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Holman Bible Dictionary

Babylon

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(bab ih' luhn), a capital city in ancient Mesopotamia (mostly modern Iraq), is mentioned some 200 times in the Bible, nearly all in the Old Testament and referring to the city of the Neo-Babylonian Period (625-539 BC). It was then the largest and most beautiful city in the Middle East, considered by classical tradition with its renowned Hanging Gardens and massive walls to have been one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Jeremiah the prophet, while anticipating its downfall, named Babylon “a golden cup in the Lord's hand, that made all the earth drunken” (Jeremiah 51:7 ). The Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BC), commonly thought to have visited the site near 460 B.C., reported that its splendor surpassed any city of the known world.

Origin Information about Babylon's origin has been lost in antiquity, but it did not rank among the leading Mesopotamian cities before 3000 B.C., such as Erech, Kish, Nippur, Ur, Sippar, or Akkad. Among such great cities it alone bore a Semitic name. Such names first appeared near 2200 B.C. It became a provincial and cult center, later to become the grand capital of the eighteenth century B.C. King Hammurabi. Thereafter, it remained a great center of culture and religion. It was sacked in 689 B.C. by the Assyrian King Sennacherib, who destroyed much of it. Later, Babylonian kings aligned themselves with the Medes to conquer Assyria in 612 B.C., and then the Neo-Babylonian rulers dedicated themselves to reconstructing Babylon's ancient temples and walls. Its main significance lies in these times. Due largely to Sennacherib's deliberate destruction of the city, very little of pre-Sargonid Babylon (before 721 B.C.) remained. Esarhaddon, Ashurbanipal, and Nabopolassar undertook a rebuilding, but Nebuchadrezzar II (605-562 B.C.) brought Babylon to her glory, making it “the Palace of Heaven and Earth, the Seat of Kingship.” His work appears everywhere, so with justification the author of Daniel 4:30 could attribute to this king, “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?” Cyrus the Persian took Babylon in 539 B.C. and permanently ended her dominance in Near Eastern affairs, but later in the time of Alexander the Great (c. 330 B.C.) some great structures of old Babylon were still wonders.

Location Traditionally, a mound called Babil, near the Euphrates River and some six miles northeast of Hillah (southwest of Iraq's capital city Baghdad), has been identified as the location of ancient Babylon. However, the city's location proved to be represented by a number of mounds downstream on the Euphrates 1 1/2-2 1/2 miles south of Babil, the main ones being Qasr, Amran ibn Ali, Merkes, and Homera.

Archaeology Regrettably, the ruins of Babylon have long served as a quarry for building materials. Before 1811, the few antiquities coming from Babylon were mostly surface finds recovered casually or by random digging by the natives. The first planned and organized excavation came in 1811 with C. J. Rich making a careful survey and hiring ten men to aid him in exploration at Babil and Qasr. A second visit followed in 1817.

Babylon was one of a number of Mesopotamian sites excavated seriously from 1842 onwards. A.H. Layard was prevented by national disturbances from opening more than a few trial trenches in 1850 at Babil, Qasr, and Amran ibn Ali. Between 1852-1854 the Frenchmen F. Fresnel and J. Oppert achieved very little. For 45 years nothing of real value was undertaken. The major excavations of ancient Babylon began in 1899 led by the German architect Robert Koldewey and lasted year-round until 1917 when British occupation caused cessation of his projected labors far from their completion.

Ancient Babylon was divided in two by the Euphrates river. The eastern section with the “Summer Palace” to the north was enclosed by a triangular defensive system of walls running over eight miles from the Euphrates about one and one half miles north of the city southeast to turn southwest to rejoin the river about 750 feet south of the city. Nebuchadnezzar first built this awesome defense network.

In reality this outer wall system involved three walls. The innermost, about 22 feet thick, was made of sun-dried mud-brick. Beyond this by 39 feet was a second slightly thicker wall of baked bricks. Outside this wall was another some 10 feet thick of baked bricks forming the scarp of a moat perhaps as wide as 330 feet. Evidence of projecting towers was found at regular intervals along the inner wall, but no such indication remains for the outer one although there probably were towers there as well. The space between the walls was filled with rubble, perhaps for a base for a protected roadway wide enough to allow Herodotus' “four-horse chariot to turn around.”

Just inside the outer wall system at the north and along the Euphrates was the mound Babil, some 1 1/2-2 1/2 miles north of the other mounds. It covered Nebuchadrezzar's “Summer Palace,” and perhaps the Bit Akitu, the Temple of the New York Festival.

Sprawling ancient Babylon covered an area of nearly 1000 acres, making it the largest ancient settlement in Mesopotamia, some fifteen percent larger than Nineveh. According to records, it contained 1,179 temples of varying sizes. Its normal population was near 100,000, but the walls could have sheltered at least 250,000 persons. The area east of the river comprised the city's older section where most excavations were carried out and where most of the principal buildings were located. The smaller western area constituted Babylon's “new” city about which little is known.

