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Babylon (ancient city) (Babylonian Bab-ilim or Babil, "gate of God"), one of the most important cities of the ancient world, whose location today is marked by a broad area of ruins just east of the Euphrates River, 90 km (56 mi) south of Baghdad, Iraq. Babylon was the capital of Babylonia in the 2nd and 1st millennia BC. In antiquity the city profited from its location extending across the main overland trade route connecting the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean.

Early History

Although the site was settled in prehistoric times, Babylon is first mentioned in documents only in the late 3rd millennium BC. About 2200 BC it was known as the site of a temple, and during the 21st century BC it was subject to the nearby city of Ur. Babylon became an independent city-state by 1894 BC, when the Amorite Sumu-abum founded a dynasty there. This dynasty reached its high point under Hammurabi. In 1595 BC the city was captured by Hittites, and shortly thereafter it came under the control of the Kassite dynasty (circa 1590-1155 BC). The Kassites transformed Babylon the city-state into the country of Babylonia by bringing all of southern Mesopotamia into permanent subjection and making Babylon its capital. The city thus became the administrative center of a large kingdom. Later, probably in the 12th century BC, it became the religious center as well, when its principal god, Marduk, was elevated to the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon.

After the Kassite dynasty collapsed under pressure from the Elamites to the east, Babylon was governed by several short-lived dynasties. From the late 8th century BC until the Assyrians were expelled by Nabopolassar, between 626 and 615 BC, the city was part of the Assyrian Empire.

The Neo-Babylonian City and Its Decline

Nabopolassar founded the Neo-Babylonian dynasty, and his son Nebuchadnezzar II expanded the kingdom until it became an empire embracing much of southwest Asia. The imperial capital at Babylon was refurbished with new temple and palace buildings, extensive fortification walls and gates, and paved processional ways; it was at that time the largest city of the known world, covering more than 1000 hectares (some 2500 acres).

The Neo-Babylonian Empire was of short duration. In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great captured Babylon and incorporated Babylonia into the newly founded Persian Empire. Under the Persians, Babylon for a time served as the official residence of the crown prince, until a local revolt in 482 led Xerxes I to raze the temples and ziggurat (temple tower) and to melt down the statue of the patron god Marduk.

Alexander the Great captured the city in 330 BC and planned to rebuild it and make it the capital of his vast empire, but he died before he could carry out his plans. After 312 BC, Babylon was for a while used as a capital by the Seleucid dynasty set up by Alexander's successors. When the new capital of Seleucia on the Tigris was founded in the early 3rd century BC, however, most of Babylon's population was moved there. The temples continued in use for a time, but the city became insignificant and almost disappeared before the coming of Islam in the 7th century AD.


The topography of Babylon is best known from the occupation levels of the Neo-Babylonian dynasty, as excavated by Robert Koldewey and other German archaeologists just before World War I. At that time the Euphrates divided the city into two unequal parts—the old quarter, with most of the palaces and temples, on the east bank, and the New City on the west bank. A prominent place near the center of the city was occupied by Esagila, the temple of Marduk; just to the north of that was Etemenanki (the ziggurat), a seven-storied edifice sometimes linked in popular legend with the Tower of Babel. A cluster of palaces and fortifications was found at the northwest corner of the old city; the German excavators identified one ruin in this area with the foundations of the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, which Nebuchadnezzar II built for his Median wife. Nearby was located the Ishtar Gate, with its lions and dragons in brightly colored glazed brick. Through it passed the main Processional Way, the route followed by cultic and political leaders for the New Year's festival ceremonies. Through nine major gates of the massive inner fortification walls passed roads to the principal settlements of Babylonia.


                                                                                                Contributed by:                                                                                                                                                                 John A. Brinkman

Links to related Babylonian sites.