artists rendition of an aerial view of babylon

Ancient History: Babylon, the Greatest City in Mesopotamia

Babylon, the same as the place mentioned in the Bible, was an ancient city in Mesopotamia. It was the capital of Babylonia, a state located in the southern part of Mesopotamia. Babylon was once one of the greatest and most famous cities in the world. At its peak, it was wealthy, powerful and advanced for its time. It was even once the most populous city in the world.

For a long time, the glorious ancient city was believed to be a myth, until its ruins were discovered in the 19th century. Today the ruins of Babylon lie in modern-day Iraq.

In today’s post, we will explore the ancient Babylonian civilization in depth. We’ll discover what made the city so great by looking at Babylon’s various rulers, architecture, inventions, etc. We shall also attempt to find out what life was like in the city. Finally, we’ll discuss how or why Babylon was reduced to rubble.

About Babylon

ruins of ancient babylon
The ruins of Babylon in present-day Iraq. Image Credit: Unusual Traveler

The city of Babylon was perhaps the most famous city in ancient Mesopotamia. It served as the capital of the Babylonian Empire or the state of Babylonia. An empire that, at its peak, stretched from the Persian Gulf to Egypt. It was bordered by Assyria to the north, Elam to the east and the Arabian Desert to the south and west.

The word ‘Babylon’ is the Greek version of the Akkadian name of the city. To the ancient Mesopotamians, Babylon was known as ‘Bab-ilim’ or ‘Ba-vil’, meaning ‘gate of the gods.’ The city did, after all, have several gates for entering inside it. Some directly led to temples built in honour of the deities. Historians suggest there were as many as one hundred gates but, the ruins of only eight have been found. Moreover, each of these gates was named after a god or goddess. The most major deity was Marduk, who to the Babylonians was the creator and protector of the world. He was also the patron god of Babylon. Being patron god of the city also meant Marduk was considered the supreme god. Different Mesopotamian cities had their own patron gods, where they were believed to be the supreme deity.

Babylon was a square-shaped city built on both sides of the Euphrates River, covering 9 km2 or, 900 hectares. For several centuries, Babylon was the largest city of the ancient world, both in terms of size and population.

Since its foundation, the city has been rebuilt many times. Interestingly, the older parts of the city could be distinguished from the relatively newer parts. The oldest parts laid to the east of the Euphrates, while the parts constructed much later, were to the west. Today, the ruins of this ancient city can be found 90 km south of Baghdad, Iraq.

History of Ancient Babylon

Ancient Babylon underwent some major changes and transformations throughout history. It started as a small town of little value. Then, it grew to a major religious and cultural centre. It even became one of the most powerful cities in the world. Finally, it was abandoned and fell into ruins. Below we explore the major turning points in Babylon’s history that led to the city’s massive transformations.

Foundations and Early Records

metal bust of sargon of akkad
Bust of Sargon I of Akkad, the world’s first emperor. Image Credit: British Museum

Precisely when Babylon was founded is unknown. According to mythology, it was Marduk who established the city and became its patron god.

In historical records, however, Babylon is first mentioned in a clay tablet from the Akkadian Empire. The Akkadian Empire was the world’s first empire and Sargon I, its first emperor, was also the very first emperor. The ancient clay tablet mentioning Babylon dates back to the time of Sargon I’s reign, from 2334 and 2279 BC. As such, some scholars believe Sargon I founded Babylon, however, this claim is debatable. 

After the fall of the Akkadian Empire, in 2154 BC, it split into two major regions. The northern region became what was known as Assyria and the southern part became Babylonia. At that time, Babylon was only a small town on the banks of the Euphrates River.

Over the decades later, a city in southern Mesopotamia called Ur became the centre of power in the region. In 2100 BC, a Neo-Sumerian empire, also known as the 3rd Dynasty of Ur, was established. During this time, several nomadic tribes from nearby tribes began settling down in southern Mesopotamia. One of these tribes were the Amorites, who came from the area near present-day Syria.

In 2004 BC, the 3rd Dynasty of Ur fell to the neighbouring Elamites. The Elamites had completely destroyed the kingdom and occupied the region for nearly two decades. By then, the Amorites established their presence in the region, and by 1894 BC, had founded the First Babylonian Dynasty. This marked the beginning of the Babylonian Empire. Babylon, at that time, was a small administrative town.

The First Babylonian Dynasty

When the Amorites first founded the Babylonian Empire, Babylon was part of a small kingdom called Kazallu. Later, Babylon was acquired by an Amorite chieftain, with the intention of transforming the land into a self-governing state.

Babylon became a state in its own right and was ruled by the chieftain and his successors. The city, however, remained small. It wasn’t yet big or important enough to be called a kingdom. Hence, its rulers were also never known as kings, until the reign of the fifth Amorite ruler. He was seemingly the first to be known by the title of ‘King of Babylon’.

Babylon saw no expansion or massive growth until the reign of the sixth Amorite ruler, King Hammurabi. He was the one to transform the small kingdom into a large and memorable empire. From his reign, Babylon became the capital of the Babylonian Empire, as a city-state. And it remained one of the most important cities in all of Mesopotamia until it fell and got lost in time.

Hammurabi’s Rule

Hammurabi, who was king from 1792 to 1750 BC, was one of Babylon’s greatest rulers.  Under his reign, Babylon expanded greatly and grew into a stable and powerful city. Hammurabi even united the majority of Mesopotamia under the Babylonian Empire, with Babylon as the centre of power. This was possible because he defeated neighbouring kingdoms, improved the city’s defences, maintained diplomacy with other kingdoms and formed important alliances. Additionally, wealth gained through the conquests was invested in building temples, other building projects, strengthening the city’s defence, developing irrigation, etc.

During Hammurabi’s reign, Babylon became one of the largest cities in the ancient world. There were over 100,000 people living in the city.

Aside from all the aforementioned successes, Hammurabi was also known for his set of law codes. They’re known as the Law Code of Hammurabi. It was the first known set of standardized laws to ever have been written. Many view it as the earliest form of a constitution. The code of law contains 282 laws which are carved on a stone pillar in cuneiform. This pillar is currently housed in the Louvre Museum, Paris, France.

diorite cylinder containing law codes
The stele of Hammurabi’s Law Code. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

According to this law code, Hammurabi was sent by the gods to rule their empire. The laws covered matters related to property, land, territory, crimes, marriage and the rights of slaves, women and children. They aimed to address and resolve any conflicts in these matters to maintain social order. Punishments prescribed by the law code for crimes would depend on one’s social class. Many of the punishments were very harsh due to the frequent use of death sentences. Even for petty crimes such as stealing. Other forms of punishment involved cutting off various body parts. The laws were also a way for the king to communicate his idea of justice to the masses.