Greater Babylon, excluding its western suburb, was a triangular fortified island with one-third of its area being an inner, elaborately defended fortress which contained the royal palace, the ziggurat, the temple of Marduk, and a vast residential area.

Processional Way Access to the city was provided by ramps bridging the moat and by eight gates named after gods in the inner walls. The streets of the magnificent city layout were roughly parallel to the river, meeting others at right angles and terminating in great bronze gates. Ancient Babylon's most famous street was the Processional Way, Aibur-shabu (“the enemy shall never pass”) along which the images of the gods were transported from the Euphrates into Babylon during the New Year Festival. Perhaps Isaiah 46:1 satirizes such a procession involving the god Marduk and his son Nabu. From the Euphrates along this street the distance was about 2000 feet to the northern side of the rectangular wall system.

The magnificent and 63-foot wide Aibur-shabu gently sloped upwards as it led southward toward the city walls. The east 225 feet of the roadway outside the city walls lay between two thick walls hardly less impressive than the gate itself. The eastern wall was that of the Northern Fortress (sometimes called the Museum because of finds there) and the eastern that of the eastern outer bastion. Each of these walls was lined with 60 lions, symbols of Ishtar, molded of bricks of blue ceramic and having red or yellow manes.

The Processional Way passed through the most famous of the city gates, the Ishtar Gate. Its original height was some 70 feet and had an arched opening 15 feet wide. On the earlier gate are still visible alternate rows of some 150 bulls and dragons, symbols of Adad and Marduk, in plain molded bricks. The latest gate was colorfully decorated with similar animals, now of bricks glazed a vivid blue with the animals alternately yellow and white. Inside the gate the Processional Way, sloping downward, extends some 4000 feet southward to turn west between the ziggurat enclosure and the Marduk temple toward the Euphrates bridge built by either Nabopolassar or his son Nebuchadnezzar.

Babylon's principal palace was on the right upon passing through the Ishtar Gate, lying between a canal at its south and the city walls at its north. Its dimensions were expansive, 1020 feet east to west and 660 feet north to south. In it was the king's throne room, perhaps the scene of Belshazzar's feast and the death of Alexander the Great. On the west Nebuchadnezzar built a huge fortified citadel which was 85 feet thick, apparently to keep out dampness from the adjacent river. In this palace the excavators found an underground “crypt” consisting of a series of 14 vaulted rooms surrounded by a mysteriously thick wall, the vaults clearly constructed as supports for an enormous weight. Nearby was a unique water system with three shafts tied together in a manner suggesting a hydraulic lifting system with an endless chain of buckets drawn up in continuous rotation. These may be the remains of the famous Hanging Gardens. Here the four clay tablets were found listing the rations of grain and oil for King Jehoiachin of Judah and his sons. Across the road from this Southern Palace was the temple of the mother-goddess Ninmakh.

Babylon's most significant temple was Esagila (“The Temple that raises it head”), the home of the city god Marduk. Located about five-eights of a mile south of the royal palaces, its paved floor had inscriptions stating that it had been laid by the Assyrian Kings Ashurbanipal and Esarhaddon. Esagila was surrounded by an enclosure of about 1410 by 720 feet which, according to cuneiform documents, housed more than 50 other temples and shrines, many of which have been excavated. Jeremiah's comment on Babylon is remembered: “It is the land of graven images, and they are mad upon their idols (Jeremiah 50:38 ). Over 6,000 figures were uncovered, and ten street altars were found from the period from Esarhaddon to Nabonidus (681-539 B.C.) In addition to the temples there were “300 daises of the Igigi gods and 1200 daises of the Anunanki gods,” as well as “180 open-air shrines for Ishtar” and 200 places for other deities.

Adjacent to Esagila was the great staged tower or ziggurat named Etemenanki, “the foundation house of heaven and earth.” It was of considerable age, but first mention of it is in the 7th century B.C. It has been plundered for building materials in more recent times, but it was partially dismantled near the end of the fourth century B.C. by Alexander the Great to prepare for a proposed building. It measured about 298 feet square at the base and rose in seven stages to at least a height of 200 feet. The inner core of unbaked bricks was enclosed in a shell of baked bricks 49 feet thick. This was apparently the model for the “Tower of Babel.” On its southern side a triple flight of steps led to the second story, the rest of the tower being ascended by means of ramps. On the top was a shrine called sahuru in which rested a bed on which a god was thought to lie at times with a native woman.

Karen Joines


Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Babylon'. Holman Bible Dictionary. http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hbd/view.cgi?n=635. 1991.

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