“Babylon.” The word is full of almost unbearably vivid associations, full of smoky visions of Oriental decadence, of delicious sin and appalling cruelty. And yet most Westerners at least know surprisingly little about the actual history of the place. When it comes to ancient history, we tend to feel much more comfortable within the sturdy framework of Greece and Rome; even the Otherness of Egypt leaves us feeling less at sea than the Otherness of Babylon. For Egypt, Greece, and Rome come complete with concrete symbols which we can still go and gaze upon, if we’re sufficiently motivated: the Pyramids of Giza, the Parthenon of Athens, the Colosseum in Rome. But the most famous architecture of Babylon cannot be seen. The Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon only exist — in fact, may only ever have existed — in our collective mind’s eye.
For many of us who were raised in the Christian tradition, and perhaps even many who were not, the most indelible visions of Babylon stem from the Bible. The place features very prominently indeed there. It’s mentioned almost 300 times in all, spanning the literal entirety of the text; it appears for the first time in the Book of Genesis of the Old Testament, for the last time in the Book of Revelation of the New.
Those two mentions between them, separated as they are by more than half a millennium in the telling, serve well to illustrate Babylon’s overarching role in the Bible. Genesis tells the story of the Tower of Babel — “Babel” being the Hebrew name for Babylon. The Biblical structure was probably inspired by the historical ziggurat known as Etemenanki, which was erected in Babylon at some point between 1600 and 600 BC. (The archaeological record is, alas, still very unclear about this, at it is about much involving ancient Babylon.) In the Bible, the Tower of Babel serves as an explanation for the many languages spoken by us humans, that source of so much cultural richness but also so much practical confusion. The Hebrews emphasized the latter when they described how Babylon became the very first city to be built by humanity after the Flood, and the price that all of humanity paid for its arrogant tower reaching toward the heavens.
And they said, Go to, let us build up a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do; and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of the earth.
Our modern English verb “to babble” — to speak ceaselessly but incoherently — very likely stems from this story.
Thousands of pages later, in the bizarre apocalyptic fever dream that is the Book of Revelation, we meet the Whore of Babylon.
And I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication. And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH. And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.
She is, Revelation goes on to tell us, “that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.”
Babylon serves as a symbolic antagonist often in the Bible, representing all of those who defy the word of God and choose to live in sin. Written scripture conspicuously lacks the figure of Satan to serve as God’s opposite number; Babylon fills in quite nicely in his stead. But, like John Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost, the Bible’s Babylon becomes, presumably inadvertently, as enticing as it is repulsive. Many of our most lurid visions of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon — of limpid women wandering in the altogether through a paradise of exotic greenery — are thoroughly in keeping with the Biblical view.
Yet the early Jews and Christians were hardly the only ancients to write of Babylon as a place of sensual pleasures and loose sexual mores. For example, Herodotus shares the following indelibly male fantasy of sexual domination. (Exhibiting a typically Greek cultural chauvinism, he here conflates the Babylonian goddess Mullissu — whom he calls Mylitta — with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and sex.)
Once in her life, every woman must sit down in the sanctuary of Aphrodite [in Babylon] and have intercourse with a stranger. Many of the wealthier women, haughty in their pride, think they are too good to mingle with the rest, and ride to the sanctuary in covered chariots with large groups of servants following them, and they simply stand there waiting. But the majority sit in the sacred precinct of Aphrodite wearing wreaths made of cord on their heads. Women are continually entering and leaving the place. Paths run through the crowd of women in every direction, on which the men walk as they make their selections. Whenever a woman comes here and sits down, she may not return home until one of the strangers has tossed silver into her lap and had intercourse with her outside the sanctuary. When he tosses the silver, he must say, “I call on you in the name of the goddess Mylitta.” (The Assyrians call Aphrodite Mylitta.)
