Very little is known of Babylon’s earliest history. The city first appears in texts in the later third millennium BC,1 one among many then thriving in southern Iraq. References of any kind to Babylon before the final century of the third millennium are very rare, but records of large offerings made to the temple of Enlil in Nippur during this century (while Babylon was part of an empire ruled from the southern city of Ur) suggest a city already of some size and wealth.2 In the middle of the eighteenth century BC Babylon would emerge from relative obscurity to become the political centre of southern Mesopotamia, a position it was to maintain almost continuously for the next 1,400 years.

The site of Babylon lies on the Euphrates, approximately 85 km south of Baghdad. It is located towards the northern end of the great alluvial plain of southern Iraq, a landscape made of silts deposited by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers into a vast trough created by tectonic movement as the Arabian plate slips slowly east and north below the neighbouring Eurasian plate. The same collision is responsible for the creation of the Taurus and Zagros mountain ranges that define the northern and eastern borders of an area including all of Iraq as well as parts of modern Syria and Turkey. This area, known as Mesopotamia, thus incorporates several environmental zones, but it is in the flat alluvial plain of southern Iraq itself that Babylon is located. Home to the world’s earliest cities,3the plain is subject to several important environmental constraints that have, since long before the foundation of Babylon, shaped its human occupation. The area is subject to very high temperatures and lies well beyond the reach of rain-fed agriculture. Even the small amount of precipitation this part of Iraq does receive is unevenly and unpredictably distributed: the bulk of a season’s rain can fall in a single downpour, itself as harmful to crops as severe drought.4 Human habitation is therefore entirely dependent on the two great rivers, and permanent settlement requires a system of irrigation. Once established, however, such a system could reap the benefit of rich alluvial soils and support extremely productive agriculture on the levees of canals. Most explanations of the region’s early urban and associated economic development assume that the ability to produce large agricultural surpluses played an important role, though in quite what way is hotly disputed.5 Herodotus was certainly impressed. In his fifth-century BC description he writes that:

As a grain-bearing country Assyria [meaning Mesopotamia] is the richest in the world. No attempt is made there to grow figs, grapes, or olives, or any other fruit trees, but so great is the fertility of the grain fields that they normally produce crops of two-hundredfold, and in an exceptional year as much as three-hundredfold. The blades of wheat and barley are at least three inches wide. As for millet and sesame, I will not say to what an astonishing size they grow, though I know well enough; but I also know that people who have not been to Babylonia have refused to believe even what I have already said about its fertility. The only oil these people use is made from sesame; date-palms grow everywhere, mostly of the fruit-bearing kind, and the fruit supplies them with food, wine and honey.6

The infrastructure underpinning such abundance required constant maintenance, both of the system of irrigation canals and of a parallel system of drainage, since water can also bring salts to the surface by capillary action, rendering land too saline for agriculture. Although the requirements for organization of labour this need creates do not seem to have been the primary driving force behind the earliest urbanization during the fourth millennium BC, where the canal systems employed are relatively modest, it is clear that by the middle of the third millennium BC a great deal of labour must have been organized to maintain major canals.7 This very flat landscape is also subject to changes in river courses, natural or artificially induced. As is the case today, when dam projects and the competing water demands of Iraq and its upstream neighbours Turkey and Syria are of great political importance, in the ancient world control of water was a significant source of power and conflict. Again there is some echo of this in ancient Greek stories about Babylon, where massive engineering projects to change water courses figure as an important aspect of military strategy.8

Although there have been excavations at the site before and since, our archaeological picture of Babylon derives primarily from work conducted by the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft in the years 1899–1917. These excavations of necessity concentrated on the later phases of occupation, and particularly on the centre of the city as it was rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 BC) in the sixth century BC. The high water table at Babylon has largely prevented direct exploration of its earlier history. Some older monuments, including the famous eighteenth-century BC Code of Hammurabi, were actually excavated at the Iranian city of Susa; they had been looted from Babylon and carried there in antiquity by the army of the Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte (c.1185?1155BC) in the twelfth century BC. More outrageous items of booty from the same invasion were the cult statues of Marduk, chief god of the city, and his consort Zarpanitu. Nebuchadnezzar II, the most famous king of Babylon, took his name from the illustrious predecessor who at the end of the twelfth century BC was able to recover the statues and with them Babylon’s honour and prosperity.9