The Hittites

After Hammurabi’s demise in 1750 BC, Babylon declined rapidly. The Babylonian Empire saw a series of rebellions and they lost their influence in the southern cities. Plus, several kingdoms were eyeing on  Babylon to seize it, as it was famous for its wealth and power. One of these invading groups were the Hittites, a powerful group of people from Anatolia. At the beginning of the 16th century BC, the Hittites sacked Babylon and stole the main statue of Marduk from his temple. This marked the end of the First Babylonian Dynasty.

Shortly after conquering Babylon, the Hittites had to leave the city. They had to return to Anatolia to resolve disputes regarding the throne. This left Babylon vulnerable and a new dynasty, known as the Kassite Dynasty, took over Babylon. This marked the beginning of the Kassite Period or, the Middle Babylonian Period.

The Kassite Period

The origins of the Kassites are not known precisely. However, it is believed they were a group of semi-nomadic people who may have originated from the Zagros Mountains. The Zagros Mountains are located in the western part of present-day Iran.

They ruled prosperously for around 400 years, making them the longest reigning empire in ancient Mesopotamia. Under their reign, Babylon once again became an important and powerful city. In the 15th century BC, one of the Kassite kings even restored the statue of Marduk, which the Hittites seized, back to the temple of Marduk. Moreover, they even overthrew the kings in the southern Mesopotamia cities and reunited them into the Babylonian Empire. Since then, southern Mesopotamia remained a part of the Babylonian Empire and was never separated again.

Additionally, over time, the Kassites blended well into Babylonian society, adopting their customs and culture. Kassite kings were known to respect and preserve the culture of Babylon from the Early Babylonian Period. All these actions by the Kassites probably established a good rapport with the Babylonians and the newly reunited parts of southern Mesopotamia. This would have validated their rule in the region. It may have even been one of the reasons they were able to rule for many centuries.

The Sack of Babylon

While their rule brought prosperity, it wasn’t always peaceful. Especially in the final two centuries of their rule. Babylonia was in constant conflict with Assyria, in northern Mesopotamia, and Elam in the east. There were, especially, frequent border disputes with the Assyrians in the 14th century BC. By the beginning of the 13th century BC, Assyria had become a major power in Mesopotamia. Even more powerful than Babylonia.

In the 13th century BC, an Assyrian king, Tukulti-Ninurta, attacked Babylon for reasons not clearly known. However, according to the Epic of Tukulti Ninurta, written by the Assyrians, Tukulti-Ninurtan was instructed to do so by Enlil. Enlil was the Mesopotamian god of the wind, air and atmosphere. According to this epic, the ruling Kassite king had broken a vow made to one of the gods. This seemingly angered Enlil, so he ordered Tukulti Ninurta to teach him a lesson and bring justice to the gods. Therefore, he invaded Babylon. It is believed that the vow, referred to here, may have been a pact or treaty between the two empires. Perhaps the treaty was broken and that’s why the Assyrians invaded. However, this theory can’t be confirmed.

The Assyrian forces attacked and brutally raided the city. They destroyed the thick walls, killed a large number of the common folk and looted Marduk’s main temple. Once again, Marduk’s statue was taken away. Following the attack, Tukulti-Ninurta appointed his own kings to rule the city for many decades. It wasn’t before the end of the 13th century BC, that the Kassites took their throne back.

Statue of Marduk engraved on stone
The statue of Marduk engraved on a kudurru from the 12th century BC. Image Credit: Leonard William King via Wikipedia

Impact of the Attack

This event eventually led to the decline of the Kassite Period. The sack of Babylon weakened the city and empire. Conflicts between the Assyrians and the Elamites continued and, eventually, the Kassites began losing power. Finally, in the 12th century BC, the Elamites overthrew them, attacked Babylon and the statue of Marduk was taken yet again.

Following the decline of the Kassites, southern Babylonia was occupied by the Elamites. In Babylon, a local dynasty known as the Second Dynasty of Isin took over control. The kings in this dynasty were native Babylonians. This was the first time ever for native Babylonians to rule the empire.

From the Second Dynasty of Isin, Nebuchadnezzar I, who ruled from 1121 BC to 1100 BC, stood out the most. He was best known for bringing back the statue of Marduk to Babylon from Elam. Statues of the patron gods were viewed as the earthly forms of the gods. Taking away these statues from their main temples meant their powers and presence throughout the city were also taken away. In this case, the god’s presence was in the land of the enemy – Elam. Therefore, it was imperative to bring back Marduk’s statue to the Esagila, his main temple in Babylon.

Following this, the historical events between the 11th and 8th centuries BC are obscure. It is, however, known that Mesopotamia, in this period, saw a time of political turmoil and serious instability. It is also known that conflicts continued with the neighbouring power, Assyria. Also, around this time, different ethnic groups such as the Arameans and Chaldeans settled around Babylon. Over time, both groups of people marked their presence in the region and their influence grew in Babylon.

Assyrian Period

By 729 BC, the Assyrian forces managed to annex Babylon and absorb Babylonia into the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

The Babylonians did not like being under Assyrian rule. Even though they shared many cultural similarities, they always had tense relations. Especially after the Assyrian king, Tukulti-Ninurta sacked Babylon in the 13th century BC.

As a result, Assyrian rule faced frequent opposition. Babylonian leaders rebelled and revolted constantly against them. Even going as far as to gather as many local and neighbouring forces for support. The Assyrian king at the time, King Sennacherib, could no longer tolerate these rebellions. So, in 689 BC, Sennacherib along with his forces invaded Babylon.

They were absolutely ruthless against the rebelling Babylonians and destroyed much of Babylon. They massacred a large portion of the Babylonian population, looted the city’s treasures, plundered houses, temples, walls, etc. Following the destruction of Babylon, Sennacherib appointed his own rulers to rule Babylon. He also deported the Babylonians to the Assyrian capital, Nineveh.

Sennacherib was assassinated in 681 BC, possibly by his own sons, after which, his youngest son, Esarhaddon, became king.  He allowed the Babylonians to return to Babylon, began rebuilding the city and worked on restoring its former glory. He also tried to create a dual monarchy of Assyria and Babylonia, to ease tensions between them. However, the Babylonians were naturally still suspicious of the Assyrians and didn’t wish to be under their rule. They revolted once again, which the Assyrian successor, King Ashurbanipal, managed to subdue. Following this, he became king of Babylon.

The Defeat of the Assyrians and the Establishment of the Neo-Babylonian Empire

All this while, the Chaldeans, who settled in Babylonia a few centuries earlier, worked on gaining political power. Nabopolassar, a Babylonian of Chaldean descent, was a military leader. By 626 BC, he drove out the Assyrian leaders sent as the governors of Babylon. He also expelled the Assyrian forces from Uruk, a city in southern Babylonia. Following these events, he assumed the role of king of Babylonia and founded the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The Neo-Babylonian Empire would be the last empire to be ruled by kings native to Mesopotamia. After this period, Babylon was ruled by foreign powers.

In 612 BC, Nabopolassar’s forces formed an alliance with the Median forces. This alliance was later joined by Scythian forces and the forces of some Persian tribes. Together, they defeated the Assyrians and destroyed their capital, Nineveh. Thus, finally liberating Babylonia from Assyrian rule.

