Babylon, City of

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Capital of babylonia and one of the most famous cities of antiquity. Its original name was perhaps the Akkadian term bābu ellu (holy gate)which term had been transferred from its processional gate to the section of the city near the gate and then to the whole cityor it was a pre-Semitic, non-Sumerian word; but at an early period this name was changed by folk etymology to bāb-ilim ki [gate of the god (marduk)]. The latter name appeared in Hebrew as bābel and was translated into Sumerian as ká-dingir-ra ki. Other neo-Sumerian names of the city were tin-tir ki (part of life) and e ki (canal city). In Gn 11.9 the Hebrew name bābel is explained by folk etymology as if the city were thus called because Yahweh there "confused" (bālāl ) the language of the builders of the tower of babel. From the neo-Babylonian name of the city bāb-ilāni (gate of the gods) is derived its Greek name Bαβυλών.

The ruins of the ancient city lie about 60 miles south of Baghdad, near the Hilla Canal of the Euphrates. About 12 miles to the east are the ruins of the much more ancient Sumerian city of Kish, which was once on the Euphrates. When the Euphrates changed its bed westward (probably in the 3d millennium b.c.), Babylon took the place of Kish as the chief city of middle Mesopotamia. The Euphrates has since then moved further to the west and is now about ten miles west of the site of Babylon.

Despite the descriptions of the city given in cuneiform documents and by classical authors, its topography is not entirely clear. But the excavations made by German archeologists under the direction of R. Koldewey have revealed the main features of the ancient city, especially its walls, its chief temple (the é-sag-illa, "the house that raises high its head") and ziggurat, or temple tower (the é-tem-an-ki, "the house of the foundation of heaven and earth"), and its magnificent processional "Ishtar Gate." Most of the surface ruins come from the neo-Babylonian period.

The earliest mention of Babylon comes from the time of the Dynasty of Akkad (23602180). But the city was not important until it was taken and made the capital of a small kingdom by the amorrite founder of the First Dynasty of Babylon, Sumu-abum (18301817). The sixth king of this dynasty, hammurabi (17281686), extended the sway of Babylon over all of Mesopotamia and made the city the capital of an empire. Thereafter the history of the city of Babylon is intimately connected with the history of Babylonia. (see mesopotamia, ancient.) Although it always retained its cultural leadership, it did not regain its political hegemony until the time of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626539), when, especially under nebuchadnezzar, it reached its greatest glory. After it fell to Cyrus the Great in 539 b.c., it was merely one, and not the most important one, of the several administrative centers of the Persian Empire. With the founding of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (about 45 miles to the north) as the political center of Mesopotamia toward the end of the 4th century b.c., Babylon quickly decayed, so that by the end of the 2d century b.c., especially after it had been sacked by the Parthians (127 b.c.), it had become a heap of ruins.

In the Bible Babylon looms large with the rise of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and several oracles of the Prophets predict its doom because of its wickedness and its hostility toward Israel (e.g., Is 13.114.23;21.110; Jer 50.151.64). In the NT the name Babylon is a symbolic term for Rome (Rv ch. 1718;1 Pt 5.13).

Bibliography: r. koldewey, Das wieder erstehende Babylon (4th ed. Leipzig 1925). w. von soden, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 1:808810. e. unger, Reallexikon der Assyriologie 1:330339. h. junker, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d new ed. Freiburg 195765) 1:116567. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 184188.

[j. s. considine]