While such texts may to some extent serve as evidence of a more libertine attitude toward sexual relations in Babylon than was the norm in some other places, the Bible and Herodotus alike are at best idiosyncratic, agenda-laden depictions of the city, written by consummate outsiders to its culture. What, then, do we know of the real Babylon as it was known by its own people? The answer is, more than we perhaps have a right to expect, but less than we’d like to. One major problem which has continued to dog our efforts to understand Babylon to this day is the difficulty we have understanding the cuneiform texts we recover from its part of the world. Until less than 200 years ago, we had no idea whatsoever how to read cuneiform, making it impossible for Babylon to speak to us directly. Instead we could only rely on outsider commentaries like the ones above.
Although we have gotten better and better at reading cuneiform over the years, debates on the most fundamental meanings of some texts still rage inside the scholarly community to this day — a state of affairs whose irony in light of the legend of the Tower of Babel does not, I trust, require further explication. A classic example is a transcript from a murder trial which took place in the city of Nippur, a neighbor of Babylon, in approximately 2000 BC. One historian, writing in AD 1956, stated that the woman on trial had been acquitted and set free; another, writing just three years later, corrected the record to state that she had been convicted and sentenced to death.
The fact that Greek, Latin, and Hebrew were for so long the only ancient languages we could decipher has combined with our ingrained cultural prejudices to color our historiography in important ways. It has affected the very words we use when describing the region of the world where Babylon stood: we still refer to it today as Mesopotamia, a Greek word rather than a native one.
But our habit of neglecting or appropriating the achievements of Mesopotamia runs much, much deeper than our choice of vocabulary. It’s still frequently repeated in some circles that the roots of Western civilization as we know it today can be found in the brief-lived glory days of Periclean Athens, where democracy and philosophy first flowered and the role of the individual citizen was for the first time prized. And yes, that was indeed an extraordinarily inspiring moment in history. Yet the assertion that all we have built stems from there and then is absurd on the face of it. The Greeks were latecomers to civilization compared to Mesopotamia, and everything they did was built upon the foundation laid down by the peoples to their east. Mesopotamia rather than Greece was the essential prerequisite to everything that followed.
The Book of Genesis notwithstanding, Babylon itself was a relative latecomer to the world stage, although not as tardy as the Greeks. But like them, the Babylonians were heir to all that had come before in Mesopotamia. To understand Babylon, then, we need to understand Mesopotamia. Admittedly, that can seem a daunting task for the neophyte. The sheer profusion of names that get thrown around is intimidating enough in itself: the Sumerian Empire, the Akkadian Empire, the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonian Empire, the Neo-Assyrian Empire, the Neo-Babylonian Empire. In truth, though, these names often overlap to refer to the very same places during different periods of history. It is, it seems to me, perfectly reasonable to talk about the story of Mesopotamia as one contiguous story, albeit a fractious one full of constant infighting. After all, the famously fractious history of the ancient Greek city-states has many of the same qualities.
The early political organization of any region of the world is dictated to a surprising degree by its geography. Thus ancient Egypt, whose strong central government was in many ways a model for the modern nation-state, became that way thanks to the Nile, that placid central highway which allowed the pharaohs to project power easily up and down its length, to administrate and control the settlements that clustered next to it. The mountainous landscape of Greece, on the other hand, made power projection extremely difficult, and dictated that Greece would remain a divided land of independent city-states right up to the Macedonian conquest of 338 BC.
The geography of Mesopotamia is somewhere in between these two extremes, and so, logically enough, is the history of the place as well. “Mesopotamia” means “between the rivers” in Greek. The two rivers to which the name refers are the Tigris and the Euphrates, which flow roughly parallel for some 600 miles (965 kilometers) northwest to southeast through the lands that we know today as Iraq and Syria, in the larger region we call the Near East. These rivers are familiar to every schoolchild as the waters of civilization itself, given that the first stable towns were founded on their banks. Yet they are actually not so obviously suitable for that role as the Nile, upon whose banks the world’s second great civilization would arise only a short time later. The Nile was clockwork long before clocks were invented: at the same time every year, it overflowed its banks for the same period of time, leaving behind a rich alluvium ideal for growing crops. You could hardly have engineered a more perfect arrangement for agriculture if you had tried.