Nabopolassar ruled till his demise in 605 BC, after which his son, Nebuchadnezzar II, became king of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar II was the greatest king of Babylon, and perhaps the greatest in all of Ancient Mesopotamia. Under Nebuchadnezzar II, Babylon once again grew to become the largest city in the world and the most powerful in Mesopotamia. Babylon, at this time, also became a major religious, military and trade centre. It was also an important centre of learning, arts and culture.

But how did the king bring about these transformations?

First of all, he expanded Babylonian territory by leading conquests to the west. By doing so, the Babylonian Empire now included the lands of Assyria, Syria, the Kingdom of Judah and more. The empire stretched from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea to the northwest.

Rebuilding Babylon

aerial view of ancient babylon
Artists interpretation of Babylon at its peak. Image Credit: Daily Bangladesh

Using the wealth and resources gained through these conquests, he used them to build and strengthen an army. He also used these resources to rebuild at least 13 cities throughout Babylonia. The most notable transformation was of Babylon. At the beginning of Nebuchadnezzar II’s reign, the city spread over 400 hectares.

By the end of his reign, it had grown to 900 hectares. Riches were spent on several building projects. Many structures were newly constructed and existing ones were renovated. New temples, shrines, sanctuaries, walls, gates, monuments and palaces were built. The most renowned and iconic of these structures were the Southern Palace, Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Ishtar Gate. Through the Ishtar Gate, leading to the city centre, was a processional path. The structures are discussed in more detail later in this post.

Additionally, road systems were improved to make them more accessible. Similarly, there were also advancements made in irrigation systems. By 600 BC, Babylon had transformed completely. Nebuchadnezzar II’s, as well as the city’s prowess, was now clearly visible in these achievements.

Rebuilding Babylon would not, however, have been possible without labour. Unfortunately, it came from the forced labour of the enslaved. The enslaved usually comprised imprisoned rebels, criminals, debtors and people captured from defeated kingdoms. Nebuchadnezzar II’s forces invaded and conquered Jerusalem twice and its inhabitants were deported and enslaved in Babylon. This marked the period of the Babylonian Captivity. It is also why Babylon and its king gained a bad reputation in the Bible and other Judeo-Christian texts.

Nebuchadnezzar II died in 562 BC, after which, the Babylonian Empire began declining rapidly. There were conflicts regarding the succession to the throne. Finally, in 556 BC, a man named Nabonidus arranged a coup and usurped the throne of Babylon. Nabonidus would be the last native king of Babylon.

Post Neo-Babylonian Empire

stele of nabonidus worshipping sin
Stele depicts Nabonidus worshipping the Moon, Sun and Venus. The circular symbols represent the gods associated with the celestial bodies. They are Ishtar, Shamash and Sin. The Stele is housed in Sanliurfa Archeological Museum, Turkey. Image Credit: Leon Mauldin

Nabonidus, compared to other monarchs so far, had different religious beliefs. He was a devotee of the Mesopotamian moon god, Sin, and didn’t place equal importance on Marduk. Nabonidus, being a Babylonian king, revered Sin more than Marduk. For instance, he would frequently depart for pilgrimages to worship Sin. During these absences, he would leave his son, Belshazzar, in charge of the city. In addition to these absences, Nabonidus spent 10 years in Arabia, being away from Babylon again between 553 BC and 543 BC.

Meaning he was absent even for the annual New Year’s festivities, honouring Marduk. During this ceremony, it was imperative for the king to perform certain rites and rituals. However, in this case, his son, Belshazzar, performed them on his father’s behalf.

Moreover, when Nabonidus returned after a decade, he spent valuable resources on dedicating and restoring the temples of Sin around Babylonia. It is believed that he even intended to replace Marduk with Sin in the Esagila, Marduk’s main temple. 

For these reasons, he grew increasingly unpopular among the Babylonian priests and devotees of Marduk. Soon, the majority of the population shared their sentiments.

Nevertheless, despite his religious differences, Nabonidus did contribute to the growth of Babylon. He continued leading conquests to the west and managed to add the northern part of Arabia to the Babylonian Empire.

Invasion of Cyrus the Great

In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia invaded Babylon. From this point onwards, Babylon was no longer a city-state in its own right. It was always absorbed into another empire.

During Cyrus’ invasion, the Babylonians surrendered the city to the Persian troops with little resistance. As a result, there was limited bloodshed and the city did not have to sustain any serious damage. This was perhaps because of the population’s sentiment against their king. Nabonidus was exiled to Persia and the city was absorbed into the Persian Empire. It was ruled by Persian monarchs for the next two centuries. During this period, Babylon served as one of many capitals of the large empire.

During Cyrus’ reign, the Babylonians lived in relative peace and prosperity. He allowed the Babylonian officials to retain their original posts. Moreover, he even respected the local religion and honoured the patron god, Marduk. For instance, he restored Marduk’s temples and influence in the city and resumed the New Year’s festivities. This time with the king’s presence. He even carried out the necessary religious rites and ceremonies Babylonian monarchs were expected to perform. Furthermore, Cyrus liberated the Jews from captivity and even funded them to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. The temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II during his conquest of the Kingdom of Judah.

The Arrival of Alexander the Great

painting showing alexander the Great's death
The painting Alexander the Great dying takes farewell to his army by Karl von Piloty in 1886. Image Credit: Wikipedia

By 331 BC, nearly half of the Persian Empire was conquered by Alexander of Macedonia, better known as Alexander the Great. That year, he arrived in Babylon and took over the city much like the way Cyrus did. With little resistance and bloodshed. He became king of Babylon but left the city shortly after his conquest. He returned in 323 BC and died there, after which, his generals disputed over leadership over his massive empire. During this period, the Babylonians were deported to Seleucia. Seleucia was a city Alexander the Great had built on the banks of the Tigris River. It was built to eventually replace Babylon as the stronghold in the region. Seleucia had been made capital of the Seleucid Empire.

Following Alexander the Great’s invasion of Babylon, the city was conquered over and over again by various powers. First, it was attacked by the Seleucids, then the Parthians, then, even the Romans. It was eventually absorbed into the Persian Sassanid Empire (224-650 AD). Babylon no longer remained an important city, its glory and power were lost. Eventually, the city was abandoned but a few small villages survived on the outskirts.

By the time of the Arab conquest of Mesopotamia in the 7th century AD, Babylon was in complete ruins. Over the centuries, the water level in the area rose and the city was buried under the sands.

Culture and Lifestyle in Ancient Babylon

In this section, we discover what life was like in ancient Babylon. We find out how the Babylonians lived their lives, what language the Babylonians spoke, how they identified and expressed themselves, what their beliefs were, how their society functioned, and more.

