Ancient History & Civilisation



In 612 B.C., less than thirty years after Ashurbanipal celebrated his triumph, the palaces of Nineveh collapsed in flames and with them collapsed the Assyrian state. The Chaldaean kings of Babylonia, responsible with their allies the Medes for this sudden, violent and radical destruction, remained sole masters in Mesopotamia. Their rule witnessed a colossal amount of building work in southern Iraq, and Babylon – now the largest, most beautiful city in the Near East – became the centre of a movement of architectural, literary and scientific renaissance. It looked as though another Nineveh was born, and indeed the campaigns of Nebuchadrezzar II in the west suggest that a Babylonian empire was on the verge of replacing the Assyrian empire. But the brilliant ‘Neo-Babylonian period’1 was short-lived. The last great Mesopotamian monarch was succeeded by weak, irresponsible princes incapable of resisting the new, formidable enemy that had arisen in the East. In 539 B.C. Babylon fell without resistance into the hands of the Persian conqueror Cyrus.

Such are, in their tragic simplicity, the events which fill the last chapter in the history of Mesopotamia as an independent country, and which must now be told in greater detail.

The Fall of Nineveh

After 639 B.C. the annals of Ashurbanipal come to an abrupt end, leaving in complete darkness the last twelve years of his reign. The reason for this silence is unknown, but it seems to be due to a combination of civil strife and military setbacks. Herodotus, practically our only source of information for this period, tells us that Phraortes, King of the Medes, attacked the Assyrians but lost his life on the battlefield and was succeeded by his son Cyaxares (Uvarkhshatra). Soon, however, the Medes were overpowered by the Scythians, to whom they were forced to pay tribute for twenty-eight years. The wild horsemen also poured over the Zagros, raided Assyria, Syria and Palestine and would have entered Egypt if Psammetichus had not bribed them off. Eventually Cyaxares recovered his freedom by massacring their drunken chieftains at a banquet. The same author, referring to another war, states that a Median onslaught on Nineveh was relieved by a Scythian army – which is quite credible, since we know that Ashurbanipal had made an alliance with the Scythian chief Madyes (see p. 332).2 These events appear to have taken place between 653 (date of Phraortes's death) and 630 B.C. How they affected Assyria we are not told, but if Herodotus's account of the Scythian invasion is trustworthy the fact that their hordes could ride across the entire empire and safely return home is eloquent proof of the extraordinary state of debility into which the Assyrian Army had fallen. Without any doubt, the key to the final disaster of 614-609B.C. lies in these obscure years.

It is now generally agreed that Ashurbanipal died in 627 B.C, and there is evidence that Kandalanu, the puppet king he had installed in Babylon, died in the same year. According to the latest and perhaps most plausible reconstruction of the events which occurred in that poorly documented period,3 the ageing King of Assyria had abdicated in 630 B.C., leaving the sceptre to one of his sons called Ashur-etil-ilâni.* During three years all went well, but immediately after Kandalanu's death trouble began in Babylonia. Sin-shum-lishir, an Assyrian general posted in that region, revolted but was promptly ousted by the royal troops. Sin-shar-ishkun, another of Ashurbanipal's sons, took possession of Babylon and proclaimed himself King of Babylonia. Early in 626 B.C. there were street battles in his capital city, probably stirred up by Nabû-apla-usur* (Nabopolas-sar), often held as a member of the Kaldu (Chaldaean) tribe, who had made himself King of the Sea-Land. Sin-shar-ishkun fled to Nineveh, leaving Babylon to the Chaldaean. The year 626 B.C. was considered by Nabopolassar and his successors the official beginning of the Eleventh and last dynasty or, as we call it, the Chaldaean (perhaps wrongly)4 or Neo-Babylonian dynasty. Then, war broke out between Ashur-etil-ilâni and his brother, and it lasted for three years, with several towns of southern Mesopotamia passing from one hand to another. In 623 B.C. Ashur-etil-ilâni was killed in battle near Nippur, and Sin-shar-ishkun became King of Assyria. As he could not accept much longer the secession of Babylonia, he declared war on Nabopolassar, and for another seven years this unfortunate country was the theatre of cruel battles around the fortified cities still held by the Assyrians. But the Chaldaean resisted, occupied the key city of Nippur and, in 616 B.C., remained in full control of the whole of Sumer and Akkad. By a happy coincidence, 616 also marks the starting-point of a series of Babylonian chronicles which enable us to follow step by step and almost day by day the history of Mesopotamia, including an invaluable account of the fall of Nineveh and other Assyrian cities.5

