Babylon (2300 BC – 1000 AD) was an ancient Mesopotamian city and the first true metropolis. It was the capital of four different empires and, from 1770 – 1670 BC and 609 – 539 BC, the largest city in the world. Centuries before Classical Greece Babylon was the centre of ancient astronomy, philosophy and science. As a cosmopolitan city peopled by myriad cultures and nationalities, the first ever to reach 200,000 inhabitants, Babylon set the example for later cities such as Alexandria, Rome and Constantinople. New York fills this role today.
Most of our knowledge of Babylon and the Babylonians today comes from the Hebrew Bible, the Greeks and archaeology. The Babylonians themselves called the city ‘Babila’, thought to mean ‘gate of the gods’, while the Hebrews called it Babel.
King Hammurabi expanded Old Babylon from city state to empire in the 1700s when he conquered Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and neighbouring Elam (southwestern Iran). He is famous for dictating the first known code of laws, inscribed on a 2.25 metre stone stele. Hammurabi’s Code covers everything from payment and contract to slavery and family inheritance. His laws followed an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ doctrine but applied differently to slaves, freed men, property owners, women and men.
One thousand years of foreign rule separate the kingdom of Hammurabi from Babylon’s second age of glory. The Hittites sacked the city in 1595, followed by the Kassites, who ruled for five centuries and left few records. After the Kassites came the Elamites, and then the Assyrians; Babylon’s traditional nemeses. Babylon prospered as Assyria’s second capital and the centre of Mesopotamian religion.
In the 700 and 600s BC a series of ambitious princes exploited local resentment to launch rebellions from Babylon. The first was Meradoch-Baladan, who proclaimed himself king of Babylon and contested the Assyrians on three separate occasions. In 689 BC Sennacherib, king of Assyria, defeated him and razed the city to the ground. So sacrilegious was this act that his murder at the hands of his own sons was attributed to divine justice. Esarhaddon, Sennacherib’s youngest, restored the city and governed well, but was executed after rising against his brother.
The fifth uprising, led by the Chaldean Nabopolassor was successful. In alliance with the Cimmerians, Scythians and Medes he sacked Nineveh and overthrew the Assyrian yoke. His brief but vibrant ‘Neo-Babylonian Empire’ (626-539 BC) is the Babylon best known today.
Nabopolassor’s son Nebuchadnezzar led Babylon to its zenith. New conquests brought riches and slaves to the capital to fund his ambitious projects. First Nebuchadnezzar rebuilt the old city walls and its eight entrances. This included the famous ‘Ishtar Gate’, an opulent structure adorned with lapis lazuli and the images of aurochs, lions and dragons. He also rebuilt the city’s ziggurats; notably Esagila and the 28 metre tall Etemenaki. Both were dedicated to Marduk, Babylon’s chief god.
Nebuchadnezzar’s most famous construction was the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. According to legend he built it to quell the homesickness of Amytis, his Median queen, who longed for the verdant wooded hills of her homeland. Possibly apocryphal, the gardens were a multi-layered pyramid filled with artificial forests and waterfalls. Herodotus named it one of Seven Wonders of the World.
Babylon was always a centre of mathematics and science. Their numeric system was based on the number 60, which is how we tell the time today. Babylonians invented algebra in the 1600s BC, and their discoveries inspired the Greeks and Arabs. Babylonian astronomers were the first to recognise the planets and discover they revolved around the sun. They even calculated the frequency of lunar and solar eclipses. A less boastful achievement was the foundation of western astrology.
Babylon fell to the Persians in 539 BC. As Persia’s administrative capital the city continued to prosper. It was briefly Alexander the Great’s capital too before he died there in 323 BC. The new millennium began a slow decline, fallen to ruin by the year 1000.