Life and Livelihood

The majority of the Babylonian population were farmers. Cultivating crops and domesticating animals were the main sources of livelihood. Babylon was part of the Fertile Crescent, meaning the land was rich in nutrients, providing the right conditions to farm. They grew barley, chickpea and sesame, edible roots, fruits like dates, apples, and more. Additionally, they domesticated sheep and occasionally cattle as there were fewer cattle.

What made this region so fertile was the flooding of the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. Not because of excess rainfall but because of melting snow at the sources of the rivers. Today, the region is no longer so fertile, as the course of the rivers has been changed for irrigation projects.

babylon indicated on map
The location of Babylon indicated on a map. The brown portion marks the size of the Babylonian Empire in the 1500s BC. Image Credit: Time Maps

Babylon’s location and its position on the map allowed the city to become a major trading centre. Not only was it located by the river, but also between northern and southern Mesopotamia. Babylon traded their surplus crops for metals and resources like copper, gold, iron, wood, lapis lazuli, obsidian, etc. With these materials, they manufactured weapons, jewellery, ceramics and other products worth trading.

There were other important occupations in the city as well. Such as the jobs of weavers, bakers, scribes, labourers, priests, royal officials and craftsmen, among others. Boatbuilding was an especially important job as it facilitated trade. It was even supported by the monarchs because they would construct docks for the boats. 

As for the city, Babylon was cosmopolitan. People from different regions in Mesopotamia and different ethnicities resided there. They spoke the Akkadian language, which is a Semitic language just like Hebrew and Arabic. In truth, Babylonian was the language used in Babylon. However, as it was so similar to neighbouring languages like Assyrian, it is presumed both languages are forms of Akkadian. 


Since Babylon was blessed with fertile soil, fresh fruits, vegetables and grains were easily available. The Babylonians, therefore, had a nutrient-rich diet. They consume vegetables such as lettuce, cucumbers, cabbage, turnips, lentils, onions, leeks, beetroot and more. Onions and lentils were especially frequently used in dishes.

Some of the fruits they consumed included melons, apples, pomegranates, figs, plums, apricots and dates. Dates along with honey were used as sweeteners, much like they are today.

Vegetables were eaten either raw or boiled. Occasionally, both fruits and vegetables were pickled, for times when the climate became unbearably hot.

Barley was their main grain and it was used to make the staple unleavened bread. Barley was also used to brew beer, which was another staple in the Babylonian diet. It was even used as an ingredient for cooking. Wheat was another common grain consumed daily.

Although fruits and vegetables were available, meat made up an important part of the diet. Babylonians ate meats like lamb, goat, beef, pork, fish and various birds. Lamb and mutton were usually reserved for special occasions. They even drank milk but it would usually spoil easily in the heat.

These foods were primarily prepared as porridge, soups or stews. They were seasoned with local and imported herbs and spices. Most households ate only two meals a day. Once in the morning and once in the evening, after work.

World’s Oldest Recipes

lamb stew with beetroot
Historians recreating one of the recipes from the clay tablets. Here, they are preparing a lamb stew using beetroot. Image Credit: Yale News

Interestingly, four clay tablets containing recipes survive from the Babylonian Empire. Three of them date back to the time of the First Babylonian Empire. The fourth one dates back to around a thousand years after the First Babylonian Empire. They are currently the world’s oldest collection of recipes. The tablets contain recipes to prepare both vegetarian and meat stews. One, for example, uses lamb and milk to make stew. Another makes use of leeks and onions. Today, these clay tablets are housed in Yale University’s Babylonian Collection.

Social Structure

In most Mesopotamian societies throughout history, people were divided into classes. At the top of the social hierarchy were the kings, then priests and priestesses. Following them were the upper class, then the lower class and finally, the slaves. These divisions were made based on a person’s occupation and wealth.

Kings were believed to have a special connection with the gods. They, therefore, served as a medium between the divine and the human realm. This divine connection with the gods was also why they had the right to rule. Kings were responsible for governing their kingdoms and for the events that transpired inside them. They believed the success of the kingdom or empire influenced whether the gods were satisfied with their rule. 

Next in the hierarchy, following the kings, were the priests and priestesses. They were important figures in society as they officiated and performed necessary ceremonies and rituals. Priests were also wise thus they also played the role of healers and teachers.

Next were the upper class, who were often wealthy enough to own land or property. These included merchants, military people, royal officials, architects and more. Depending on who they catered to, some scribes, teachers and artisans were part of this social class. The upper class enjoyed many rights and privileges.

The Bottom of the Hierarchy

People in the lower class were the real reason behind a successful economy. It included the farmers, artists, labourers, soldiers, bakers, weavers, carpenters, etc. The majority of the people in this category weren’t wealthy. However, if they acquired wealth, they could climb the social ladder, though it was very difficult to do so. If, for instance, they were indebted to others, they would even sell their family members as slaves. 

At the bottom were the slaves, comprising those born into slavery, prisoners of war, criminals, debtors, etc. Some were sold as slaves after being kidnapped. Slaves had no rights in society and were seen as possessions of their masters. Masters usually belonged to the upper classes, though slaves who could afford them may have had their own slaves. These masters were responsible for their upkeep, providing them with shelter, food and little compensation in exchange for their services. Chores involved housekeeping, babysitting, tutoring, accounting, etc. Upon accumulating enough wealth, they could buy their freedom. 

Social Hierarchy in the Early Babylonian Dynasty

flowchart showing the babylonian social classes
Social classes during the First Babylonian Dynasty. Image Credit: Babylonian Empire 8c

During Hammurabi’s rule in the 18th century BC, however, Babylonian society was divided into three distinct classes. This information comes from his law code and isn’t too different from the general societal hierarchy followed around Mesopotamia.

At the top of the hierarchy were the ‘awilu’, which included the elite. They were wealthy, lived comfortably and weren’t obligated to work for people ranked higher than them, like the kings. They also enjoyed lenient punishments for their crimes. Next, were the ‘mushkenu’, who were the free people in society. They weren’t always wealthy, many even lived in poverty and received harsh punishments for their crimes. However, like the awilu, they weren’t obligated to work for people ranked higher than them. At the bottom were the ‘wardu’ or slaves. They were bound to work for people ranked higher than them, had little to no rights and received harsh punishments.

It was nowhere close to being an egalitarian society and the laws enforcing the divisions ensured people couldn’t be equal. Moreover, there were too few opportunities to move up the social ladder, making the structure quite rigid.

Babylonian society was patriarchal. Hence, the man of the house assumed control over the family. Which was usually the father or husband. Babylonian women were viewed as dependents of the patriarch. Most women primarily looked after the household and children. Though some women could be involved in commerce and skilled work. They, however, weren’t necessarily paid for their work. 

Women had fewer rights than men throughout the various historical periods of Babylon. During Hammurabi’s reign, there were some laws protecting their rights. But, most revolved around marriage and divorce. 