Meanwhile, the political situation outside Mesopotamia was deteriorating rapidly. There was little to be feared from the north: Urartu had been neutralized by its powerful neighbours, and the Cimmerians, now under Scythian domination, showed no signs of aggressiveness. But in Iran Cyaxares was reorganizing his army, turning it into a powerful instrument of war. From Ecbatana (Hamadan), his capital city, he ruled over ‘the three Medias’, from Lake Urmiah to the region of Teheran, and indirectly over the Persians established farther south. In the east, the Elamites had recovered some degree of independence, and the border town of Dêr had revolted. In the west the Phoenician cities seem to have severed their ties with Nineveh, and so ineffective was the Assyrian control over Palestine that Josiah, King of Judah, was able to promote his religious reform in the province of Samaria, former kingdom of Israel.6 In April–May 616 B.C., Nabopolassar left Babylon and marched along the Euphrates up to the district of Harran and along the Tigris as far as Arrapha (Kirkuk) and Assur, which he besieged without success. In order to win the friendship of the Elamites he returned the statues of their gods held captive in Babylonia; but he failed to obtain their armed support and dared not launch alone a full-scale offensive against his rival. Sin-shar-ishkun, on the other hand, driven onto the defensive and seeing his authority challenged within his own country, sought and obtained the alliance of the Egyptians, who had not forgotten their narrow escape from the Scythian invasion and observed with alarm the progress being made by the Medes in Iran and Asia Minor. The fact that Egypt was now called to the rescue by her former conquerors is significant of the desperate straits in which Assyria found herself. The Egyptians, however, did not actively support their allies until 612/611 B.C., already much too late.

The Assyrians might have resigned themselves to accepting the autonomy of Babylonia, and a compromise could perhaps have been reached if the Medes, acting independently, had not thrown their weight into the balance. At the end Of 615 B.C. they suddenly invaded Assyria and took Arrapha. During the following winter they marched against Nineveh, but instead of attacking it, moved southwards and fell upon Assur, which they captured (614 B.C.):

He (the Mede), says our Chronicle, made an attack upon the town… and the city-wall (?) he destroyed. He inflicted a terrible massacre upon the greater part of the people, plundering it (the city) and carrying off prisoners from it.7

The Babylonians arrived too late to take part in the action. Nabopolassar met Cyaxares (called by the Babylonians Umakish-tar) under the walls of Assur and ‘they established mutual friendship and peace’. The alliance was later sealed by the marriage of Nabopolassar's son, Nebuchadrezzar, with Cyaxares' daughter, Amytis.8 From then on Babylonians and Medes were to fight hand in hand, and Assyria was doomed.

The following year was spent by Nabopolassar in unsuccessful campaigns along the Euphrates, and it was not until the summer of 612 B.C. that the final assault was launched against Assyria's main city, Nineveh. The town was strongly defended, and Babylonians and Medes at first made very slow progress. After three months of siege, however,

A strong attack they made against the city and in the month of Ab (July-August), the… th day, the city was captured, a great defeat of the chief (people) was made. On that day Sin-shar-ishkun, the Assyrian king, [was killed?]. The great spoil of the city and temple they carried off and turned the city into a ruin-mound (tilu) and heaps of debris.9

By the end of 612 B.C. the three capital cities of Assyria – Assur, the religious metropolis, Nineveh, the administrative centre, and probably Nimrud, the military headquarters – as well as all the main Assyrian towns10 had been destroyed. Yet the ghost of an Assyrian kingdom survived for three years. Sin-shar-ishkun having been killed, one of his officers sat on the throne under the name of Ashur-uballit, the same name, ironically, as that of the great monarch who in the thirteenth century had freed his country from the Hurri-Mitannians (see above p. 260). Rallying what was left of the Assyrian Army, he shut himself up in Harran with a few Egyptian troops at last sent to the rescue. In 610 B.C. the Babylonians and the Umman-manda (Medes?)11 marched against Harran. The Assyro-Egyptians abandoned it to take refuge beyond the Euphrates, and the city fell into the hands of the Medes. The following year, after an unsuccessful attempt to recover his stronghold, Assur-uballit disappeared.

