Saturday, May 11, 2013

History Mystery: Babylon the city of Nebuchadnezzar -1



An immense mud-brick stump in present-day Iraq is all that is left of Babylon’s most infamous building, the Tower of Babel. But the tower was once a wonder of the ancient world, in a great city that surpassed in splendour all others of its time. THE GREEKS DESCRIBED BABYLON’S ‘HANGING GARDENS’ as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Book of Genesis referred to its tower, which soared more than 90m (29 ft) above the surrounding countryside, as the Tower of Babel. For the Old Testament writers this attempt to reach heaven represented the ultimate in human vanity. But there was once good reason for this vanity: the city of Babylon was the pounding heart of an empire which stretched all the way from Egypt in the west to the old kingdom of Elam (south-west Iran) in the east.


 All that remains today of what was once the largest city in the world is dun-coloured field of dried mud ruins. And, until the 20th century, all that was known about Babylon came from the writings of the Greek kistorian Herodotus (c. 484 – 425 BC) and from Biblical denunciations. ‘Babylon the Great’, thunders a New Testament writer, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth.’ Herodotus’s view differed. Around 450 BC the much-travelled historian made the journey from Greece across the mountains and deserts of Syria and down the river Euphrates. What he saw impressed him. He described a vast capital straddling the Euphrates protected by a gigantic rampart so wide that there was enough space for a four-horse chariot to run. He told of walls more than 86 km (53 miles) round, and studded with 100 bronze gateways. Babylon, he wrote, ‘surpasses in splendour any city of the known world’. He also recounted some of the customs of the city’s inhabitants: how, for example, every woman was obliged, once in her life, ‘to reside in the sanctuary of Aphrodite and unite with a stranger’; how auctions of women were held every year, when the most beautiful were acquired by the rich, and the plainer-looking fell to the lot of the poor. But he knew little about the history of Babylon and had not even heard the name of Nebuchadnezzar II, its emperor from 605 to 562 BC. It was not until the start of the 20th century that historians could begin to disentangle fact form fantasy. In 1899, German archaeologists under the architect Robert Koldewey undertook the first intensive exploration Babylon.

 Their excavations continued until 1917. It was delicate work, for the temples, palaces and housed in Mesopotamia – the fertile valley bounded by the rivers Tigris and Euphrates – were built of sun-dried brick, extremely crumbly and difficult to distinguish from the surrounding soil. Nonetheless, Babylon’s high walls, some of them coated with glazed bricks, were finally unearthed. The ghost of a ruined city rose from the dead, and a picture of its history gradually took shape before the archaeologists’ eyes. As the excavation work continued, students of Assyrian history deciphered the thousands of texts that were uncovered. From these they learnt that Babylon was a relatively young city – at least measured against the history of Mesopotamia. The Sumerian cities of Ur, Uruk and Nippur, for example, had been founded hundreds of years earlier. In about 2000 BC the Amorites, a nomadic people from the Syrian desert, overran much of Mesopotamia and sounded a series of kingdoms in Ashur an Mari and father south, gained control of the old Sumerian cities, including Babylon. Here, at the start of the 19th century BC, they founded their first royal dynasty. Hammurabi was this first Babylonian dynasty’s fifth king, and his reign from 1792 to 1750 BC was undoubtedly glorious.


One by one he crushed all his enemies, most of whom were Amorites like himself, until he had set up an empire which embraced all of southern Mesopotamia – north into Assyria, westward towards the Mediterranean and southwards to the Persian Gulf. His genius for unification was reflected in his legal code, a concisely written body of common law. No treasures from Hammurabi’s time remain in Babylon itself, partly because its valuables were scattered during the maelstrom that followed. For 1,000 years after Babylon’s founding, the warring peoples who populate the pages of the Old Testament disputed Mesopotamia. The Kassites – from the Zagros Mountains in western Iran – took and held Babylon for four and a half centuries. After that, invading Elamites carried off many of the city’s riches to their own capital, Susa. These included the stele that shows Hammurabi receiving the contents of his laws from Shamash, god of justice. In the 13th century BC Babylonia fell victim, for the first time, to the Assyrians, and from the 9th century onwards it was a vassal state of Assyria. Babylon found its subjugation intolerable. There were several revolutions, and during the course of the 7th century BC the Assyrians destroyed the city twice.

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