Babylon was the largest city in the vast Babylonian empire. Founded more than 4,000 years ago as a small port on the Euphrates River, the city’s ruins are located in present-day Iraq. Babylon became one of the most powerful cities of the ancient world under the rule of Hammurabi. Centuries later, a new line of kings established a Neo-Babylonian Empire that spanned from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. During this period, Babylon became a city of beautiful architecture, including the Hanging Garden of Babylon, the Ishtar Gate and the Tower of Babel.
Where Is Babylon?
The city of Babylon was located about 50 miles south of Baghdad along the Euphrates River in present-day Iraq. It was founded around 2300 B.C. by the ancient Akkadian-speaking people of southern Mesopotamia.
Babylon became a major military power under Amorite king Hammurabi, who ruled from 1792 to 1750 B.C. After Hammurabi conquered neighboring city-states, he brought much of southern and central Mesopotamia under unified Babylonian rule, creating an empire called Babylonia.
Hammurabi turned Babylon into a rich, powerful and influential city. He created one of the world’s earliest and most complete written legal codes. Known as the Code of Hammurabi, it helped Babylon surpass other cities in the region.
Babylonia, however, was short-lived. The empire fell apart after Hammurabi’s death and reverted back to a small kingdom for several centuries.
A new line of kings established the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which lasted from 626 B.C. to 539 B.C. The Neo-Babylonian Empire became the most powerful state in the world after defeating the Assyrians at Nineveh in 612 B.C.
The Neo-Babylonian Empire enjoyed a period of cultural renaissance in the Near East. The Babylonians built many beautiful and lavish buildings and preserved statues and artworks from the earlier Babylonian Empire during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II.
Fall of Babylon
The Neo-Babylonian Empire, like the earlier Babylonia, was short-lived.
In 539 B.C., less than a century after its founding, the legendary Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. The fall of Babylon was complete when the empire came under Persian control.
Babylon in Jewish History
After the Babylonian conquest of the Kingdom of Judah in the sixth century B.C., Nebuchadnezzar II took thousands of Jews from the city of Jerusalem and held them captive in Babylon for more than half a century.
Many Judeans returned to Jerusalem after the Neo-Babylonian Empire fell to Cyrus the Great’s Persian forces. Some stayed, and a Jewish community flourished there for more than 2,000 years. Many relocated to the newly created Jewish state of Israel in the 1950s.
Tower of Babel
The city of Babylon appears in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Christian scriptures portray Babylon as a wicked city. Hebrew scriptures tell the story of the Babylonian exile, portraying Nebuchadnezzar as a captor.
Famous accounts of Babylon in the Bible include the story of the Tower of Babel. According to the Old Testament story, humans tried to build a tower to reach the heavens. When God saw this, he destroyed the tower and scattered mankind across the Earth, making them speak many languages so they could no longer understand each other.
Some scholars believe the legendary Tower of Babel may have been inspired by a real-life ziggurat temple built to honor Marduk, the patron god of Babylon.
Walls of Babylon
Art and architecture flourished throughout the Babylonian Empire, especially in the capital city of Babylon, which is also famous for its impenetrable walls.
Hammurabi first encircled the city with walls. Nebuchadnezzar II further fortified the city with three rings of walls that were 40 feet tall.
The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the walls of Babylon were so thick that chariot races were held on top of them. The city inside the walls occupied an area of 200 square miles, roughly the size of Chicago today.
Nebuchadnezzar II built three major palaces, each lavishly decorated with blue and yellow glazed tiles. He also built a number of shrines, the largest of which, called Esagil, was dedicated to Marduk. The shrine stood 280 feet tall, nearly the size of a 26-story office building.
Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a colossal maze of terraced trees, shrubs, flowers and manmade waterfalls, are one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Yet archaeologists have turned up scant evidence of the gardens. It’s unclear where they were located or whether they ever existed at all.
Some researchers have uncovered evidence that suggests the hanging gardens existed, but not in Babylon—they may have actually been located in the city of Nineveh in upper Mesopotamia.
The main entrance to the inner city of Babylon was called the Ishtar Gate. The portal was decorated with bright blue glazed bricks adorned with pictures of bulls, dragons and lions.
The Ishtar Gate gave way to the city’s great Processional Way, a half-mile decorated corridor used in religious ritual to celebrate the New Year. In ancient Babylon, the new year started with the spring equinox and marked the beginning of the agricultural season.
German archaeologists excavated the remains of the gate in the early twentieth century and reconstructed it in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum using original bricks.
Under Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi government excavated Babylonian ruins and attempted to reconstruct certain features of the ancient city, including one of Nebuchadnezzar’s palaces.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, United States forces built a military base on the ruins of Babylon. The United Nations cultural heritage agency UNESCO reported the base caused “major damage” to the archaeological site. The site was reopened to tourists in 2009.
Babylon; Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Final Report on Damage Assessment in Babylon; UNESCO.
Ancient tablets reveal life of Jews in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon; Reuters.
U.S. troops accused of damaging Babylon's ancient wonder; CNN.