Your guide to the ancient city of Babylon
On the bank of the Euphrates once lay one of the ancient world’s most powerful cities. Why did it become so famous, and what do we really know about its hanging gardens? BBC History Revealed guides us around Babylon...
Where is Babylon?
Babylon, one of the most famous cities from any ancient civilisation, was the capital of Babylonia in southern Mesopotamia. Today, that’s about 60 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq.
How and when did Babylon become the centre of such a huge empire?
Little is known about Babylon’s early history, but ancient records suggest that around 4,000 years ago, it functioned as some sort of administrative centre.
Then in 1894 BC, the city was conquered by Samuabum, a chief from an area around modern-day Syria, who turned it into a petty kingdom.
The city’s fortunes changed dramatically in 1792 BC, when its sixth king, Hammurabi, ascended the throne.
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Who was Hammurabi and what did he do?
During his reign, 1792-50 BC, Hammurabi expanded the city-state along the Euphrates River and annexed many old urban centres, such as Ur, Uruk, Isin and Larsa.
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Now the ruler of a mighty empire, Hammurabi, who was revered as a god, established new rules for his people: the Code of Hammurabi, which dates to c1754 BC and consists of 282 laws.
Carved onto a four-ton piece of basalt – now on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris – the code contains many harsh punishments for breaking these laws, including demanding the removal of the guilty party’s tongue, hands, breasts, eye or ear.
The Code of Hammurabi, however, is also one of the earliest examples of the idea of an accused being considered innocent until proven guilty.
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Justice was issued according to the three classes of Babylonian society — those with property, freed men and slaves. For example, if a doctor killed a rich patient, he would have his hands cut off as punishment but if his victim were a slave, only financial restitution was required.
What happened after Hammurabi’s reign?
The empire declined after his death, leaving Babylonia vulnerable to capture by Hittite Mursili I in 1595 BC.
He was followed by a series of Kassite Kings, originating from the Zagros Mountains in the northeast of Babylonia, who ruled peacefully for around 500 years.
During this time, the Babylonian language became widely used across the Middle East, and the power of the empire was stabilised.
When did Babylonia truly begin to flourish?
From 1200 to 600 BC, a series of wars between Assyria and Elam caused severe disruption for the Babylonian Empire. But in 605 BC, a new King emerged: Nebuchadnezzar II.
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Through a series of military conquests, Nebuchadnezzar created an even bigger empire, stretching from the Persian Gulf to the borders of Egypt.
Inside the city of Babylon itself, he began an extensive building and reconstruction programme, which included huge shrines, three major palaces and the Ishtar Gate, the ceremonial entrance to the inner wall of the city.
What about the Tower of Babel?
Mentioned in the opening book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, and often dismissed as a mythical building, the Tower of Babel has also been associated with known Babylonian structures such as the Etemenanki (or ‘temple of the foundation of heaven and earth’), a pyramid-like ziggurat dedicated to the god Marduk in c610 BC.
The structure stood over 90-metres high, but was destroyed after Alexander the Great captured Babylon (despite his effort to restore it).
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 existence of the gardens as myth.
What happened to the city?
The city fell to the Persians in 539 BC – yet continued to flourish as a centre of art and education. Even when Alexander the Great felled the Persian Empire in 331 BC, he ordered that Babylon remain untouched.
After Alexander's death, however, the extent to which the empire was fought over saw the city’s inhabitants flee, and Babylon steadily fell into ruin.
In the 1980s, Babylon was extensively reconstructed by the Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, so there is little of the original city that is still visible.
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This content first appeared in the January 2016 issue of BBC History Revealed