Literacy in Babylonia

cuneiform on clay tablet from Babylon
Babylonian cuneiform written on a clay tablet from the First Babylonian Dynasty. Image Credit: Spurlock Museum of World Cultures

The first writing system, using cuneiform, was invented in the 4th millennium BC, in Mesopotamia. Over time, cuneiforms became more and more complex and there were over a thousand cuneiform symbols and their variations. In Babylon, schools were initially established by temples. There, it took around 12 years to master cuneiform and general knowledge. Here, students were trained to become scribes or priests in the future.

Over time, schools were separated from temples and became separate establishments. By the later periods, not only could temples establish schools but wealthy scribes could too. Renowned scribes would build these institutions and charge tuition fees. Unable to afford the fees, it was mostly the wealthy who would send their children for training. That too, only the boys were educated. Girls weren’t educated unless they belonged to royal families. Or, unless they were training to become priestesses. Training commenced between ages 7 and 8. The teachers were usually retired priests or scribes.


The Babylonian culture was heavily influenced by the previously existing Sumerian and Akkadian cultures. Religion in Babylon was polytheistic and based on Babylonian mythology, which was in turn based on Sumerian myths. The Babylonians and other Mesopotamian cultures believed in the same gods and goddesses as the Sumerians. Though, the deities were known by different names. Some gods, like Marduk, were, however, were unique to Babylonian culture.

Each deity had control over a specific aspect or, functioning of the cosmos. There were gods of the sky, water, moon, justice, writing, vegetation, planets, sun, air, love, fertility, and many more.

Some major deities worshipped were Enlil, Ishtar, Siduri, Ea, Nabu, Shamash and Sin. Marduk, however, was the patron god, meaning, to the Babylonians, he was the supreme god and ruler of the universe. 

Previously, the Sumerians considered Enlil as the supreme god but, by Hammurabi’s reign, he was replaced with Marduk. Marduk’s rise to prominence and the Babylonian creation myth is detailed in the Enuma Elish. The Enuma Elish is the 7-tablet-long Babylonian Creation Epic, written around the 12th century BC.

Summary of the Enuma Elish

Illustration of marduk
Illustration of Babylon’s Marduk statue. Image Credit: Britannica

According to the epic, in the beginning, there was nothing but dark primordial waters. The waters were divided into freshwater and salt water. Apsu was the god of freshwater, while Tiamat was the goddess of salt water. Apsu and Tiamat were also partners and they created the god Lahmu and goddess Lahamu. They in turn produced Anshar and Kishar, whose children and descendants formed the main pantheon of Mesopotamian deities. They were the parents of Anu, the sky god who was the father of Ea and his brothers. Ea was the god of water and knowledge.

Ea and his siblings were very noisy and chaotic, which greatly disturbed Tiamat and Apsu. They tried to seek the help of other gods to make them stop but, it didn’t work. Having enough of the noise, Apsu then planned to kill Ea and his brothers. Tiamat, not wanting her husband to destroy their descendants, went and warned Ea. With this knowledge, Ea attacked and killed Apsu before he could attack. This began a war between the gods. Tiamat was especially upset and angry over Apsus’ death and wanted to avenge him. So, she created an army of ghastly monsters such as serpents, dragons and demons specially equipped to kill Ea. This army was led by Tiamat’s new husband, Kingu.

Meanwhile, Ea and the goddess Damkina gave birth to Marduk. He was extremely powerful, whose eyes emitted light and his mouth spewed fire when he spoke. His presence and powers were enough to frighten the other gods. Ea asked Marduk to fight for them against Tiamat, to which he agreed. On the condition that he became ruler of the universe after his victory. Ea and the other gods agreed and so Marduk fought for them.

Marduk as the Protector and Creator

marduk killing tiamat with his arrows
Marduk slaying Tiamat. Image Credit: Setnakh Ritual Art

In the battle, Marduk rode his chariot with his fleet. He wore golden armour, held a thunderbolt as well as a bow and arrow. Marduk struck Tiamat with his arrows, which cut her body in half. He had successfully defeated her and her monsters and became the supreme god.

Using half of Tiamat’s body, he created heaven and used the other half to create the earth. Upon her death, Tiamat began shedding tears. Her tears formed the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Marduk then created time, planets, stars, sun, moon, etc., then assigned each god in the pantheon responsibility for them.

Finally, using the blood of Kingu, he created the first man, who he named Lulu. Humans were to serve the gods and look after the earth with their labour. The gods then went and lived in heaven while humans lived on earth. 

Marduk was thus revered as the creator and protector of Babylon.

Religious Practices in Babylon

Babylon was a major religious and cultural centre. The city had many sanctuaries, shrines, temples and a ziggurat built in honour of the gods. Statues or artistic depictions of the deities were placed in their respective temples. Babylonians believed the gods resided in these statues, but that they also manifested themselves in nature.

Gods were offered food, flowers and other offerings to appease them. Priests, who lived inside the temples, performed rites, rituals, presented offerings and made sacrifices to them. The goal was to appease the gods so that they continued to bless them. The Babylonians feared offending them in any way, as it could bring disaster. For instance, success in war was attributed to the gods, so, it was imperative to honour them appropriately before the battle.

Priests also officiate ceremonies and other events. They were also responsible for keeping the temples and statues clean. It was common for people to offer to them and the temple for its maintenance.

The Babylonians were overall very pious. They worshipped the gods daily, prayed before meals and made sacrifices on important days. For example, they would offer sacrifices before and after a building project.

Every spring, Babylonians celebrated the Akitu festival. This was the New Year’s festival during which people celebrated the sowing of crops and honoured Marduk. It was a 12 day-long festival. During this auspicious period, new kings were crowned, statues of various patron deities from across Babylonia gathered in Babylon. They were dressed in fine clothing, placed on chariots, entered through the Ishtar Gate and paraded on the Processional Way into the city centre. It was also tradition to recite and perhaps even enact the Enuma Elish at this festival.

Art in Babylon

Clay was abundant in Babylonia, while there was very little stone available. Therefore, artists most frequently used clay for creating various objects. Naturally, it was also the primary material used to construct monuments as well.

Pottery, one of the most ancient art forms was a skill that Babylonian artisans had mastered. They crafted glazed utensils, vases and containers using clay. Some even contained geometric motifs on the exterior.

Clay was also used to manufacture glazed bricks, which gave them a beautiful vibrant colour. These bricks were used to build gates and walls. The Ishtar Gate, built during the Neo-Babylonian Empire, was constructed using blue bricks to represent the precious stone Lapis Lazuli.

Use of Stone in Artwork

Through trade, the Babylonians obtained stones such as alabaster, steatite and diorite. The use of diorite, especially, is seen in many sculptures and structures from Babylon.

