The Babylonian Empire was, rather than a new idea, a reinvigoration of the old Sumerian Empire of the city of Ur, which had also occupied the Fertile Crescent in what is today Southern Iraq. Babylonia was formed from a collection of roughly a dozen city-states and was named for its capital city of Babylon. (Pre-empire, the city of Babylon itself was in existence since at least the 24th century BC.)
Terrain and Climate
Babylon was located in the Fertile Crescent, the incredibly fecund region around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, extending west to the Mediterranean and down through modern Israel. The Fertile Crescent not only benefits from the rich soil and irrigation provided by the two ancient rivers, but it also lies at the crossroads of three major landmasses: Africa, Asia, and Europe, meaning it has insects, plants and animals from all three sources. This gives the region a biodiversity unmatched anywhere in the world. This also means that its human inhabitants had a huge variety of plants and animals to experiment with when learning how to farm and herd animals, thus explaining why humans advanced so rapidly in this area.
The Old Babylonian Empire
Originally a disorganized region, Babylon and Babylonia began to grow as a center for culture, trade, and religion under the rule of Hammurabi in 1728 BC. Hammurabi was the first known ruler of United Babylonia as well as its greatest lawgiver. Hammurabi's Code of Laws specifically listed the acts that were criminal as well as the punishment for each act. Citizens were no longer at the mercy of capricious judges or nobility who could on a whim decide what was and wasn't illegal. So comprehensive was the Babylonian code that little about its laws or governmental system changed in the entirety of the empire's 1,200 years of existence.
Record-keeping and Mathematics
Much like the Sumerian empire from which they were descended, Babylonia was a nation of fanatical record-keepers. Starting with Hammurabi and continuing down until the empire's dissolution at the hands of Cyrus and the great Persian emperors, every financial transaction, every court verdict, every contract, and just about anything that could be written down, was-on clay tablets. With laws pertaining to almost every aspect of daily living a significant amount of data was recorded, and much of this has been uncovered and excavated during the modern era. Researchers have even found several optical devices, similar to magnifying glasses, which were used to allow record keepers to write in smaller cuneiform, in order to fit more information on each clay tablet.
Despite numerous regime changes, education reached exceptional heights among the Babylonians. Technical achievements such as the creation of a base 60, "sexigesimal," system of mathematics, are still used to this day. Sixty seconds per minute, sixty minutes per hour: modern time, is in fact, Babylonian time.
Intermittent Chaos, with Chance of Massacre
After the death of Hammurabi (1750BC), the empire slowly declined in power and influence. Following a Hittite raid which weakened the city, in approximately 1600 BC it was conquered by the Kassites who had emerged from what are now the mountains of Iran. The Kassites controlled Babylonia for 500 years, renaming the city Karanduniash.
In 1234 the Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I temporarily conquered the city but the Kassites eventually reasserted independence, just in time for the Elamites to sack the city in 1158. Then the Babylonians regained control of their city (possibly because the Elamites had stolen everything that any invader might want). By 1124 the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar I sacked the Elamite city of Susa in revenge for their earlier attack on Babylon. But by 1000 BC, Babylon was once again under pressure from a resurgent Assyria. Babylon remained more or less under Assyrian domination until 627 BC.
The Neo-Babylonian Empire
In 627 BC, Babylonia successfully revolted once again from Assyrian control. The revolt was led by a new leader, Nabopolassar, who would reign for some twenty years before passing the throne to his more famous son.
Nabopolassar's son, Nebuchadnezzar II, ruled Babylonia from 605 to 561 BC. He established himself early as a military leader, leading an army under his father in Assyria, and then later an independent command against Egypt, destroying the Egyptian army at Carchemish and gaining Babylonian control of all of Syria.
Nebuchadnezzar was deeply invested in the city of Babylon. During his reign it enjoyed something of a renaissance. Nebuchadnezzar engaged in a variety of city revitalization projects, rebuilding ancient temples and buildings, construction extensive fortification, and so forth. He also created the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. He employed foreign workers for much of the hard labor, which as an additional benefit dramatically increased the city's population. Nebuchadnezzar died in 561 BC. For more on Nebuchadnezzar II, see his Civilopedia entry.
The Fall of Babylon
The leaders following Nebuchadnezzar were lesser men, and within thirty years Babylonian power and prestige were greatly weakened. It is said that when Cyrus II of Persia attacked in 539 BC, the city fell almost without resistance. It remained under Persian control until 331 BC, when it was captured by [Alexander the Great, and then to the Seleucid dynasty after Alexander's death. In the period since, Babylon has all but vanished, reduced to mysterious mounds and piles of rubble, waiting for archaeologists to uncover their secrets.
Babylonia played an important role in the development of law throughout the world. The creation of Hammurabi's code of laws, and the zeal with which his successors, both blood –related and not, upheld those laws, demonstrated for all of history how successful and wealthy a nation could become by following an organized system of government. The rest of Babylon's history reminds us that nothing lasts forever, and that even the greatest of empires will someday be nothing more than dust beneath the next empire's chariot wheels. Or tank treads.
Prior to the construction of the Colossus of Rhodes, the Babylonian Ishtar Gate was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The 8th gate to the inner city of Babylon, the Ishtar Gate was designed as both an entry and a shrine to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, who represented sexuality, fertility, and love.
