60-second history: Babylon

Baffled by the Hanging Gardens? Bemused by the Tower of Babel? Then read our bluffers' guide to the ancient city of Babylon

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60-second history: Babylon

Where is Babylon?

The city of Babylon was once capital of Babylonia in southern Mesopotamia ­– today, that’s about 60 miles south of Baghdad, in modern-day Iraq.

How and when did it become such a huge empire?

Little is known about Babylon’s early history, but ancient records suggest that 4,000 years ago, it functioned as some sort of administrative centre. In 1894 BC, the city was conquered by Samu-abum, from an area around modern-day Syria, and turned into a petty kingdom. 

When did Babylon begin to flourish?

From 1200 to 600 BC, series of wars and conflicts between Assyria and Elam caused much disruption for Babylon. But in 605 BC, a new king emerged: Nebuchadnezzar II.

Through a series of military conquests, Nebuchadnezzar created an empire that stretched from the Persian Gulf to the borders of Egypt. Inside the city itself, he began an extensive building and reconstruction program, that included huge shrines, three major palaces, and the Ishtar Gate, which served as the ceremonial entrance to the inner wall of the city.

What about the Tower of Babel?

Mentioned in the Book of Genesis and often dismissed as a mythical structure, the Tower of Babel has also been associated with known Babylonian structures such as the Etemenanki (meaning ‘temple of the foundation of heaven and earth’ in Sumerian), a pyramid-like structure known as a ziggurat dedicated to the god Marduk. The structure stood some 300 ft high, but was destroyed by Alexander the Great.

What were the Hanging Gardens of Babylon?

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Hanging Gardens were supposedly built by Nebuchadnezzar for his homesick wife, Amyitis, who missed the green hills of her homeland. The gardens’ location has never been definitively established, but they are thought to have comprised an ascending series of tiered gardens full of trees, shrubs, and vines. The search for their location continues, but many have dismissed the gardens as a myth.

What happened to the city?

The city fell to the Persians in 539 BC, but continued to flourish as a centre of art and education, and even when Alexander the Great felled the Persian Empire in 331 BC, he ordered Babylon to remain untouched. In the wake of his death, however, the extent to which the empire was fought over saw the city’s inhabitants flee, and Babylon steadily fell into ruin.

It was extensively reconstructed by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, so little of the original Babylon is now visible.

 
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