The Law Code of Hammurabi, for instance, a 7 feet tall cylindrical stele is made of diorite. The 282 laws are engraved in the middle of the stele. They are written in Akkadian, as that was the common language used in Babylon. At the very top of the stele is a carving of Hammurabi shown to receive the law from the sun god, Shamash. In this carving, the god is seated, while Hammurabi stands in front of him.

top of the law code stele
The very top of the Code of Hammurabi stele. Hammurabi is seen receiving the law from Shamash. Image Credit: Grunge

Stone was undoubtedly stronger, far more durable and more precious than clay, due to its limited availability. Particularly in the initial years of the First Babylonian Dynasty. As such, it was used sparingly and for important purposes, such as to honour gods or kings. In Babylon, carving single standing, statues and figurines were popular forms of sculpting. That is how they preferred to depict important figures.

Also, because stones were precious, Babylonian craftsmen worked on improving their skills to work with stone. That way, they improved their precision and efficiency in working with the material. It was important to reduce errors while working with such valuable material. This ultimately led them to perfect the art of carving stone.

The Use of Advanced Techniques

kassite kudurru stone from Babylon
Kudurru stone from Babylon during the Kassite period with symbols related to the gods and astrology engraved on it. Image Credit: Mesopotamian Gods

Kudurru were stone cylinders or slabs used to mark land boundaries and show records of land agreements between two parties. These stones had motifs showing a narrative featuring deities and their corresponding animals. Underneath them, the details of land agreements and records were engraved in cuneiform. This form of art was visible largely during the Kassite period. 

Another form of art to survive from the Babylonian Empire were cylinder seals. Initially made of clay, they were later made of stone and metal. They may have been first created in the 4th millennium BC. Cylinder seals were small cylinders containing the imprint of complex motifs around its body. They were used as signatures to legal documents or packages. They were also worn on strings and pinned on clothes or around the neck, as a status symbol.

cylinder seals from old babylonian period
a stone cylinder seal and its impression. Image Credit: British Museum

The Babylonians were also skilled in metalwork, as seen from surviving jewellery. They made ankle bracelets, hair accessories, amulets, pendants, etc. Some even show the use of advanced techniques like filigree and etching on metal. Metal, however, was gained through trade with other kingdoms and settlements.

In addition to these forms of art, bas reliefs on walls and murals depicting narratives featuring humans, gods and animals were also common. Babylonian artists depicted their kings as pious and were therefore often seen praying to the gods in art. They would also tend to make the most important figure in the artwork the largest in size.

Much of what is known about Babylonian art comes from the texts written on clay tablets or stone. Actual artefacts found are unfortunately limited.

Babylonian Architecture and Landmarks

As mentioned earlier, Babylon at its peak was home to several iconic architectural masterpieces. During Nebuchadnezzar II’s reign, especially, the city was renovated and new monuments and structures were built. Structures that truly highlighted the power and wealth of the city. Some of these monuments were not only famous in the ancient world but, even today.

In this section, we look more closely at some of the most renowned structures built in Babylon.

The Ishtar Gate and the Processional Avenue

magnificent ishtar gate
Remains of the Ishtar Gate at the Pergamon Museum, Berlin. Image Credit: Heathe Morgan

Babylon had many gates leading into the inner walls of the city. Historians from antiquity record more than 100 gates but, so far, archaeological evidence of only eight have been found. The most outstanding of these gates was the Ishtar gate, named after Ishtar, the goddess of love, sex, fertility and war. It was built by Nebuchadnezzar II in 575 BC.

walls lining the procession avenue
Walls of the Processional Way reconstructed. Image Credit: Ancient Origins

The gate was constructed using blue and yellow glazed bricks and contained designs of 150 dragons and bulls. These were symbols associated with Marduk. Dragons in Mesopotamian mythology didn’t have wings, they walked on fours and had serpentine features. Through the gates passed a Processional Way which led directly to the Esagila, Marduk’s main temple. The path measured around half a mile. Its walls were lined with blue and yellow glazed bricks. The walls were adorned with designs of flowers and around 120 bas-reliefs of large lions. This path was mainly only used for the Akitu festival parade.

Today, the original gate is housed in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin, Germany. Some ruins of its foundations, however, still remain on the original site in Iraq.

City Walls

The perimeters of Babylon were surrounded by defensive walls, much before the Neo- Babylonian Empire. During Nebuchadnezzar II’s reign, he built an inner and outer wall enclosing the city. The walls were as high as 40 feet and thick enough to ride chariots on. They were thickest around embankments. Located outside the walls were large fields used for farming and raising livestock. Much like the walls on the Processional Avenue, city walls would also contain decorative designs, enhancing their appearance.

Esagila: Marduk’s Main Sanctuary

The processional avenue led directly to the Esagila, the main temple dedicated to Marduk, located in the city centre.

Esagila had its own protective walls surrounding the structure. It could be entered using any one of its seven gates. The Esagila was where the sacred statue of Marduk was also placed.

Inside the Esagila were two courtyards, the inner and outer courtyards. The inner courtyard measured 40 x 25 metres and contained the shrines of Marduk and his wife, Sarpanit, the goddess of birth. This was where their statues were also placed. The outer courtyard measured 40 x 70 metres. The temple complex was surrounded by thick walls and had seven entrance gates. 

When the temple was constructed is unknown. However, it did exist during Hammurabi’s reign. It sustained heavy damage when the Assyrian king Sennacherib attacked, but they were repaired by his son, King Esarhaddon. The Esagila reached its most complete form during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II.

Etemenanki, the Babylonian Ziggurat

Etemenanki ziggurat in Babylon
Artists reconstruction of the Etemenanki. Image Credit: Pinterest

Located just north of the Esagila, was the Etemenanki, the ziggurat of Marduk’s temple. Etemenanki meant, ‘house of the foundation of heaven on earth’ in Sumerian. The ziggurat was a large tower, with seven terraces that were wider at the base and narrower at the top. It was so massive, that it was an obvious part of the Babylonian landscape. The ziggurat measured 90 metres tall and had a wall with nine gates surrounding it. 

At the very top terrace was a temple dedicated to Marduk. The rest of the structure was dedicated to the other gods in the pantheon. The very lower levels of the ziggurat were reserved to accommodate the priests and priestesses who maintained the structure.

Ziggurats were common structures in Mesopotamian cities. They were constructed for the gods because their height provided the appropriate place for them to live in. The gods were divine beings, so, they had to reside in a place that was closer to the heavens.

The ziggurat is believed to be the inspiration for the story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible.

The Etemenanki’s construction began around 1100 BC but it wasn’t completed before the late 7th century BC. It was destroyed completely within 300 years of its construction when Alexander the Great invaded Babylon. Today, the ruins of its foundations can be found on the original excavation site in Iraq.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

hanging gardens of babylon
Artist’s interpretation of the mythical Hanging Gardens of Babylon. One of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Image Credit: Quora

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were one of the most magnificent structures of all time. So much so, that it was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Unlike what its name suggests, the hanging garden was actually a terraced garden. It was full of lush trees, shrubs, tropical plants, colourful flowers, waterfalls and other beautiful installations. The garden was built using mud bricks, measured approximately 75 feet tall and was located in the city centre. The gardens were irrigated using an early hydraulic pump system using reeds and stone that drew water from the Euphrates.