Thus ended miserably within the short space of three years the giant who for three centuries had caused the world to tremble with fear. In a few words Nabopolassar wrote his epitaph:

‘I slaughtered the land of Subarum (Assyria), I turned the hostile land into heaps and ruins.

‘The Assyrian, who since distant days had ruled over all the peoples, and with his heavy yoke had brought injury to the people of the Land, his feet from Akkad I turned back, his yoke I threw off.’12

No one, as far as we know, sat on the ruins of Nineveh to write a lamentation.13


The Medes do not appear to have laid claim to the kingdom which they had contributed to overthrow, but they kept troops for some time in Harran, possibly as a potential starting-point for further conquests in Asia Minor. The Babylonians remained in full possession of an Assyria which had virtually been wiped off the map, and except for a few provincial towns such as Arrapha (Kirkuk) apparently spared by the war, they did not occupy it; nor did they repair the damage they had caused. All their efforts were devoted to the religious and cultural revival of southern Mesopotamia, and in the field of foreign policy, to the protection of the Taurus frontier and the subjection of Syria-Palestine. The latter country had been rid of its Assyrian masters only to fall into Egyptian hands. In a belated and fruitless effort to save his allies, pharaoh Necho II had invaded it in 609 B.C., defeating and killing Josiah, King of Judah, who foolishly tried to bar his way,14 and now Egyptian troops held Karkemish and the crossing of the Euphrates. The possession of Karkemish and the control of the Phoenician coast and hinterland were even more important to the Babylonians than they had been to the Assyrians, since practically all their trade was now with the West. The Chaldaean kings could forsake all hope of reconstructing the Assyrian empire; they could abandon to the Medes the lands beyond the mountains; but they could not accept being deprived of rich provinces, nor seeing their gateway to the Mediterranean blocked by the Egyptians, the Aramaeans of Syria or the Phoenicians themselves. Their reigns are filled with repeated campaigns in ‘the land of Hatti’, and their socalled conquests were in fact nothing but an endless struggle to secure the vital sources of Babylonian prosperity.

After his final victory over the Assyrians, Nabopolassar, who was now ageing, relied more and more upon his son Nabû-kudurri-usur (‘Nebuchadrezzar’) for the conduct of military operations. In 607 B.C. the young and energetic crown prince was entrusted with the task of dislodging the Egyptians from Syria. After two years of unsuccessful attempts at establishing bridgeheads at other points of the Euphrates valley, Nebuchadrezzar mustered his army and attacked Karkemish (May–June 605 B.C.). The Egyptian garrison, reinforced by Greek mercenaries, put up strong resistance, but was finally overwhelmed and massacred or captured:

As for the rest of the Egyptian army which had escaped from the defeat (so quickly that) no weapon had reached them, in the district of Hama the Babylonian troops overtook and defeated them so that not a single man escaped to his own country.15

The whole of Syria-Palestine now lay open to the Babylonians. They had already advanced as far as Pelusium, on the Egyptian border, when Nebuchadrezzar heard of his father's death. Wasting no time – the death of an Oriental monarch was always a critical moment – he returned to Babylon ‘in twenty-three days’ and was crowned upon his arrival in the capital-city (23 September 605 B.C.).16

