Immortalised by artists, writers and musicians, the city of Babylon in modern-day Iraq has become a place of legend, associated with great wealth, wondrous architecture and decadence. Today it lies in ruins but at its peak 2,500 years ago it was the largest city in the world, thought to be the first with a population of over 200,000.
Babylon came to prominence around 1900 BC when it was part of the Amorite kingdom. Under Hammurabi (1792–1750 BC) the kingdom grew and Babylon became capital of southern Mesopotamia. Hammurabi’s code of laws, which was inscribed in a Babylonian temple, still survives and is one of the oldest in human history. In about 1600 BC the Hittites raided the city and over the subsequent centuries it was fought over by various groups, while remaining one of the most important metropolises in the region.
The Assyrians dominated Babylon for most of the early first millennium BC but after an internal power struggle, a native ruler, Nabopolassar, took charge of the kingdom. His son Nebuchadnezzar (c630–c561) greatly strengthened the land and transformed the city with an extensive period of building work. Nebuchadnezzar’s achievements also included military conquests such as the capture of Jerusalem in 587 BC.
The city’s heyday proved brief however. In 539 BC Persian ruler Cyrus II captured Babylon and incorporated it into his vast empire. Legend has it that Cyrus was initially unable to penetrate the city’s powerful defences and could see no way to make any progress, as the only entrance was the river Euphrates. He solved the conundrum by digging trenches that diverted some of the water and lowered the Euphrates until it was at a level suitable for his soldiers to walk along the riverbed. By this means his army stole in to Babylon where they surprised and overwhelmed the city’s inhabitants.
Persian rule saw Babylon retain much of its riches and when Greek historian Herodotus visited in the fifth century BC he described it as the world’s most splendid city. Another famous Greek to be drawn to the grand metropolis was Alexander the Great. He conquered Babylon in 331 BC and aimed to make it the capital of his empire. His death eight years later in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace scuppered his plans and precipitated Babylon’s decline and ruin.
Alexander’s generals competed for control of Babylon and the city eventually fell into the hands of the Greek Seleucid dynasty. The Seleucids built a new capital, Seleucia, on the river Tigris and, as if to rub salt into Babylon’s wounds, deported much of its population to Seleucia in AD 275. As other cities in the region grew, Babylon faded into obscurity and its architectural marvels crumbled, becoming the preserve of archaeologists and myth makers.
Babylon: Myth and Reality is running at the British Museum until 15 March 2009. www.britishmuseum.org/babylon
This article was first published in the December 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine