King of Babylon
Accession of the King. Following the destruction of Assyrian military power at the end of the seventh century, a new Babylonian dynasty inherited the mantle of the Assyrian empire. The founder of the Neo-Babylonian dynasty (often called the “Chaldean” dynasty) was Nabopo-lassar (625–605 b.c.e..). He was succeeded on the throne by his son Nebuchadnezzar II, who reigned for forty-three years. Nebuchadnezzar continued his father’s claims to the lands of northern Syria by campaigning in the region eight times. Once Assyrian control over this area had disappeared, Syria and the Levant were hotly contested. Small states such as Judah and city-states such as the Mediterranean port of Tyre were caught between the military ambitions of the Babylonians and the Egyptians. In 605 b.c.e.., while still crown prince, Nebuchadnezzar routed the Egyptian forces in a battle for control of the Syrian garrison at Carchemish. Four years later, his army reached the Egyptian frontier.
Attacks on Judah. Nebuchadnezzar’s control over Syria and the Levant was continually threatened by rebellions of small states and by their alliances with Egypt. In 597 b.c.e.. he marched against Jerusalem and “carried off from there all the treasures of the House of the Lord and the treasures of the royal palace; (and) he stripped off all the golden decorations in the Temple of the Lord” (II Kings 24:13). King Jehoiachin, his wives, the nobility, commanders of the army, and all the troops, together with craftsmen and smiths (II Kings 24:14–15), were deported to Babylon. Only the poor were left in the city. After the puppet ruler, Zedekiah, Jehoiachin’s uncle, rebelled, Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem in 588 b.c.e.. In 586 b.c.e.. Jerusalem fell; the city was burned, its walls torn down, and the Temple looted. The last remnants of the population were deported, leaving only the poorest on the land to tend the fields and vineyards.
Domestic Rebellion. Nebuchadnezzar’s own records present a picture of domestic peace and tranquility. But hints of rebellion emerge from private records. A legal record written in 594 b.c.e.. reveals that a member of the elite broke a solemn loyalty oath to his king and may have planned, or been a part of, a revolt. The traitor, Baba-aha-iddina, was convicted of treason by the assembly and sentenced to death. A portion of his property was confiscated and donated to the temple of the god Nabu.
Law. Although school copies of the Laws of Hammurabi continued to be made during the first millennium b.c.e.., no new law codes from the period are preserved. Nebuchadnezzar referred to himself as a “King of Justice,” but only a small collection of laws dealing with aspects of family law and property is attributed to his reign. The beginning and end of this legal collection are missing.
Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar’s inscriptions stress his pride in the rebuilding of Babylon, which became his most renowned achievement. The city was one of the largest in the ancient Near East, covering an area of more than three square miles. To the fifth century b.c.e.. historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the city surpassed in splendor any city in the known world. It was surrounded by huge double walls with many finely decorated gates. The Euphrates River ran north to south through the city, dividing it into two parts. A stone bridge in the middle of town allowed passage between the eastern and western districts. The city was filled with impressive temples, shrines, paved streets, and palaces.
Ziggurat. Dominating Babylon at its center near the river was the massive ziggurat E-temenanki (“House of the link between Heaven and Underworld”). Begun in the second millennium b.c.e.., the structure had been repaired several times by his predecessors. Nebuchadnezzar raised the height of the terrace, enlarged the outer wall to the north, and provided for water drainage into a nearby canal. At the conclusion of his work, the temple tower stood seven stories in height. According to Herodotus, the uppermost part, the dwelling of the city’s god, Marduk, was adorned with blue-glazed enameled bricks made to imitate the appearance of the heavens. Staircases led from ground level to the top of the tower. This building may have inspired the story about the biblical Tower of Babel.
Temples. Nebuchadnezzar continued his father’s work of rebuilding, enlarging, and embellishing the temples of Babylon. He succeeded in making the city “a wonder” after its partial destruction by Assyrian armies in the seventh century b.c.e.. Nebuchadnezzar claimed to have begun work on sixteen temples in the city of Babylon and many more in twelve other cities throughout his realm. In some temples he made shrines “shine like a bright day” by adorning their interiors with gold. Other temples were decorated with silver, gold, and precious stones. Processional streets leading to the temple were covered with glazed bricks. Weavers were commissioned to make rich garments of dyed wool for the statues of the gods.
The Ishtar Gate. At Babylon, a broad processional street led to the monumental Ishtar Gate, located in the north wall of the city. On its dedicatory inscription, the king wrote that the gates of his city were “made of (glazed) bricks with blue stone on which wonderful bulls and dragons were depicted. I covered their roofs by laying majestic cedars lengthwise over them. I hung doors of cedar adorned with bronze at all the gate openings. I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor that people might gaze on them in wonder.”
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. According to classical writers, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Greek geographer Strabo, writing in the first century b.c.e.., said that these gardens were planted with many large trees. Another first century b.c.e.. classical writer, Diodorus Siculus, maintained that the gardens were four hundred feet wide by four thousand feet long and more than eighty feet high. However, no such gardens are mentioned in any Babylonian inscriptions, and no clear archaeological remains of them have been found. The Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 b.c.e..) recorded that he planted gardens at Kalhu and filled them with trees imported from distant lands. Even more dramatic were the gardens built by Sennacherib (704–681 b.c.e..) at Nineveh. It is not impossible that in later antiquity the gardens in one great city of Mesopotamia became confused with massive building projects in another.
Ronald H. Sack, Images of Nebuchadnezzar: The Emergence of a Legend (Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1992).