Babylon - The famous Mesopotamian city


Early period

Babylon was the most famous Mesopotamian city in antiquity, located along the Euphrates River, 55 miles southwest of modern Baghdad. Major excavations began in 1899 by the Germans and, in recent times, have been continued by Iraq’s Department of Antiquities.

The city is first mentioned by the Agade king, Sharkalisharri (2217–2193 b.c.e.), who built two temples in Babylon. During the Ur III period (2112– 2004 b.c.e.), various officials bore the title “governor of Babylon.” In the following centuries Mesopotamia experienced a large influx of west Semitic nomads, who settled into new cities or populated existing ones. The Sumerians designated these migrants as Martu (the west), from which the Akkadians derived Amurru (Amorites).

In 1894 b.c.e. the Amorite Sumuabum founded a dynasty at Babylon. His successor, Sumulael, extended Babylon’s power by capturing the citystates of Sippar, Kish, and Dilbat. Others, however, were also expanding their kingdoms. ShamshiAdad I succeeded in conquering all of Upper Mesopotamia, including the important cities of Ashur and Mari. RimSin of Larsa dominated the south, eventually annexing the longtime rival kingdom of Isin. The balance of power further depended on major city-states such as Eshnunna, Qatna, and Yamhad (Aleppo).

The Old Babylonian period began in 1792 b.c.e., with Hammurabi’s ascent to Babylon’s throne. He is perhaps best known for his Law Code, which contains many parallels with laws in the Jewish scriptures. In Hammurabi’s first 28 years only three campaigns are recorded. Most of his time was spent building Babylon’s military defenses, economic infrastructure, and temples, as well as establishing diplomacy with foreign powers. After Shamshi-Adad died in 1782 b.c.e., Assyrian pow- er slowly declined. Hammurabi, nonetheless, continued a defensive coalition with Rim-Sin, motivated by the proximity between their respective territories. He also formed friendly relations with Zimri-Lim, the native ruler who reclaimed Mari’s throne from Yasmah-Adad (Shamshi-Adad’s son).

From 1764 b.c.e. Hammurabi began to adopt a more aggressive military stance. A coalition of troops from Elam, Assyria, and Eshnunna was defeated by Babylon. The very next year, aided by Mari and Eshnunna, Hammurabi turned against his ally, Rim-Sin. With Larsa subjugated, the southern cities under its control capitulated to Babylon. For the first time since the great third millennium empires, both Sumer and Akkad were united under one kingdom. Conscious of the significance of this, Hammurabi took for himself Naram-Sin’s title “King of the Four Quarters (of the World).” Despite changes in ruling dynasties, Babylon would remain the region’s capital until the time of Alexander the Great. Indeed, all of south Mesopotamia would later be named “Babylonia.”

Hammurabi’s ambition now turned toward Upper Mesopotamia. He betrayed ZimriLim and conquered Mari in 1761 b.c.e. The prologue to Hammurabi’s Law Code mentions that northern cities such as Ashur, Nineveh, and Tuttul were united under his control. Babylon’s hegemony, however, did not survive Hammurabi for long. Barely a decade after his death his son Samsuiluna was threatened by the invasion of the Kassites, whose homeland was in the Zagros Mountains. To the south the rise of the First Sealand dynasty encroached on Babylon’s territories. For one and a half centuries Hammurabi’s successors clung to a dynasty that was a mere shadow of its former glory. In 1595 b.c.e. Murshili I, king of the Hittites, sacked Babylon, terminated its dynasty, and marked the end of the Old Babylonian period.

Babylon, later periods

Shortly after Murshili I, king of the Hittites, sacked Babylon in 1595 b.c.e., political intrigue in the Hittite court compelled him to return to Hatti. Two contenders filled the sudden power vacuum in southern Mesopotamia. In the southern marshlands was a kingdom later known as the First Sealand dynasty. Its kings adopted names that suggest a proclivity to revive the ancient culture of Sumer. In the north were the Kassites, a tribal group originating from the Zagros Mountains. Already known from the time of Hammurabi, their dynasty lasted an unprecedented 576 years.
By c. 1475 b.c.e. the Kassites defeated the Seal and dynasty and ruled over all of Babylonia (southern Mesopotamia), which they called “Karduniash.” The remarkable stability of Kassite rule consolidated the region’s identity as a single territorial state (rather than individual city-states), a unity that persisted even after Kassite times. Although foreigners in origin, the Kas- sites assimilated well into the local culture, adopting native Babylonian customs, language, and religion. Several scholars have dated the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish to the Kassite period. This epic elevates Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon, to the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon, thus reflecting the political primacy of the city of Babylon.