It was believed that King Nebuchadnezzar II built it for his wife Amytis. She was originally from Media where the landscape was green and lush. She missed her homeland very much so, to make her feel less homesick, her husband gifted this structure to her.

Unfortunately, historians debate about whether or not the Hanging Gardens really existed, at least in Babylon. These doubts arise as, first of all, there is no archaeological evidence of the hanging gardens found. None of the Babylonian clay tablets from that era mentions anything about the glorious structure. Neither do historians visiting Babylon between the 6th and 5th centuries BC mention it in their accounts. The historical sources that do mention the gardens date back to a time long after Babylon declined and fell to ruins.

Some scholars believe the hanging gardens were actually located in Nineveh, Assyria, as opposed to Babylon. This is because its descriptions may be more similar to the Assyrian garden palaces built by Sennacherib. At Nineveh, archaeologists even found evidence of the existence of a system of complex waterways. They could’ve been used to raise water for the garden terraces.

Babylonian Homes

Clay was the most available material in Babylon. Sun-dried bricks and mud plaster were used to build houses. Sandstone, baked bricks, wood or reeds were also used as construction materials, but using clay was more common. The people usually built their own dwellings. It was typical for Babylonian homes to have three storeys. Even those living in poverty built three storeys but, with less expensive materials like reeds.

The first storey had a square-shaped courtyard where the family gathered. Other rooms in the house, like bedrooms, kitchen and washrooms, were built around the courtyard. Most houses did not have windows, but if they did, they were made of clay or wood.

Every house had a chapel, dedicated to worship and a tomb underneath the house. Deceased members of the family were buried there. 

Houses also had flat roofs on top. Sometimes four walls were built around it for privacy. Especially if the open space was used for sleeping or cooking. Alternatively, grape arbours were placed there. The height of the houses and flat roof space provided the much-needed flow of cool air. The rooms and even the streets could get stuffy. Streets were narrow and bound by thick city walls.

Streets of Babylon

Moreover, they were crowded and full of trash, as people directly disposed of their waste on the streets. Neither the houses nor the streets had drainage systems.

Occasionally, the streets were covered with a new layer of clay which pressed down the existing trash underneath. This also increased the height of the streets, so steps had to be added from the doorway to the street. A lot of the houses were concentrated around the ziggurat. It allowed them to be closer to god and easily visit the temples regularly. The streets were therefore densely packed.

As the construction materials for the homes weren’t very durable, houses needed frequent repairing and rebuilding.

Babylonians Inventions, Innovation and Achievements

The Babylonians are credited for several inventions that are still relevant and in use today. A lot of their inventions and the need to innovate came out of necessity. Babylon grew from a small insignificant town to one of the most important cities in the world. This wouldn’t have been possible without innovation and advancements in various fields.

The knowledge and wisdom of their Sumerian and Akkadian predecessors formed the foundations on which the Babylonians added to. From Hammurabi’s reign onwards, Babylon transformed into a significant learning centre for science, medicine, mathematics, architecture and literature.

Then, the Neo-Babylonian Period brought about a renaissance in Babylonian life and culture, leading to further advancements.

Let us look at some of the many Babylonian achievements.

Innovations in Agriculture

Agricultural activities within Mesopotamia began around 9,000 and 8,000 BC. But, agricultural practices and methods developed significantly over millennia. Babylon contributed by developing the stone hoe. A tool used to loosen the soil to sow new crops. This invention possibly grew out of necessity as the land became dry and hard in the heat. Loosening the soil did not just make it easier to sow new seeds. It also increased crop yield as it facilitated better absorption of water and nutrients. It is interesting to note that the stone hoe was the precursor to the plough.

The Babylonians also worked on improving their irrigation systems. Canals existed long before Babylon was established. Without these canal systems, the water and silt from the Euphrates couldn’t reach the fields, rendering the land infertile.

The Babylonians expanded these canal systems and dug ditches to better control the flow of water into the fields.


The Babylonians did not create the concept of urbanization. However, it was one of the first, if not, the first places to experience urbanization. Babylon, as we know, was a major trade and learning centre. This meant there were plenty of opportunities for learning and employment. Engaging in both these activities would improve people’s quality of life. Therefore, many people, from rural areas, were especially attracted to these prospects and migrated to the city.


Babylonian astronomical tablet
Babylonian tablet detailing how they tracked the planet Jupiter. Image Credit: Discover Magazine

The Babylonians were pioneers in theorizing astronomical concepts. The field of astronomy particularly saw numerous developments between the 8th and 7th centuries BC. Unlike today, in Ancient Babylon, astronomy and astrology were linked. To their understanding, there were seven planets; Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Sun and the Moon. Yes, they viewed the sun and the moon as planets.

Babylonians believed that the celestial bodies in the sky were divine. And those changes in their positions sent some sort of message to humans.

They, therefore, began recording these changes over thousands of years. They would record information such as the length of daylight in a year. The rising and setting of the sun, moon, different planets. Positions of the stars and constellations and more.

Using this information, they found patterns in these occurrences and correlated the occurrences to events that occurred in society. This way, they could foresee what the skies would look like in the future. And predict what life would be like then. Astrologers used this knowledge to predict the weather, climate, eclipses, etc. to advise the best time to sow seeds. Over time, they developed these methods and were seemingly able to make predictions about people’s futures. Such information was especially useful to kings.


mathematical clay tablet
Clay tablet from Babylon with mathematical annotations. The numbers have been deciphered into modern numerals. Image Credit: Facts and Details

The Babylonians were the first to use a positional number system. Meaning, the value of a digit not only depended on the digit itself but, on its position as well. This allowed them to perform complex calculations. They were known to do algebraic equations and even trigonometric calculations. Clay tablets dating back to the 2nd millennium BC, suggest that the Babylonians had knowledge of the Pythagorean Theorem. This was at least 1000 years before Greek mathematicians developed it.

Mathematics was used to accurately measure land, for architectural projects, accountancy, create a tax system and to record planetary movements. They also used it to assign value to the goods traded.

They used a sexagesimal number system, with 60 as the base number. This is where the concept of dividing time into 60 sections came from. The Babylonians created the concept of each hour comprising 60 minutes and each minute comprising 60 seconds. They tracked the movement of the sun using a sundial based on which they divided a day into 24 hours.

Through their astronomical observations and records, they devised that it took the earth approximately 360 days to rotate around the sun.


Babylonians brought advancements to the field of medicine as well. They were the first to diagnose illnesses using logic, studying symptoms and performing physical examinations. They would then prescribe medicines or ointments based on the collected information. The Babylonians discovered many illnesses, such as epilepsy. They also took notice of symptoms of various diseases presented and recorded them on clay tablets. One of the oldest Babylonian medical texts dates back to the First Babylonian Dynasty. It is the Babylonian Diagnostic Handbook written by the scholar Esagil-kin-apli.

