The city of Babylon (“Gate of God”) once stood on the banks of the Euphrates River, 56 miles (90 kilometers) south of Baghdad, Iraq. It was the capital of Babylonia in the second and first millennia b.c. In a.d. 1897 the German archeologist Robert Koldewey commenced a major excavation. During the next twenty years he unearthed, among many other structures, a processional avenue to the temple of Marduk and the legendary fortified city wall, which once enjoyed a place among the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was not until the sixth century a.d. that its place was usurped by the so-called Hanging Gardens.
Babylon entered the pages of history as the site of a temple around 2200 b.c. At first it was subject to Ur, an adjacent city-state, but gained its independence in 1894 b.c., when the Sumu-abum established the dynasty that reached its zenith under Hammurabi, known as “the Lawgiver.” The Hittites overran the city 330 years later. It was governed by the Kassite dynasty, which extended its borders and made it the capital of the country of Babylonia, with southern Mesopotamia under its control. When the Kassites yielded to pressure from the Elamites in 1155 b.c., Babylon was governed by a succession of ephemeral dynasties and became part of the Assyrian Empire in the late eighth century b.c. In turn, the Assyrians were driven out by Nabopolassar, who founded the Neo-Babylonian dynasty around 615 b.c. His son Nebuchadnezzar II (ca. 604–561 b.c.) built the kingdom into an empire that covered most of southwest Asia.
Babylon, now Nebuchadnezzar’s imperial capital, underwent a huge rebuilding program—new temples and palace buildings, defensive walls and gates, and a splendid processional way—to make it the largest city in the known world, covering some 2,500 acres (1,000 hectares). It must have impressed visitors, because the myth sprang up, perhaps from the assertion of the Greek historian Herodotus, that it was 200 square miles (510 square kilometers) in area, with 330-foot-high (99-meter) walls, 80 feet (25 meters) thick. Of his achievement, Nebuchadnezzar boasted, “Is not this great Babylon that I have built for the house of my kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honor of my majesty?”
The Euphrates River divided the city into two unequal sectors. The “old” quarter, including most of the palaces and temples, stood on the east bank; Nebuchadnezzar’s new city was on the west. The whole was surrounded by an 11-mile-long (17-kilometer) outer wall enclosing suburbs and the king’s summer palace. The inner wall, penetrated by eight fortified gates leading to the outlying regions of Babylonia, was wide enough to allow two chariots to be driven abreast on its top. Most prominent among the portals was the northern Ishtar Gate, dedicated to the queen of heaven: a defensible turreted building with double towers and a barbican, faced with blue glazed brick and richly ornamented with 500 bulls, dragons, and other animals in colored brick relief.
Through the Ishtar Gate passed the north-south processional way, which ran past the royal palace and was used in the New Year festival. It was paved with limestone slabs, about 3.5 feet (1 meter) square; the flanking footpaths were of breccia stones about 2 feet (600 millimeters) square. Joints were beveled and the gaps filled with asphalt. The road was contained by 27-foot-thick (8-meter) turreted walls, behind which citadels were strategically placed. The faces of the walls were decorated with lions in low relief. Much of the significance of the road lies in the exotic and doubtless expensive materials employed. The land between the rivers had little naturally occurring stone, and except for their faces, the city walls and gatehouses and even the king’s palace were constructed of sun-dried brick.
Inside the Ishtar Gate, at the northwest corner of the old city, stood Nebuchadnezzar’s extensive palace with its huge throne room, and the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It is more likely that they were “overhanging” gardens. Described by one first century b.c. visitor as “vaulted terraces raised one above another,” they were irrigated with water pumped from the Euphrates. Another early description says that this 400-foot-square (122-meter) artificial mountain was more than 80 feet (25 meters) high and built of stone. It was planted with all manner of vegetation, including large trees. There is a romantic legend that the Hanging Gardens were built for Nebuchadnezzar’s wife, Amytis, a Mede who missed the green mountains of her motherland. Beside the palace stood the rebuilt temple of the city’s patron god, Marduk, replete with gold ornament. In a sacred precinct north of the temple stood a seven-story ziggurat (stepped pyramid); some descriptions put its height at 300 feet (90 meters).
Nebuchadnezzar was Babylon’s last great ruler. Because his successors were comparatively weak, the Neo-Babylonian Empire quickly passed. In 539 b.c. the Persian Cyrus II took the city by stealth, over-threw Nebuchadnezzar’s grandson Belshazzar, and subsumed Babylon into his empire. The city became the official residence of the crown prince, but following a revolt in 482 b.c., Xerxes I demolished the temples and ziggurat, thoroughly destroying the statue of Marduk. Alexander the Great captured the city in 330 b.c. but he died before be could carry out his intention to refurbish it as the capital of his empire. For a few years after 312 b.c., the Seleucid dynasty used Babylon as a capital until the seat of government was moved (with most of the population) to the new city of Seleucia on the Tigris. Babylon the Great became insignificant, and by the foundation of Islam in the seventh century a.d., it had almost disappeared.
Now Babylon is being rebuilt. In April 1989 the New York Times International reported that, under Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, “walls of yellow brick, 40 feet [12 meters] high and topped with pointed crenellations, have replaced the mounds that once marked [Nebuchadnezzar’s] Palace foundations. And as Babylon’s walls rise again, the builders insert inscribed bricks recording how [it] was ‘rebuilt in the era of the leader Saddam Hussein.’” An annual International Babylon Festival—one was subtitled “From Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam Hussein”—is part of the megalomaniac dictator’s projection of himself as the ancient king’s successor. Portraits of the two hang side by side on a restored wall in Babylon.