But the Tigris and Euphrates were more temperamental than the dependably easygoing Nile. They flowed more swiftly, especially in the winter months, when navigating them by boat became all but impossible. They could suddenly overflow their banks with deadly force, and could even shift their course with unnerving speed; the paths of both rivers vary by many miles today from what they were at the dawn of Mesopotamian civilization. Taking advantage of these rivers required much more complex systems of irrigation than were necessary in Egypt. The sluices and canals that were built for the purpose constituted the first large-scale public-works projects ever undertaken by humans. Meanwhile the landscape around the rivers, while not as impassable as that of Greece, was certainly more rugged than the flat desert vistas of Egypt; in ancient times, it consisted mainly of scraggly steppes and forests. The political history of Mesopotamia as well would exist somewhere between the two extremes, balancing short periods of Egypt-like central control against periods of bifurcated empire, and still others of willy-nilly Grecian-style chaos.
And yet all of these comparisons are anachronistic, given that it was Mesopotamia that came first, thereby making possible everything that followed, as described by the popular historian Will Durant.
In this rough theatre of teeming peoples and conflicting cultures were developed the agriculture and commerce, the horse and wagon, the coinage and letters of credit, the crafts and industries, the law and government, the mathematics and medicine, the enemas and drainage systems, the geometry and astronomy, the calendar and clock and zodiac, the alphabet and writing, the paper and ink, the books and libraries and schools, the literature and music, the sculpture and architecture, the glazed pottery and fine furniture, the monotheism and monogamy, the cosmetics and jewelry, the checkers and dice, the ten-pins and income tax, the wet-nurses and beer, from which our own European and American culture derive by a continuous succession through the mediation of Crete and Greece and Rome. The “Aryans” did not establish civilization — they took it from Babylonia and Greece. Greece did not begin civilization — it inherited far more civilization than it began; it was the spoiled heir of three milleniums of arts and sciences brought to its cities from the Near East by the fortunes of trade and war. In studying and honoring the Near East we shall be acknowledging a debt long due to the real founders of European and American civilization.
In some ways, Mesopotamian civilization never ceased to outshine the supposedly enlightened culture of Greece. The Greeks were famously bigoted toward all ethnicities other than their own, to the point of dismissing all of the non-Greeks in the world as mere “barbarians.” (Our English word for unschooled, uncouth foreigners comes from this Greek root.) Yet Mesopotamian society was a shockingly multi-cultural affair from a shockingly early date, an ethnic melting pot 5000 years before immigrants began washing up at New York’s Ellis Island. Its history is marked by repeated waves of foreigners who sometimes came violently, sometimes peacefully, but always assimilated into the broader culture in the end. At a time when outrage about the languages that people speak on our countries’ streets still inflames many of our populist politicians and their followers, it’s confounding to realize that Mesopotamia was a happily multilingual society before the beginning of recorded history; two languages, Sumerian and Akkadian, were commonly spoken there, appearing to have coexisted with complete equanimity.
It strikes me as reasonable to make the existence of writing the dividing line not only between prehistory and recorded history, but also between civilization’s absence and its presence. By this standard, the first civilization the world has ever known was that of Mesopotamia, beginning somewhere between 4000 and 3300 BC. A natural question to ask is why civilization should have begun here, at this particular time and place. We might first be inclined to turn to Darwin, as we can do so successfully in so many things, but the situation is actually more complicated than a simple appeal to biological evolution can clarify. The fact is that human beings who weren’t very different at all from the ancient Mesopotamians in genetic terms — nor, for that matter, all that different from us — were living as hunter-gatherers for at least 100,000 years before civilization began. What, then, prompted this most earthshaking change of all the ones which our species has undergone?
