Thursday, May 23, 2013

History Mystery: Babylon the city of Nebuchadnezzar -3

The Babylonians’ religious beliefs were rooted in a tradition which dated back over 2,500 years to the origins of Sumerian civilization. Every Sumerian city was ruled by a monarch – the representative of his city’s god who, surrounded by his court, was also masters of a specific art of the world. The god assured the prosperity of the city by keeping in balance the cosmic forces upon which the fertility of the earth and its occupants depended. Quite how this balance was maintained in the Babylonian scheme of this is not known. But some scholars conclude that, in Babylonian belief, the god shared his power with a mother goddess whom he wed afresh each year. It was at these ceremonies that the king and the high priestess acted out the role of the divine couple.

The mythical son to whom they gave birth personified the new year’s growth of crops. Months later, harvest time heralded to god’s death. Although he was mourned, it was recognized that his death formed an essential part of the natural cycle. The gods were organized into a pantheon, whose purpose was to maintain order throughout the world. Anu, god of the sky, Enlil, god of the wind and atmosphere, and Ea, god of the water, were the supreme gods. Then came Sin, the Moon; Shamash, the Sun; and Ishtar, the planet Venus. Marduk was one of the yound warrior gods.  When Babylon became the centre of the Middle Eastern world, Hammurabi declared that Marduk – as the city’s patron – occupied too modest a position in the pantheon.

 To put this right, he proclaimed that the top three gods had made Marduk their leader. His theologians were expected to justify the proclamation, so they set to work gathering together the oldest traditions about the creation of the world. A long poem was composed which recounted battles between the elemental beings – Tiamat, salt sea, and Apsu, fresh water – and the gods to whome they had given birth. Tiamat, that said, had created an army of monsters to kill the gods and to hurl the world back into primordial chaos. Terrified, the gods refused to give battle until the young Marduk stepped forward as their champion and agreed to defend them on one condition: that they grant him supreme power. After an heroic struggle, Marduk became first among the gods. The other gods survived, but as personifications of Marduk’s many powers. And they were gardeners.

Although no contemporary Babylonian text describing the ‘hanging gardens’ exists, historians such as Diodorus of Sicily rated them one of the wonders of the world. Elaborate gardens with artificial hills, for which water was brought in by aqueduct and raised using bronze Archimedes’ Screw devices, were built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib at Nineveh. Some archaeologists believe that these ‘Hanging Gardens’ of Nineveh were mistakenly attributed to Babylon. Others accept that Babylon also had magnificent gardens, but have not established their location. Traces of a garden have been attributed to a building behind the servants’ quarters. Its rows of vaulted corridors could have once supported plant – filled terraces. But corridors such as these were commonly used in the East for strong barrel- shaped jars. The building more probably contained the palace storerooms. A corner bastion of the palace on the edge of the Euphrates may also have been a retaining wall for a garden. Whatever their location, they were a credit to Nebuchadnezzar’s brilliant reign.

But the brightness of his capital was soon to dim. In 559 BC Nabonidus, the son of a priestess of Sin, mounted the throne as Nebuchadnezzar’s successors. He very soon exasperated Marduk’s clergy by giving preferential treatment to the temples of Sin in Ur and in Harran, in northern Syria. And life under Belshazzar, last of his line, was no easier. He held in contempt the Jews whom Nebuchadnezzar had brought in captivity to Babylon after the sacking of Jerusalem in 587 BC. There were many in Babylon who welcomed Cyrus, the king of the Medes and Persians, as a liberator. In 539 BC Cyrus and hgis army entered Babylon while Belshazzar was enjoying a great festival. The city was so vast that according to the fanciful account of Herodotus, the outskirts were captured without the people in the centre knowing anything about it. At the same time, according to the Jewish prophet Daniel, there ‘came forth fingers of a man’s palace… and this is the writing that was written… Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin… Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and the Persians.’ Cyrus declared himself a worshipper of the god Marduk; and one of his first acts was to free the captive Jews in the city. But while the Persians did not destroy Babylon, it had lost its independence for ever. Two centuries later, Alexander the Great established his empire throughout the Middle East, and planned to restore the city to its former brilliance. After his death, however, the idea was forgotten, and the inhabitants of Babylon soon abandoned their home to the plunder and neglect of the next 2,000 years.

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