Under the Kassites, Babylonia became an international power. During c. 1500–1200 b.c.e. the rulers
whom pharaoh regarded as equals were addressed as Great Kings and included the leaders of Babylonia, Hat- ti, Mittani, Assyria, Alashiya (Cyprus), and Arzawa (in southwest Anatolia). Their courts kept in contact by direct messenger service, using the Babylonian dia- lect as the lingua franca. During the reign of the Kassite king Kurigalzu I, so much gold was being imported from Egypt that, for the only time in Babylonian history, gold replaced silver as the standard for transactions. In turn, Babylonia was sought after for its trade in lapis lazuli and fine horses.

Assyria achieved its independence with the decline of Mitanni, and a succession of particularly capable kings ruled Assyria in the 14th and 13th centuries b.c.e.. Understandably, Babylon began to express concerns about the growing power of this near neighbor. The Kassite king implored the pharaoh not to recognize Assyrian independence and renewed alliances with the Hittites against this common enemy. Nonetheless, in less than a century the Assyrian monarch Tukulti-Ninurta I conquered Babylon and deposed King Kashtiliash IV. A series of puppet kings was appointed in Babylon, until local rebellion returned control to the Kassites. Eventually, however, the Elamites raided Babylonia and plundered such national treasures as Naram-Sin’s Victory Stela, Hammurabi’s Law Code, and even Marduk’s cult statue from Babylon. In c. 1155 b.c.e., the Elamites deposed King Enlilnadinahi, hence terminating the long lasting Kassite dynasty.

The following period is noteworthy as the only time in Babylonian history when native dynasties ruled the region. Situated in the south, the city of Isin perhaps evaded Elamite devastation in northern Babylonia. A second Isin dynasty (1157–1026 b.c.e.) was quick to ascend Babylon’s throne. The most famous of its rulers was Nebuchadnezzar I (r. 1124–03 b.c.e.), who was celebrated as a national hero for avenging Elam’s raid on Babylon and for recovering Marduk’s cult statue. When the Babylonian Marduknadinahhe raided Ekallatum, the Assyrian king Tiglathpileser I retaliated by attacking Babylon and burning its royal palaces. Animosity between Assyria and Babylonia, however, was temporarily halted by the rise of a common threat: the Aramaeans. These were a nomadic Semitic people in northern Syria, who ravaged Mesopotamia during times of famine, eventually contributing to the demise of the second Isin dynasty. Some scholars think that the civil upheavals narrated in the Epic of Erra describe conditions resulting from Aramaean invasions.
Northwest Babylonia was the area most debilitated by the Aramaeans, and perhaps it was natural that native resurgence should now find its strength from the south. In any case the Second Sealand dynasty, 1026–1005 b.c.e., followed by the Kassite Bazi dynasty (1004–985 b.c.e.) and  even an Elamite dynasty (984–979 b.c.e.). The few written records of 979–814 b.c.e. seem to indicate good relations between Babylonia and Assyria, which were ratified by treaty agreements.

During 814–811 b.c.e., however, the Assyrian king Shamshi-Adad raided Babylonia, deported two Babylonian rulers, and reduced the region to a state of anarchy. When Assyria declined after his reign, the Chaldeans readily filled the power vacuum in Babylonia. These were a tribal people in southern Babylonia, who were more sedentary than the Aramaeans and had well assimilated into Babylonian culture. Under the leadership of Eriba-Marduk from the Bit-Yakin tribe, the Chaldeans seized Babylon from the Assyrians.

The ascension of Nabonassar (747–734 b.c.e.) marks the point when the Babylonian Chronicle and the Ptolemaic canon  begin  their  systematic  account of Babylonian history. It is questionable whether this monarch himself was Chaldean, as he appeared in conflicts with both Aramaeans and Chaldeans. According to Hellenistic tradition, the Nabonassar Era was  the time when astronomy became highly developed and the name Chaldean became synonymous with the avocation of astronomer. Nabonassar received strong military support from the Assyrian Tiglathpileser III, and Babylonia may actually have come under vassalage to Assyria during this time. The growing power of the Neo-Assyrian empire resulted in a polarization of Babylonian opinion: Cities in northern Babylonia, closer to the Assyrian border, tended to be pro-Assyrian. By contrast, the Chaldeans and other southern tribes tended to be anti-Assyrian.