It appears likely that the shift from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one of sedentary farming — the necessary precursor to civilization — occurred in response to the changing climate that followed the end of our planet’s most recent ice age in roughly 10,000 BC. When Mesopotamia and areas adjacent to it — the regions that have long been enshrined as “The Fertile Crescent” by historians — began to grow hotter and drier, the wild game that had once been so plentiful there became scarce, and the peoples who had lived there comfortably as nomadic hunters for so many millennia were forced to devise new ways of surviving. As Jared Diamond described at length in his landmark book Guns, Germs, and Steel, the Fertile Crescent boasted an unusual concentration of plants that were suitable for early agriculture, being hardy, easy to grow, and rich in nutrition. The stick of diminishing wild game and the carrot of a wide array of these so-called “founder crops” — literal carrots were not, alas, among them — spawned civilization. The humbling reality is that all of the glories of human civilization writ large probably sprang from a series of ecological accidents. Had the climate not begun to change in 10,000 BC, we would quite likely never have come out of our proverbial caves.
But the climate did change, and civilization was the result, beginning in southern Mesopotamia. A place called Uruk, located on the Euphrates about 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of where Babylon would later stand, became the world’s first real city, with perhaps as many as 40,000 residents by 3100 BC. It’s here that the invention of writing — the invention of civilization — appears to have occurred. Written words probably began as simple labels that could be scrawled onto baskets of foodstuffs and the like to keep track of what they contained. At some point, verbs were added to the lexicon, and just like that undreamt new worlds of possibility opened up for humanity. By 3000 BC, Uruk and the other towns and cities which sprang up around it — constituting the cultural entity known as ancient Sumer — had a mature system of writing capable of expressing just about anything, while the Egyptians, trading partners with the Sumerians who lived well off to the west, had already borrowed the innovation to devise a writing system of their own. (In return, the Egyptians may have given the Mesopotamians the idea of hereditary monarchy sanctioned by the gods, a dubious system of government under modern terms but one preferable to the turmoil of a constant scramble for power by the strongest.)
Far from hardscrabble primitives, the people of Uruk were now building on a scale every bit the equal of the Parthenon which the Athenians would build 2500 years later. More cities were founded, spreading ever northward and westward along the paths of the two great rivers that made life and civilization possible. Among them was Babylon, founded in approximately 2300 BC; it would remain a fairly minor city for the next several hundred years thereafter.
Having invented the concept of the city, Mesopotamia now invented that of the empire. An ambitious warlord named Sargon seized the throne of Kish, a city very close to Babylon, in about 2250 BC. He then proceeded to conquer virtually all of Mesopotamia, writing a place for himself in history as the world’s first emperor, ruler of the Akkadian Empire. “He stationed his court officials at intervals of five double hours and ruled in unity the tribes of the land,” says an ancient text. According to the ancient sources, the dynasty he founded lasted for 157 years before collapsing, possibly due to a prolonged period of drought which shattered the fragile economics of empire in Mesopotamia. With centralized power being so much more difficult to project here than in Egypt, the history of the land would continue to be one of empires forming and then dissolving, over and over again. Our purpose here doesn’t make it necessary to obsess overmuch over their details.
For obvious reasons, however, we should not ignore the Old Babylonian Empire, which began to emerge very soon after 2000 BC and reached its apex between 1800 and 1750 BC, the time of the legendary King Hammurabi. His empire never quite encompassed all of Mesopotamia, as had that of Sargon, but he seems to have ruled the larger part of it, from the Persian Gulf coast in the southeast to the city of Mari in the northwest. Yet he is celebrated today more as a law-giver than as a conqueror. For he was responsible for the Code of Hammurabi, the earliest detailed scheme of criminal and civil justice to have come down to us in its entirety — albeit an infamously harsh one, with its “eye for an eye” approach to the punishment of the guilty. The popular belief that Hammurabi was the first of his kind to mete out impartial justice without fear or favor is mistaken; enough other cuneiform fragments have been deciphered since the stele containing the Code of Hammurabi was dug up in 1901 to tell us that it was far from the earliest system of laws to be codified in Mesopotamia. Nevertheless, a consistent system of justice is one more bedrock of our culture that dates back, not to the more heralded philosophical milieu of Greece and Rome, but to ancient Mesopotamia.