The Babylonians should have known that if invading Syria had been relatively easy, holding it would be extremely difficult. The northern Syrians would be generally submissive, but neither the Phoenicians, nor the Philistines, nor the Jews could wholeheartedly accept paying Babylon a tribute which they had just ceased paying – so reluctantly – to Nineveh. Moreover, Egypt, which had just seen its age-old dream of a Syrian ‘colony’ take shape and vanish, would now more than ever throw oil on the fire. Soon Nebuchadrezzar found himself compelled to display his strength almost every year in the Mediterranean areas and to quell rebellion after rebellion, as Sargon and his successors had done. Twelve months after the battle of Karkemish he was in Syria again, collecting tribute from Damascus, Tyre, Sidon and Jerusalem, but also destroying Ascalon, whose ruler had revolted. In 601 B.C. the Chronicle mentions a great, though inconclusive, battle between the King of Babylon and the King of Egypt – ‘they fought with each other in close battle and inflicted grave havoc on each other’. In 599 B.C. from one of his Syrian camps Nebuchadrezzar ‘sent out his companies scouring the desert’ against the Arabs of Qedar.17 During the winter of 598/97 B.C. Jehoiakim, King of Judah, deaf to the warnings of Jeremiah the prophet, refused to pay tribute then died. Babylonian retaliation came swiftly. On 16 March 597 B.C. Jerusalem was captured, its young king Jehoiakin was deported, together with 3,000 Jews, and replaced by one Mattaniah nicknamed Zedekiah.18 An unfortunate gap in the series of Babylonian Chronicles deprives us of a continuous narrative covering the following years, but we know from other sources that Necho's successor, Psammetichus II, led an expedition to Syria (c. 600 B.C.) and that pharaoh Apries (588 – 562 B.C. ) captured Gaza and attacked Tyre and Sidon.19 The proximity of an Egyptian army and the belief that he could rely upon its assistance probably encouraged Zedekiah to revolt. From his headquarters at Riblah, near Homs, Nebuchadrezzar directed the operations. After a siege of eighteen months Jerusalem was captured by storm on 29 July 587. Zedekiah, who had fled towards Jericho, was taken prisoner:

So they took the king and brought him up to the King of Babylon to Riblah; and they gave judgment upon him. And they slew the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, and put out the eyes of Zedekiah, and bound him with fetters of brass, and carried him off to Babylon.20

Thousands of Jews were deported with their king, while others took refuge in Egypt. A native governor was appointed over Judah. Jerusalem was looted, its walls were ‘broken down round about’ and the House of the Lord, the temple that Solomon had built, was burnt down. Thus 135 years after Israel, ‘Judah was carried away out of the land’.21

The last action of Nebuchadrezzar in Syria, of which we have a record, is a siege of Tyre which lasted, we are told, no less than thirteen years and ended with the capture of the city and the replacement of its king by another. A fragmentary tablet in the British Museum alludes to a campaign against pharaoh Amasis in 568 B.C. and mentions an Egyptian town, but this cannot be regarded as sufficent proof that the Babylonians ever set foot in the Nile valley.22 Ten years at least before the end of the reign the western districts were firmly in Nebuchadrezzar's hands, and Mount Lebanon, that inexhaustible source of timber, was open to regular exploitation:

‘I made that country happy by eradicating its enemy everywhere. All its scattered inhabitants I led back to their settlements. What no former king had done I achieved: I cut through steep mountains, I split rocks, opened passages and I constructed a straight road for the (transport of the) cedars. I made the inhabitants of Lebanon live in safety together and let nobody disturb them.’23

Meanwhile, the Medes were progressing in a north-westerly direction, invading successively Armenia (c. 590) – and Cappadocia. In 585 B.C., when Cyaxares the Mede and Alyattes of Lydia found each other face to face at the ‘Battle of the Eclipse’ and unable to solve their conflict by arms, Nebuchadrezzar acted as referee, negotiated a truce between the two countries and fixed their common frontier on the Halys River (Kizil Irmak).24 But, either in agreement with his ally or as a precaution against a possible Median invasion from the north, he occupied Cilicia and fortified several towns ‘along the border of Urartu’.

The last years of Nebuchadrezzar's reign are obscure. All we know is that this great king died of an illness in the first days of October 562 B.C. His son Amêl-Marduk (‘Evil-Merodach’ of the Old Testament) ruled for only two years. According to Berossus,25‘because he managed affairs in a lawless and outrageous fashion he was plotted against and killed by his sister's husband Neriglisaros (‘Neriglissar’, Nergal-shar-usur), a businessman whom Nebuchadrezzar had entrusted with official functions. Apart from the restoration of temples and other public works mentioned in his inscriptions, the only major achievement we know of in his four years of reign (559 – 556 B.C.) was a victorious military campaign against Appuashu, King of Pirindu (West Cilicia) who had plundered the coastal plain of East Cilicia, then in Babylonian hands, and captured some of its inhabitants.26 After his death, Neriglissar was succeeded by his son Labâshi-Marduk who was still a child but, we are told, exhibited such signs of wickedness that his friends plotted and, nine months later, tortured him to death. The conspirators then met and decided to raise to the throne one of them, Nabû-na'id* (Nabonidus), (June 556 B.C.). But in the previous four years events had taken place in Iran which were of such importance that they were to change, once again, the fate of the Ancient World.

