rebuilt to a height of 16 metres. Outside stood another wall measuring 16 kilometres, within which a large part was uninhabited. This could be used by farmers from outside the city as a place of refuge in times of siege.

The Gate of Ishtar has been rebuilt in the Pergamon museum in Berlin. The glazed tiles are original and were brought here by German archaeologists. The gate was once considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World but it has been replaced on the list by the Pharos Lighthouse in Alexandria

Among other buildings, the city contained the king’s palace. This was protected on one side by the Euphrates and on the other side by high walls. It was a fort inside a fort. The palace had five courtyards which gave access to halls on the south side. The largest courtyard gave access to a large throne chamber with walls covered with yellow and blue glazed tiles. Depicted on the tiles were pillars with palm capitals.

Lion of Babylon, now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
Wall now in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

The famous Hanging Gardens, described by the ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, were probably in the northwest corner of the palace.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon have been portrayed many times, as here in 1925. It is not known if they ever actually existed.

There was a direct link from the palace to the great Temple of Marduk, the most important Babylonian god. The temple was a fort with a rectangular ground plan and a central tower, in which stood the image of the god which was carried during processions. Next to the temple, behind a wall, stood the famous Ziggurat, the ‘Tower of Babel’. It was almost 100 metres highand built of brick. Over the centuries, many of the stones have been re-used, so that today only the enormous rectangular foundations remain. The tower once had six storeys with a temple at the top. According to Herodotus, that is where the wedding of Marduk took place, and this was re-enacted during the New Year rituals by the king and a High Priestess.

The Tower of Babel has been depicted many times by famous painters. Here are two examples by Pieter Bruegel and Hendrick van Cleve III.

Bruegel d. Ä., Pieter Tower of Babel Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam
Hendrick van Cleve III (1525-1589) Building the Tower of Babel, Kröller Müller Museum Otterlo

Text                 Harrie Wolters

Translation     Alun Harvey

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