Reading between the lines of the Code of Hammurabi, we meet a city of Babylon which has come a long way since its quiet founding as just another settlement among many, which has already become a vibrant, multicultural, polyglot place not dissimilar to the one we can read of in the Bible and Herodotus. We know that commerce thrived there; all of the Mesopotamians tended to have superb heads for business. Likewise, a surprisingly large proportion of the male population appears to have attended school to learn to read, write, and calculate.
But Babylon’s first empire declined, as Mesopotamian empires inevitably did, in the time after Hammurabi. In around 1600 BC, the city was sacked by an army of invaders known as the Hittites, marking the generally accepted end of the Old Babylonian Empire.
In the wake of Babylon’s first decline, there arose in the north of Mesopotamia the Assyrian Empire, which for most of its existence had its base in the city of Ashur on the Tigris River, one of the few which Hammurabi and his compatriots had never managed to conquer. This empire persisted, expanding and contracting with the winds of fortune, for the better part of a thousand years, controlling Babylon for much of that period. Just as Egypt as a whole was traditionally divided into Lower and Upper Egypt, so northern and southern Mesopotamia had long since evolved into two distinct cultures by this point, with the north being more acquisitive and militaristic, the south more intellectual and cosmopolitan. Babylon became the de facto capital of the latter, even when it was under Assyrian control. Still, the Assyrians could be extremely heavy-handed with the territories they ruled, and Babylon suffered the backlash from the frequent rebellions in its region, such that it was razed to the ground on several occasions according to many ancient sources, the last time as late as 689 BC.
In 626 BC, another rebellion succeeded in driving out the Assyrians, whose aging empire was now falling into its final, irrevocable death spiral. King Nabopolassar became the first monarch of the newly independent Babylon. He went on to conquer most of Mesopotamia for himself. Thus began the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which lasted for less than a century, the merest instant in the long history of the city. Yet its vivid depiction in the Bible, particularly in the Book of Daniel and in Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept…”), has made the Babylon of this period the one that the Western imagination tends to hearken back to today. And indeed, it will become a special focus of our investigation in subsequent chapters, as it is the most reasonable candidate for the version of Babylon which saw the creation of the Hanging Gardens.
The Book of Daniel begins with an undisputed historical event: the conquest of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon, the son of Nabopolassar, in 587 BC. But what follows from there in the Bible is far more fanciful than the accepted historical reality. Nebuchadnezzar orders the best and brightest among the Hebrews, including the prophet Daniel, to return with him to Babylon. There Daniel’s God-granted insights and natural wisdom elevate him to the position of the king’s most trusted advisor, despite his detestation of the Babylonians’ decadent ways. Fed up with the disrespect to which his chosen people are being subjected, God finally drives Nebuchadnezzar mad and makes him live as a wild beast for seven years, with conversion to the one true faith coming at the end of that time:
And he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.
“And at the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lifted up mine eyes unto heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me, and I blessed the most high, and I praised and honoured him that liveth for ever, and his kingdom is from generation to generation. At the same time my reason returned unto me; and for the glory of my kingdom, mine honour and brightness returned unto me; and my counsellors and my lords sought unto me; and I was established in my kingdom, and excellent majesty was added unto me.”
Unfortunately, this Biblical Nebuchadnezzar doesn’t succeed in passing down his new faith to his descendants along with his empire. The last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, whose name is Belshazzar, blasphemes against the one true faith so violently that God causes the Persian King Cyrus to conquer his city and kill him.
