Restored ruins of the South palace of Nebuchadnezzar in ancient Babylon, Iraq.

Babylonian Empire

Babylon was an ancient city situated on the banks of the Euphrates River in what is now Iraq. At first, it was just a lowly riverside town, but it would later become the seat of a vast empire twice in its history. The first Babylonian Empire began in the 18th century BCE and lasted for about two centuries. The famous Code of Hammurabi was written during this time. The second Babylonian Empire took shape many centuries later, in the 7th century BCE. It was much larger than its predecessor but did not last as long. The Persians soon conquered the empire. Babylon itself emerged as one of the greatest cities of the ancient world, a city of great architecture and a center of learning.

The City Of Babylon

Babylon city
Map of the ancienty city of Babylon. Editorial credit: Focus and Blur /

Babylon was located about 88 km south of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Today, the ruins of the ancient city sit adjacent to the modern city of Al-Hillah. Babylon was founded more than 4,000 years ago, around 2300 BCE. It was originally a small port town. Its early inhabitants were the ancient Akkadian-speaking people of southern Mesopotamia. In 1894 BCE, the city became the center of a small kingdom ruled by the Amorite Sumuabum. However, it would not become the center of an empire for another hundred years.

Babylon is mentioned several times in the Bible. One of the earliest mentions of Babylon is in the 'Book of Genesis' as the 'city in which the Tower of Babel was built.' According to the Biblical account, humans who wanted to reach God in the heavens built this tower. In response, God destroyed the tower, scattered all humankind across the world, and made them speak different languages so that they could not understand each other. Another Biblical reference to Babylon tells of the Jews' captivity in the city.

Ancient Babylon consisted of several structures, including the Walls of Babylon. Walls encircling the city were first built in the 18th century BCE. Later on, an additional three rings of walls were built. These walls were 40 feet tall, and according to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, were so thick that chariot races were held on top of them. The walls occupied an area of 200 sq. miles, roughly the size of Chicago today. There were also several palaces and shrines built in Babylon. Among them was a shrine called Esagil, which stood at 280 feet tall, nearly equaling the size of a modern-day, 26-story office building.

A model representation of how the Hanging Gardens of Babylon could have looked.

In addition, Babylon supposedly included what is known as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It was a gigantic maze of terraced trees, shrubs, flowers, and artificial waterfalls, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. However, little archeological evidence has been found of its existence, at least not in the ruins of Babylon. The main entrance to the inner city of Babylon was the extravagantly-decorated Ishtar Gate, which led to the city's Processional Way, a half-mile corridor that was used in religious rituals to celebrate the Babylonian New Year. 

The First Babylonian Empire

Map of first Babylonian empire
The extent of the Babylonian Empire at the start (yellow) and end (yellow-green) of Hammurabi's reign, located in what today is modern day Iraq.

In around 1900 BCE, the Amorites, a western Semitic people, conquered Mesopotamia. At around this time, Babylon began to emerge as an important commercial center for the region. Initially a small city-state, Babylon began expanding its territory in the mid-19th century BCE. But it was during the rule of the Babylonian king Hammurabi that Babylon became an empire. Hammurabi was the 6th king of the 1st Babylonian Dynasty. He ruled from around 1792 BCE to 1750 BCE. During his reign, the Babylonian Empire controlled southern Mesopotamia and part of Assyria to the north.

The Code of Hammurabi

code of Hammurabi
The Code of Hammurabi.

Hammurabi not only built an empire. He also developed one of the world's earliest complete legal codes, aptly named the Code of Hammurabi. The Code of Hammurabi was quite comprehensive. It consisted of 282 rules on matters ranging from family law to commercial activity. These rules included set punishments for certain transgressions. The Code of Hammurabi was the originator of the "eye for an eye" concept of justice, like the laws mentioned in the Old Testament. The ancient legal code prescribed the death penalty and amputation in many cases.

The code also laid out the nature of the relationship between Hammurabi, the gods that the Babylonians worshipped, and the people that the Babylonian emperor ruled over. Not everyone was equal before the law. The Code of Hammurabi set different standards of justice for the three classes of Babylonian society: the propertied class, freedmen, and slaves. For example, if a doctor killed a rich patient, his hands would be cut off. But if the person he killed were a slave, he would only have to make financial restitution.

The Code of Hammurabi was written in cuneiform on a black stone stele, carved from a single four-ton slab of diorite. On top of the stele is a carving of Hammurabi receiving the law from Shamash, the Babylonian God of justice. The code itself appears below this relief. A French archeological expedition in 1901 rediscovered the stele. It was taken to the Louvre museum in Paris, where it remains to this day.

Fall of the First Babylonian Empire

The first Babylonian Empire began to decline after Hammurabi's death. Towards the latter part of the 18th century BCE, the empire lost a large amount of its southern territory facing the Persian Gulf, where the ancient cities of Ur and Uruk were located. By the end of the 18th century, Assyria had freed itself from the Babylonians. Finally, in 1595 BCE, the Hittites, under Mursil I, conquered Babylon and unseated the Babylonian king, Samsuditana, bringing an end to Hammurabi's dynasty.

The Second Babylonian (Neo-Babylonian) Empire

Portrait of King Nebuchadnezzar II.

The second Babylonian Empire, otherwise known as the Neo-Babylonian Empire or the Chaldean Babylonian Empire, began in the 7th century BCE when a Chaldean leader named Nabopolassar took over the city. He conquered Assyria, which had ruled Babylon for over a century. In 612 BCE, he captured the Assyrian capital, Nineveh. Nabopolassar's son, Nebuchadnezzar II, would become the greatest ruler in Babylonian history. During his rule from 605 BCE to 562 BCE, the Babylonian Empire would reach the peak of its power.

Map of neo babylonian empire
Map showing the extent of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (shaded in yellowish-green) during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II.

The empire stretched from the Persian Gulf in the east to the borders of Egypt in the west. Nebuchadnezzar II conquered the kingdom of Judea and its capital, Jerusalem, in 587 BCE, destroying the 1st Jewish Temple therein and exiling many Jews to Babylon. At the same time, he revitalized Babylon itself. Among other grand buildings, Nebuchadnezzar II built at least three major palaces. He also built the Ishtar Gate and the shrine of Esagil. The glorious empire that Nebuchadnezzar II built, however, did not last long. In 539 BCE, the Persians ruled by Cyrus the Great, conquered Babylon, thus bringing the Babylonian Empire to an end. 


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