Babylon (2300 BC – 1000 AD) was the world’s first metropolis. On the banks of the Euphrates river in modern-day Iraq, it was the capital of four empires and twice the largest city in the world. Babylon was the centre of ancient astronomy, philosophy and science centuries before Greece and the first city with 200,000 inhabitants. Like Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople and New York, it was the cosmopolitan capital of its day.
Archaeologists unearthed Babylon and translated its stone tablets in the 1800s. Before then our only records came from the Hebrews and Greeks. The Babylonians called their city ‘Babila’, meaning ‘Gate of the Gods’ in Akkadian, while the Hebrews called it Babel. ‘Babylon’ comes from the Greeks.
Hammurabi’s Code of laws was the first of its kind. Inscribed on a 2.25 metre stone stele, it covers everything from inheritance to payment and contract. The king of Babylon’s laws followed an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ philosophy that applied differently to slaves, freedmen, property owners, women and men. Hammurabi founded the Old Babylonian Empire when he conquered Mesopotamia and Elam (southwestern Iran) in the 1700s BC.
Foreigners ruled for the next thousand years. The Hittites sacked Babylon in 1595, then the Kassites ruled for five centuries, leaving few records. The Elamites, Aramaeans and Assyrians followed. Though Babylon and Assyria were traditional enemies, under the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-609 BC), Babylon prospered as a secondary capital and centre of Mesopotamian religion.
In the 700s and 600s BC, ambitious princes rebelled from Babylon. Merodach-Baladan II seized the throne three times. Sennacherib of Assyria finally defeated him in 689 BC and razed Babylon to the ground. When Sennacherib was murdered by his own sons, Babylonians called it divine justice. Esarhaddon, his youngest, restored the city and named his younger son Shamash-Shum-Kin governor. When Shamash-Shum Kin rose against his brother Ashurbanipal, the Assyrian king burned down the palace with him inside it.
The fifth uprising, led by Nabopolassar, was successful. In alliance with the Cimmerians, Scythians and Medes he sacked Nineveh and ended the Assyrian yoke. His brief but vibrant ‘Neo-Babylonian Empire’ (626-539 BC) is the Babylon best known today.
Nebuchadnezzar II led Babylon to its peak. On succeeding his father Nabopolassar, he conquered the old Assyrian lands and brought slaves and treasure to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar built new walls with eight entrances that included the ‘Ishtar Gate’ made of lapis lazuli and adorned with aurochs, lions and dragons. He rebuilt the ziggurats Esagila and 91-meter tall Etemenaki, dedicating them to Marduk, Babylon’s chief god.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were a Wonder of the World. According to legend, Nebuchadnezzar built them for Amytis, his homesick Median queen who longed for the verdant hills of her homeland. A terraced pyramid filled with forests and waterfalls, the Hanging Gardens were Nebuchadnezzar’s greatest achievement. Though famous in the ancient world, no trace of them remains today.
Babylon led the world in mathematics and science. Based on the number 60, their numeric system 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 name the planets and figure they orbit the sun. They also calculated the frequency of lunar and solar eclipses and founded 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. By the new millennium, Babylon was in decline and by AD 1000 in ruins.
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