The Fall of Babylon

Nabû-na'id or, as we call him after the Greeks, Nabonidus (556 – 539 B.C.) is one of the most enigmatic and fascinating figures in the long series of Mesopotamian monarchs.27 He was the son of a certain Nabû-balatsu-iqbi, who belonged to the Babylonian nobility but was not of royal blood, and of a votaress of the god Sin in the city of Harran. A man in his sixties when he ascended the throne, he had held important administrative functions under Nebuchadrezzar and Neriglissar. Extremely fond of his mother – she died in 547 B.C., at the age of one hundred and four, and was buried with royal honours28 – he had inherited from her a keen interest in religious affairs and a special, almost exclusive devotion to the god she had served all her life. After the death of Nabû-na'id, the pro-Persian Babylonians, anxious to please their new sovereign, did everything in their power to sully his memory. In a libel known as ‘the Verse Account of Nabonidus’ they accused him of being a madman, a liar boasting of victories he had never won and, above all, a heretic who blasphemed Marduk and worshipped under the name of Sin ‘a deity which nobody had ever seen in the country’.29 These vicious accusations met with a success that their authors themselves could hardly have expected. Though a confusion of names they gave birth to the story of Nebuchadrez-zar's madness, as told in the Book of Daniel, and found an echo in a fragment of the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.30 Even the most cautious of modern historians are obliged to admit that they contain a spark of truth. Some at least of Nabonidus's inscriptions suggest that Sin ranked higher in his esteem than the national god Marduk, and the sanctuaries of the moon-god throughout the country were the objects of his special attention: not only did he splendidly restore the ziqqurat and several temples of Ur but the rebuilding of E.hul.hul, the temple of Sin in Harran, which had been ‘destroyed by the Medes during the war against Assyria, appears to have been the idée fixe of his reign. To say, however, that Nabû-na'id for political and sentimental reasons wanted to replace Marduk by Sin at the head of the Babylonian pantheon is perhaps going too far. Other temples in Mesopotamia – including the great temple of Marduk in Babylon – also benefited from his zeal, and the eagerness with which, before building anew, he sought the temenu, or foundation-deposit, which authenticated the sacred ground testifies to his attachment to the religious traditions of Sumer and Akkad. On account of his lengthy excavations in search of these written documents, Nabonidus has been nicknamed ‘the royal archaeologist’, though neither his aims nor his methods had anything to do with archaeology. Nevertheless, the king certainly shared with his subjects that passion for the study of the past which characterizes his epoch. During the Neo-Babylonian period – and indeed during the following Achaemenian period – a number of ancient chronicles were copied, king lists compiled and antiquities collected with fervour. To quote an amusing example: when Sir Leonard Woolley was excavating at Ur the palace of En-nigaldi-Nanna (formerly read Bêl-shalti-Nannar) – Nabonidus's daughter and high-priestess of Sin – he was puzzled to find in the same building and in the same occupation-level objects of widely different periods, such as a Kassite kudurru, a fragment of a statue of King Shulgi and a clay cone of one of the kings of Larsa. Only later did he realize that he had been exploring the private museum of the priestess.31

In complete contrast with this devout and apparently weak monarch stands the formidable figure of Cyrus II, ‘Great King, the Achaemenian, King of Parsumash and Anshan’, who ascended the Persian throne in 559 B.C., three years before Nabonidus was crowned.

