Ancient Babylon: History, Timeline & Hanging Gardens

Instructor: Tracy Musacchio
In this lesson, we'll learn about Babylon, whose hanging gardens were one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Explore the history of this ancient city, from its origins under the Akkadians to its rise to prominence in the Neo-Babylonian Period.

Location of Babylon

The ancient city of Babylon, or 'door of god' in Akkadian, was located in ancient Mesopotamia along the Euphrates River, in modern Iraq. The city was occupied since at least the third millennium BCE and became one of the most prominent cities in the ancient world. It was the home to the Babylonian king Hammurabi, the capital city during the Neo-Babylonian Period, and the site of a significant battle during the Persian Empire.

Each king in antiquity wanted to leave his mark on the holy city of Babylon by capturing it, building it up, or ruling over it. In fact, as recently as the twentieth century, Saddam Hussein acknowledged the significance of the ancient city by restoring it with bricks that read, 'This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of (Neo-Babylonian king) Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq.'

Currently, the site of the ancient city of Babylon is open as a tourist attraction.

Map of Babylon during the reign of Hammurabi
Map of Babylon during Hammurabis reign

History and Timeline

Old Babylonian Period (ca. 2000-1600 BCE)

The first evidence we have for the city of Babylon comes from the Old Babylonian Period. One of its most prominent rulers, Hammurabi (of Hammurabi's Code of Laws), was from Babylon, and the city grew to importance under his rule as he expanded his empire from southern Mesopotamia into northern Mesopotamia. The literary tradition flourished during the Old Babylonian Period; scribes recorded texts in Sumerian and Akkadian. The population of the city of Babylon increased as the city grew in importance, and Babylon may have reached 200,000 residents during this period.

Kassite and Elamite Rule (ca. 1600-900 BCE)

After Babylon was sacked by the Hittite king Mursilis, the Kassites took over. The Kassites were a transhumant group from the Zagros Mountains who ruled over Babylon successfully for several centuries. They kept Babylon as their capital city. Their rule saw some fighting with the rival Assyrians as the northern Assyrians vied for control of Mesopotamia against the southern Babylonians. The Kassite rule was briefly brought to an end by an Elamite invasion before a series of native Babylonian kings, most notably Nebuchadnezzar, were once more able to take control of the city.

Neo-Assyrian Period (ca. 911-608 BCE)

The rivalry between Assyria and Babylon only grew during the Kassite and Elamite rule over Babylon. By the 10th century BCE, the Neo-Assyrian Empire had grown into a formidable force. The Neo-Assyrians ruled their empire from their capitals of Ashur and Nineveh; however, Babylon was still a large city and an important rival. It was ostensibly under Neo-Assyrian control, though revolts and political unrest were common, as the Babylonian kings refused to submit willingly to being vassals of the Neo-Assyrians.

Civil wars such as those fought between the Babylonians and the Neo-Assyrians eventually led to the downfall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Neo-Babylonian Empire (626-539 BCE)

While the Neo-Assyrian Empire was beginning to lose control of its territory, a Chaldean leader named Nabopolassar sacked the Assyrian capital of Nineveh and transferred power back to Babylon. Although the rulers of this new Babylonian Empire were Chaldean, or tribal people from southeastern Mesopotamia, they reinvigorated Mesopotamian culture and literature during their rule, creating a renaissance; however, their rule lasted only a short time, as the growing power of the Persian Empire proved too much for the Neo-Babylonian kings to withstand. The Persian king Cyrus defeated the Babylonians and took control of Babylon, claiming that he was the successor to their empire. Cyrus was a popular leader who, shortly after taking over the Neo-Babylonian Empire, issued a proclamation allowing foreign exiles in Babylon (including the Jews) to return to their homelands. This act earned Cyrus the reputation of being a fair and just ruler.

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