The famed walls of Babylon were at one time also considered amongst the Seven Wonders of the World. The Ancient Greek historian Herodotus recorded that these walls surrounding the city were over 90 m (300 feet) high, 25 m (80 feet) thick, and 90 km (56 miles) long, although his account is dubious in the eyes of modern archaeologists.
Nebuchadnezzar II was king of Babylon for some 43 years (605-562 BC). He is best known for his military conquests and his restoration of the city of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar II also figures prominently in the Bible for the conquest of Judah and the forced relocation of many Israelites to Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar (which is sometimes spelled "Nebuchadrezzar") was the oldest son of Nabopolassar, the founder of the Chaldean empire, who had done much to make Babylon into an imperial power. He served under his father in several military campaigns, and in 606 BC he commanded an army which destroyed an Egyptian army at Carchemish, securing for Babylon the control of Syria.
Upon Assuming Power
Upon his father’s death in 605, Nebuchadnezzar returned to Babylon and assumed the throne. He resumed campaigning shortly thereafter, when he conquered a number of smaller states including Judah. He continued his conquests until 600, when, possibly over-extended, he lost badly to an Egyptian army. Taking advantage of Babylon’s disarray, Judah and several other subject states revolted.
It took Nebuchadnezzar some two years to regroup and rebuild his armies, but by 598 he was on the march again, and in 597 he occupied Jerusalem, deposing the Judaian king Jehoiachin and transporting him and other prominent citizens to captivity in Babylon (most likely as hostages against further Jewish rebellions) He continued his expansionist military campaigning for the rest of his reign, clashing more or less successfully with other powers in the eastern Mediterranean, Asia Minor and the Middle East.
Not just a warlord, Nebuchadnezzar was also active diplomatically, sending and receiving ambassadors from nearby kingdoms. He is known to have sent an ambassador to mediate in a conflict between the Medes and the Lydians in Asia Minor.
When not campaigning, Nebuchadnezzar spent much of his energy in rebuilding Babylon and improving its fortifications. He is known to have rebuilt many temples, paved roads, cut canals, and constructed a moat and wall around the city. He is also credited with the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which according to legend he built to please his wife who was pining for the hills of her home in Media.
Judgment of History
Despite his capture of Judah and relocation of the Israelites, Nebuchadnezzar appears in a mostly favorable light in the Bible. He is credited for protecting Jewish prophets and citizens from persecution; the prophet Jeremiah apparently believed that Nebuchadnezzar was God’s appointed instrument of vengeance against evil-doers. Nebuchadnezzar died in Babylon in 562 BC. He is remembered as a successful military leader who increased the size of his empire and who strengthened and improved the capital city of Babylon, and who treated his subject people well. By all measures he earned his title of "Nebuchadnezzar the Great."
We have a fairly accurate picture of the extraordinary Babylonian archer units, thanks to a beautiful Assyrian mosaic showing them marching off to battle. The Babylon archers are dressed in colorful padded robes and carry four-foot long bows, as well as a quiver of arrows slung on their backs. The archers also carry spears or daggers, doubtless for personal defense if enemy units get close enough for hand-to-hand combat.
Separate units carrying large, man-height shields would accompany the bowman, providing in effect, a movable fortress. The bowmen were an integral part of the Babylonian infantry, as their numbers were easier to train and replace than the more expensive cavalry. Bowmen also helped man the famed Walls of Babylon, taking up positions in the many turrets dotting its line.
Walls of Babylon
Originally included on Antipater's list of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, the Walls of Babylon encapsulated the city and protected it from harm, circling the city on all sides and even spanning the Euphrates River (which ran through the center of the city). The outer walls ran 6 km (10 miles) in length, measured 8 meters (25 feet) thick, and were said to tower 98 meters (320 feet) over the city. Smaller walls ringed the city behind this primary one, assuring an extra line of defense if the first ever fell. Some 250 towers dotted the length of the walls, providing excellent look-out points and combat stations for the skilled Babylonian archers. The walls were impenetrable by any technology available to sieges at the time, large metal gates were installed at the river's ends (preventing any underwater intruders), and eight massive gates were constructed to contain any foot traffic (the most famous being the Ishtar Gate). These walls effectively protected the city for almost one hundred years.
It wasn’t until 539 BC that a way around the wall's defense was devised; Cyrus the Great unleashed a plan which diverted the Euphrates further upstream, lowering the water level so that anyone could walk through it. His army snuck under the river's metal gates under the cover of darkness and took the city from within. While capable of stopping any direct means of assault, the walls couldn't stop one man's determined ingenuity.
Much of the ancient walls still stand, a testament to their strength. In 1983, Saddam Hussein began a reconstruction project at the site of the ancient city, including restoration of the Walls and a recreation of the Ishtar Gate. The project has since been put on hold, but Iraq hopes to continue further restoration of the walls and once again make Babylon a place of wonder.
The Ishtar Gate was constructed by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II circa 575 BCE. It was the eighth gate of the city of Babylon (in present day Iraq) and was the main entrance into the city. The Ishtar Gate was part of Nebuchadnezzar's plan to beautify his empire's capital and during the first half of the 6th century BCE, he also restored the temple of Marduk and built the renowned wonder: the Hanging Gardens as part of this plan. The magnificence of the Ishtar Gate was so well known that it made the initial list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. However, it was later replaced by the Lighthouse of Alexandria, but some authors (Antipater of Sidon and Calliamchus of Cyrene) wrote that the "Gates of Ishtar" and "Walls of Babylon" should still be considered one of the wonders.