Unearthing Babylon

koldewey's image of babylon's ruins
View of Ishtar Gate from the North. an image from Koldewey’s excavation. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After Babylon was abandoned and buried under sand, for the longest time, the city’s existence was believed to be a myth. Between the 17th and 18th centuries, some European explorers visited the region and returned to their countries with ancient artefacts. From then on, interest grew in this area. Over the next century, other explorers visited the place, followed by groups of scholars and historians. Efforts to excavate the ruins were made throughout the 19th century, but the largest and most successful started in 1899.

That year, a German archaeologist, Robert Koldewey, and his team began excavation work which lasted till 1917. A lot of the information we have about ancient Babylon and the Babylonians today, were unearthed in this excavation.

Very limited archaeological remains and artefacts were found on the site. The once glorious walls and monuments were in ruins. Only fragments of their foundations were discovered buried under the sand. Fortunately, many texts on clay tablets, engraved on statues or surviving walls have survived. Today, tens of thousands of cuneiform inscriptions from the courts and temples of Babylon survive.

Despite these discoveries, there is still a lot of information lost to history. Due to changes in the course of the Euphrates and the rise in the water table, much of the city is buried underwater. As such, there isn’t much known from the earlier periods of the Babylonian civilization. The ruins and texts found date back to later periods. This is why there is so much information available from the Neo-Babylonian Era, for instance, and so little from Hammurabi’s rule.

Babylon in the Bible

painting of the tower of babel
Interpretation of the biblical Tower of Babel. Painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder in 1563. Image Credit: Pixels

Babylon is mentioned 280 times in the bible. Before the 19th century excavations, knowledge of Babylon came largely from the bible. That is why Babylon was believed to be a mythical location before the 19th century,

In the bible, Babylon is synonymous with evil, sin, rebellion and corruption. It does, however, acknowledge the city’s grandeur and recognizes it as one of the most advanced civilizations in antiquity. But that their ways to achieve such status were sinful.

The primary reason Babylon doesn’t have a good reputation in the bible is due to the attack on Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar II attacked Jerusalem twice, destroyed the temple, stole sacred objects, captured the Jews and enslaved them in Babylon. The event is detailed in the Book of Daniel. In the book, Nebuchadnezzar II is described as a proud king who bragged about his achievements. According to the Book of Daniel, God promised Nebuchadnezzar would become insane and that his kingdom would lose its glory. He predicts the decline of the empire and its surrender to the Persians. Interestingly, Babylon did decline rapidly after Nebuchadnezzar’s death and it did fall to the Persians.

A famous story from the bible in connection to Babylon is that of the Tower of Babel. To protect themselves from another great flood, mankind defied God and built the Tower of Babel. As punishment for this, God confused people, made humanity speak different languages and spread them across the world. This made it difficult for them to communicate with each other, which prevented them from defying God again. Babel is the Hebrew name for Babylon, meaning ‘confusion’. The tower referred to in the story is believed to be the 90m tall ziggurat Etemenanki at Babylon.

Babylon overall served as a symbol of sinfulness and as an enemy of God, Christianity as well as Christians.

Babylon as an Inspiration for Literature, Businesses and Art

The city’s portrayal in the bible, the word ‘Babylon’, is used as a symbol of confusion, corruption, immorality and wrongdoings. It is also used as a metaphor to describe events of captivity under a certain power, opposition to god’s rule and expulsion from a wonderful place.

For example, this theme can be seen in Alexander Hislop’s book titled ‘The Two Babylons’, published in 1853. Hislop was a minister of the Presbyterian Free Church of Scotland, known to openly criticize the Roman Catholic Church. And he does just that in this book.

Here he suggests that the Catholic Church has pagan roots, tracing back to the mystery cults of ancient Babylon. He also attempts to prove inaccuracies in many of their doctrines. It is likely his criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church were in favour of the Protestant and Scottish Reformations. 

The word Babylon is also used in association with different languages because of the biblical Tower of Babel story. Many translation services and language learning services are named after Babylon or inspired by the story.

An example of this is the Babylon Translation Software by Babylon Software Ltd. The software allows users to find the translation and meaning of any text. Users can use this tool to simply click on a piece of text to translate it into any desired language. The tool also provides the definition of the text, acting as a dictionary. Additionally, there is a text-to-speech feature, allowing users to listen to the correct pronunciation of the text.

Babbel is another company inspired by the Tower of Babel story. It is an app where users can learn different languages.

It isn’t just businesses inspired by the story. The Turkish band Light in Babylon decided on its name inspired by the story. The band is made up of musicians Michal Elia Kamal, Julien Demarque and Metehan Çiftçi. They all speak different languages and belong to different cultures but find a common culture in music.

In the Historical Context

cover of the richest man in babylon
Image Credit: James Clear

Contrary to the biblical context, history portrays the ancient city as a place with wealth, power, grandeur and a diverse community. The word Babylon in this context is, therefore, used as a symbol of these qualities.

This is why many architectural projects, events and financial endeavours use the term Babylon. An example of this is Babylon Finance, which is an Ethereum-based asset management protocol. Users can create investment communities called ‘gardens’ to collectively invest in decentralized finance (DeFi).

This theme is also seen in George Samuel Clason’s book, titled ‘The Richest Man in Babylon’, published in 1926. The Richest Man in Babylon provides its readers with financial advice and tips to better manage their wealth. The book is set in ancient Babylon and narrates the story of Arkad. Arkad was a poor scribe who became the richest man in Babylon by developing certain habits and attitudes. By sharing the list of habits, he advises readers on how they can also generate, protect, invest and grow their wealth. This story is seemingly based on historical texts from Ancient Babylon. Even though it has almost been a century since its publication, the topic and advice remain relevant today.

Babylon in Recent Times

Babylonian ruins today
Ruins of Babylon today. The image shows the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar II’s North Palace. Image Credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin via Wikimedia Commons

Since the excavations in the late 19th century and early 20th century, there were a series of wars in Iraq. Excavation of more ruins had to be paused and many artefacts uncovered were destroyed in these armed conflicts.

In the 1980s, the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, came to power. Instead of excavating the ruins of the ancient city, he built new palaces and monuments on top of them. He believed he was a descendent of Nebuchadnezzar II and that it was his duty to rebuild the ancient city. Then, the United States forces invaded Iraq in 2003, marking the beginning of the Iraq War. During these invasions, the ruins of Babylon were used as a U.S. military base between 2003 and 2004. This further destroyed ancient artefacts. All these events contributed to making future archaeological digs more challenging than they already were.

In the present day, the Iraqi government and archaeologists from around the world are putting their combined efforts towards conservation. They are working to preserve the site, work on its safe restoration and conduct further research. 

In 2019, the site was enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This means the archaeological site receives legal protection and international recognition. It can also now receive funds from large organizations like the World Heritage Fund to aid conservation efforts.

Today, the site is open for visitors. However, most of its visitors are Iraqi. The Iraq State Board of Antiquities and Heritage hopes the site will become an international tourist site in the near future.

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