The reign of Tiglathpileser saw a change in Assyrian policy toward Babylonia. With the exception of Tukulti-Ninurta I, the Assyrian monarchs had traditionally restrained their efforts to control Babylonia, in deference to the latter’s antiquity as the ancestral origin of Assyria’s own culture and religion. In 729 b.c.e., however, Tiglathpileser established a precedent by deposing the Babylonian king and uniting Assyria and Babylonia in a dual monarchy. Merodach baladan II, an important sheikh from the Bit-Yakin tribe, took over Babylon after Shalmaneser V (Tiglathpileser’s son) died. This Chaldean had succeeded in buying an alliance with the Elamite army. He was to prove a recurring threat to Assyria and remembered as a hero of Babylonian nationalism. It was only after 710 b.c.e. that Sargon II reasserted Assyrian supremacy and chased the Chaldeans back to the south.

The Assyrian king Sennacherib experimented with various methods of governing Babylonia. Shortly after his ascension to Babylon’s throne in 703 b.c.e., he was ousted in another coup by Merodachbaladan. After defeating the Chaldean, Sennacherib tried to install a pro-Assyrian native on Babylon’s throne. When this failed, the Assyrian king entrusted the control of Babylonia to his son, Ashurnadinshumi. Unfortunately, the crown prince was kidnapped by the Elamites, and a certain Nergalushezib replaced him. This Elamite stooge was, in turn, replaced by Mushezib-Marduk, a ruler of the Bit-Dakkuri tribe. In 689 b.c.e. Sennacherib razed Babylon, plundered its temples, and removed Marduk’s cult statue to Assyria.

Esarhaddon (680–669 b.c.e.) preferred a strategy of conciliation. He attained a measure of peace with the Babylonians by rebuilding Babylon and undoing his father’s damage. At his death Marduk’s statue was returned to Babylon, and the empire was divided between two sons: Ashurbanipal in Assyria and Shamashshumaukin in Babylonia. Civil war, however, soon broke out between the two kingdoms. By 648 b.c.e. the Assyrians were once again in control of Babylon. Moreover, numerous tablets and writing boards were bought or confiscated from Babylonian scholars to stock Ashurbanipal’s library at Nineveh. Among the texts were literary  masterpieces such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Babylonian creation epic (Enuma Elish). satrap (governor) of Bactria, Bessus, fought with Dar- ius III against Alexander at the Battle of Guagamela, then fled with the Persian ruler. Bessus eventually killed Darius III and tried to rally his army against Alexander. After Alexander’s conquest of Bactria in 328 b.c.e. Bessus was maimed and crucified.

Upon Alexander’s death only five years later, Bactria—like most of his kingdom—endured civil war and strife, eventually becoming part of the Seleucid Empire set up by Alexander’s military heir, Seleucus I, and his son, Antiochus I. Greek cities with temples and gymnasiums were built, and mints were established. Likely, the indigenous tribes were nomadic, probably ancestors of the Tajik people.

They coexisted with the Greeks. In 255 b.c.e. Diodotus, satrap of Bactria, overthrew the Seleucids and established his own dynasty, the Diodotids. They were in turn overthrown by Euthydemus I and his descendents, the Euthydemids. 

The Seleucids attempted a reconquest, described by the Greek historian Polybius, which ended in 206 b.c.e. with a marriage between the Bactrian king’s son, Demetrius, and a daughter of the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus III. At about the same time Sogdiana in the north became independent of Bactria.
When he assumed the Bactrian throne around 185 b.c.e., Demetrius I conquered parts of Iran, Pakistan, Punjab, and northern India.  Demetrius  I  was  killed by Eucratides, who may have been a cousin of the Seleucids. Eucratides came out the victor in a civil war between Bactria and the recently conquered Bactrian provinces in India. The last Greek  ruler  of  Bactria was probably a descendant of Eucratides named Heliocles, who was driven away by nomadic tribes from the north and east. These tribes then absorbed Bactria into their Kushan Empire. Demetrius I’s Indo-Greek provinces remained independent for  another  140 years, until 10 c.e. Under the Kushans, Bactria was known as Tokharistan, after the Western name (Tocharian) of the Yuezhi nomads, who had emerged from central China centuries before. In the third century c.e. the Sassanids of Persia gained control. Several other changes in ownership took place until Arabs conquered the land in the seventh century c.e.

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