Babylon: From riches to ruins

With a major Babylon exhibition showing at the British Museum, Rob Attar describes the city's rise and fall

Made of basalt, this inscribed stone dates to the sixth century BC. The figure is Nabonidus who was the last king of Babylon before the Persian invasion under Cyrus II. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty images)

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.

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