Such is the Biblical version of events. In secular history, we know of no high-ranked Hebrew advisors to the Babylonian court. Nor did Nebuchadnezzar ever go mad to our knowledge, much less convert to Judaism. The story of Daniel in Babylon is rather of a piece with a number of other fanciful elaborations upon real history to be found in the Bible, such as that of Joseph in Egypt almost a thousand years earlier. A tiny group like the Hebrews, perpetually battered and displaced by the actions of the mighty empires of the world, perhaps had need of such stories as spiritual sustenance. We can hardly blame them for making excuses for their subjugation and exaggerating their role in events. But even as we give them the benefit of those doubts, we can also suspect that this ethnically homogeneous people’s abhorrence of Babylonian ways has as much to do with their horror of miscegenation as anything else, and judge that as we will.
At any rate, the final fate of Belshazzar and his empire in the Book of Daniel does fit with the rest of what we know of their history. In 539 BC, the Persian Empire under King Cyrus, a shadow looming over the known world from out of the mysterious east, conquered Babylon and put an end to the Neo-Babylonian Empire, allowing the exiled Hebrews to return to their homeland. All of Mesopotamia was soon under Persian control as Cyrus continued his relentless march westward. Only in 480 BC would the Greeks finally put a halt to the Persians’ progress, in a war chronicled vividly by Herodotus in between his many digressions.
For decades before its conquest by the Persians and for centuries thereafter, Babylon was the largest city in the world, with a population likely reaching upwards of 200,000. It was undoubtedly a city of pleasure — “sinful” pleasure, if you like — but it was also a city as aesthetically sophisticated as any in the world. Under the Persians, it became more multifarious and multicultural than ever, a crossroads between east and west, a hub of trade and dialog, a place spoken of with awe all over the world.
But despite all of that, the year 539 BC does mark a definitive ending of sorts, not only for Babylon but for the entire rich tapestry of Mesopotamian civilization. This was the moment when the region that had taught the rest of the world what civilization could mean lost control of its own destiny, became a mere prize to be passed back and forth by its invaders. When the Macedonian King Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and added Babylon to his burgeoning empire in 331 BC, it was still the largest city in the world, but had been controlled from afar for more than 200 years. There are indications that it was already going a bit to seed by this point: Alexander found Etemenanki in such a state of disrepair that he ordered his men to pull down the eyesore, making vague plans to rebuild it at some point in the future which would never reach fruition.
Alexander used Babylon as a springboard for campaigns still further to the east, penetrating as far as the eastern edge of the country we now know as Pakistan. In 323 BC, he returned to Babylon to rest and prepare for his next adventures, only to die there of some mysterious malady just short of his 33rd birthday, having redrawn the map of the world in the course of his short lifetime. Poets and painters for millennia to come would imagine him dying either in the Hanging Gardens themselves or gazing at them from the windows of his sickroom. There is, however, no surviving primary-source document from any eyewitness to such a romantic tableau.
After Alexander’s death, Babylon became a prize for the squabbling would-be inheritors of his empire to fight over, but their petty wars succeeded only in diminishing it. In 150 BC, the Persians took the city back. By this time, its fabled splendor was fading rapidly, its importance in the world vastly reduced, its population a fraction of what it once had been. While Babylon would continue to exist in some form until the Muslim conquest of Mesopotamia in the seventh century AD, Alexandria and Rome had already stolen its glory as the biggest, richest, most culturally vibrant city in the world; the splendid metropolis of yore had become an impoverished backwater.
Such is an outline of the life of Babylon and Mesopotamia. Yet, as you’ve no doubt noticed, it has had very little to say about any Hanging Gardens. Certainly we can imagine that, if any city in the ancient world prior to the heyday of Rome could have built such a thing, it must be Babylon. Nevertheless, the Hanging Gardens are peculiarly absent from the historical record prior to their enshrinement as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Why should that be? It’s a question that has bedeviled historians and archaeologists for as long as they have been studying the great Other that is Babylon.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)