The Persians – an Indo-European speaking people – had entered Iran from the north at the end of the second millennium, at the same time as the Medes with whom they were closely related. Moving slowly across the Iranian plateau, they had eventually reached and occupied the mountainous range still known as Fars, along the Arabo-Persian Gulf. At the close of the seventh century B.C., when their history becomes better known, they were divided into two kingdoms ruled by the descendants of Teispes, son of Achaemenes (Hahamanish). In Persia proper (Parsa or Parsumash), i.e. the region between Isfahan and Shiraz, reigned the family of Ariaramnes, elder son of Teispes, while farther west, along the border of Elam, the country of Anshan (or Anzan) was ruled by the family of Ariaramnes's brother, Cyrus I. Both kingdoms were vassals of the Medes. For one or two generations the House of Ariaramnes held sway over the House of Cyrus, but Cyrus's son, Cambyses I (c. 600 – 559 B.C.), reversed the situation and added to his prestige by marrying the daughter of Astyages, his Median overlord. From this marriage was born Cyrus II. At the beginning of Nabonidus's reign Cyrus (Kurash) from his palace at Pasargadae ruled over a large but isolated district of Iran, paying tribute to hisgrandfather. But the Persian prince lacked neither ambition nor intelligence. He had already started reducing to obedience the Iranian tribes of the neighbourhood and was slowly enlarging his kingdom, when the King of Babylon himself gave him an opportunity to acquire an empire.

We have seen that Nabonidus's most cherished dream was to rebuild the temple of Sin in Harran. Not only was this sanctuary dear to his heart but the possession of the market-place and strategic city commanding the roads from northern Mesopotamia to Syria and Asia Minor was of extreme importance to the economy and security of the Babylonian kingdom. Unfortunately, Harran had been in the hands of the Medes since 610 B.C., and against the Medes Nabonidus alone was powerless. Seeing in the Persians the true successors of the Elamites upon whose assistance the Babylonians had often relied in the past, he called upon Cyrus for help. Cyrus accepted. Astyages got wind of the plot, summoned his grandson to Ecbatana, but met with a refusal to obey. A bitter war ensued, ending with the victory of the Persians. Betrayed by his own general, Astyages was captured by Cyrus, who in one day found himself the master of both the Persian and the Median kingdoms (550 B.C.). This important event, long known to us from the works of classical authors,32 is also mentioned in contemporary cuneiform texts. In one of his inscriptions33 Nabonidus tells us that Marduk appeared to him in a dream and ordered him to rebuild E.hul.hul in Harran. As the king objected that Harran was in the hands of the ‘Umman-manda’ (Medes), Marduk replied:

‘The Umman-manda of whom you speak, they and their land and the kings who side with them no longer exist. In the coming third year I shall make Cyrus, King of Anzan, their young slave, expel them. With his few troops, he will disperse the widespread Umman-manda.

‘He (Cyrus) captured Astyages (Ishtumegu), King of Umman-manda and took him prisoner to his country.’

Another, more precise account of the conflict is given in the so-called ‘Nabonidus Chronicle’:

King Ishtumegu called up his troops and marched against Cyrus, King of Anshan, in order to meet him in battle. The army of Ishtumegu revolted against him and in fetters they delivered him to Cyrus.34

Following his victory over the Medes, Cyrus embarked upon a series of brilliant military campaigns which after ten years gave him an empire considerably larger than anything the world had ever witnessed. His first objective was Lydia, where reigned the fabulously rich Croesus. Rather than cross the Armenian highlands, Cyrus led his troops along the road that ran parallel to the Taurus range, through the steppe of Jazirah. Crossing the Tigris below Nineveh and marching westward via Harran, he occupied Cilicia, then a vassal-state of Babylon, thereby breaking the alliance he had just formed with Nabonidus and throwing the Babylonians on the side of Lydia and her traditional allies, the Egyptians. But neither the Egyptians nor the Babylonians could send troops to the aid of Croesus, who met the Persians alone and was defeated at Pteryum (547 B.C.). Lydia absorbed, the Greek cities of Ionia fell one by one, and the whole of Asia Minor submitted to Persian rule. No sooner was the conquest achieved than Cyrus turned his weapon in the opposite direction. Successively, Parthia and Aria, kingdoms of eastern Iran, Sogdia and Bactria in Turkestan and Afghanistan, and part of India fell into his hands. The Persian empire now stretched from the Aegean to the Pamirs, a distance of almost five thousand kilometres. Confronted with such a giant, Babylon had no hope of surviving.

During that time Nabonidus was in Arabia. We read in the Chronicle that in his third year he went to Syria, raised troops in ‘the land of Hatti’ (as Syria was then called), entered the Arabian desert and besieged Edom (al-Jauf, 450 kilometres due east of Akaba), an important settlement once occupied by the Assyrians. Whether he returned home after this campaign is uncertain owing to an unfortunate break in the tablet, but the entries for the seventh to the eleventh years state that ‘the king was in Temâ’, with the result that the New Year Festival could not be celebrated in Babylon.35 Temâ (Arabic Teima) is a large oasis in western Arabia, and from Temâ Nabonidus could easily wander from oasis to oasis as far away as Iatribu (Yathrib, Medina), as we learn from an inscription discovered at Harran.36 What the King of Babylon was doing in Arabia is one of the most vexing problems in the history of ancient Iraq. Various suggestions have been put forward,37 the most plausible, perhaps, being that Temâ lay at the intersection of several trade routes in the Arabian peninsula, as well as being an important centre of the cult of Sin, and Nabonidus endeavoured to weave close ties with the Arabs in order to secure their alliance against the Persians. The official reason, given in the document known as the Harran inscriptions, is that he voluntarily abandoned Babylonia in the throes of civil war and famine. Yet none of these explanations can account for those ten years of uninterrupted absence from the capital-city, unless we suppose that Nabû-na'id was prevented by his enemies from returning to Babylon. He had left the government in the hands of his son Bêl-shar-usur (‘Belshazzar’ of the Old Testament), a capable soldier but a poor politician, whose authority was challenged by an increasingly influential pro-Persian party, for in almost every country which his victories had placed under Persian rule it had been Cyrus's policy to win the goodwill of his new subjects rather than frighten them into obedience, to pose as liberator and treat his prisoners with mercy, to respect and even encourage local cults, traditions and customs. He was therefore extremely popular throughout the Near East, and among the Babylonians many thought that they would lose little by becoming the subjects of such a good prince. The writing was on the wall: Babylon would be an easy prey.

Cyrus attacked Babylonia in the autumn of 539 B.C. Nabonidus, who had at last returned from Arabia, ordered Belshazzar to deploy his troops along the Tigris in order to cover the capital-city. But the Persians had overwhelming numerical superiority. Moreover, Gubaru (Gobryas), governor of Gutium (i.e. Assyria), who ought to have protected the left flank of Belshazzar's army, went over to the enemy. The subsequent events are described in detail in the Nabonidus Chronicle.38

In the month of Tashritu (September – October), when Cyrus attacked the army of Akkad in Opis on the Tigris, the inhabitants of Akkad revolted, but he (Nabonidus) massacred the confused inhabitants.

The fifteenth day, Sippar was seized without a battle. Nabonidus fled.

The sixteenth day, Gubaru, the governor of Gutium, and the army of Cyrus entered Babylon without a battle. Afterwards, Nabonidus was arrested in Babylon when he returned (there).

Till the end of the month, the shield-carrying Gutians were staying within Esagila (the temple of Marduk), but nobody carried arms in Esagila and its buildings. The correct time (for a ceremony) was not missed.

In the month of Arahsamnu (October – November), the third day, Cyrus entered Babylon. Great twigs were spread in front of him. The state of ‘peace’ was imposed on all the city. Cyrus sent greetings to all Babylon…

Belshazzar was killed in the battle at Opis, and Nabonidus probably lost his life in Babylon, although, according to other sources, Cyrus appointed him governor of Carmania (Central Iran).39 Far from being destroyed, as its rival Nineveh had been, Babylon was treated with the utmost respect. From the first day of Persian occupation (12 October 539 B.C.), care was taken not to offend the Babylonians in any way, and every effort was made to resettle them in their homes, to enforce law and order throughout the country. The gods of Sumer and Akkad, whom Nabonidus had brought into Babylon during the war, were reinstalled in their chapels, ‘the places which make them happy’, and even the gods of Assyria, once taken captive by the Medes, were returned and their temples rebuilt. Cyrus made it known to all that he considered himself as the successor of the national rulers, that he worshipped Marduk and ‘praised his great godhead joyously.’ Indeed, we can believe the Persian conqueror when, in an inscription written in Akkadian on a clay cylinder,40 he declares that the Babylonians accepted his rule with enthusiasm:

All the inhabitants of Babylon, as well as of the entire country of Sumer and Akkad, princes and governors, bowed to him (Cyrus) and kissed his feet, jubilant that he had received the kingship, and with shining faces happily greeted him as a master through whose help they had come to life from death and had all been spared damage and disaster, and they worshipped his name.

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