The Old Babylonian period

Over the course of the third millennium BC, Mesopotamia changed politically from a world of city states into one of larger polities, even empires. First Akkad (a city whose exact location archaeologists have so far been unable to establish), then Ur, then the rival powers of Isin and Larsa held sway over multiple cities in southern Iraq in the later centuries of the third millennium. Babylon’s rise to a position of central political importance dates to the reign of Hammurabi (more accurately Hammurapi, 1790–1752 BC), the most famous of a dynasty of kings, sometimes called Amorite in reference to their likely tribal origin, who ruled from the early nineteenth century BC. Following a period of competition for territorial control that had been dominated by the cities of Isin and Larsa, Babylon managed to gain the upper hand, first at the head of a coalition, and later as sole power. By the end of Hammurabi’s reign in the mid-eighteenth century BC, Babylon had achieved hegemony over not only southern Iraq but also a considerable area to the north. By this time the urban, literate world of Mesopotamia was already well over a millennium old, as in some form were the civic institutions that underpinned urban life. Certainly the latter include some legal framework, and so Hammurabi’s modern epithet of ‘lawgiver’ is not quite deserved; it is rather his political and military successes that make him the most important figure of the period. His conquest of Larsa allowed him to claim the title of King of Sumer and Akkad (i.e. all of southern Iraq), and was followed by the acquisition of Mari to the north and eventually the Assyrian cities of Ashur and Nineveh.10

Once achieved, the pre-eminence established for Babylon among the cities of southern Iraq by Hammurabi was successfully defended, despite a significant challenge in the south of the region from the so-called Sealand dynasty.11 The First Dynasty of Babylon, rulers of the city since the early nineteenth century BC, retained power and at least some of the territory won by Hammurabi until 1595 BC. An even more enduring legacy was that Babylon remained the principal political centre of southern Mesopotamia (which from this point forward we can justly refer to as Babylonia) until the reign of Seleucus I Nicator and the foundation of Seleucia on the Tigris at the end of the fourth century BC.

Quite appropriately even this, Babylon’s real emergence as a powerful city, has become the subject of legend. Among the most important and iconic objects in the Mesopotamian collections of the Musée du Louvre is the Code of Hammurabi, popularly known as the world’s first code of laws (Figure 1). The text of the monument actually consists of a series of laws or precedents that might best be seen as examples of justice on the part of Hammurabi.12 Significantly older lists of laws do exist,13 though the quantity of laws and their presentation in this striking public format give the Code of Hammurabi a unique importance.14 Its laws are still the first cuneiform texts to be studied by most students of Assyriology (the study of ancient Mesopotamian languages and literature).

Kassite Babylon

The fortunes of Hammurabi’s successors waned over time, until eventually the gradual weakening of Babylonian power made it possible for the Anatolian Hittite Empire to launch a brief but highly successful military raid on Mesopotamia and even Babylon itself in 1595 BC. This incursion marks the end of the Old Babylonian period and the beginning of a more politically fragmented era that, from the Babylonian point of view at least, was to be dominated by a dynasty of Kassite kings. The Kassites first appear in Mesopotamian texts at the end of the eighteenth century BC, but it is only in the sixteenth that they come to play a major visible role in Babylon’s story. With a non-Semitic language (that is to say, one unrelated to Babylonian) and coming probably from the Zagros mountains in Iran, Kassite families seem to have settled in Mesopotamia in increasing numbers throughout the seventeenth century BC, while at the same time a Kassite kingdom bordering that of Babylon existed and may have posed a military threat. Nonetheless, it was the Hittites under Murshili I (c.1620–1595 BC) who brought a dramatic end to the First Dynasty of Babylon. Perhaps the Hittite presence would have been more lasting had it not been for court intrigue in the Hittite capital of Hattusha and the assassination of Murshili shortly after the 1595 BC raid. As it was, a much-weakened Babylon was fought over by its other neighbours. Although evidence for the sixteenth century BC is extremely sparse, it is thought that the ‘Sealand’ kings of the south briefly held Babylon itself before rule of the city and of the northern part of the southern Mesopotamian plain passed to the Kassites. The point at which Kassite control was established is also far from clear. The best available indicator is a later document recording that in c.1570 BC the Kassite king Agum II recovered the statues of Marduk and his consort Zarpanitu from the Hittite capital Hattusha (where they had been taken following the invasion of Murshili I) and returned them to the great temple Esagila at Babylon, a symbolically important act that seems to mark the legitimization, if not the exact beginning, of four centuries of Kassite rule.15 By the mid-fifteenth century the Kassites had also won control of the southern territory formerly held by the Sealand dynasty, and thus the whole of Babylonia.

The Kassite period saw a partial return to a more rural pattern of settlement: archaeological survey data suggest that smaller settlements became more common in southern Mesopotamia as a whole, while numbers of larger settlements declined during the period.16 On the other hand, there is evidence for substantial monumental building projects at Babylon and other cities under Kurigalzu I (?–1375 BC).17 The Kassite state was large and to judge by its longevity successful, but never politically or militarily dominant internationally. Other powers of equal or greater significance during the latter half of the second millennium BC include the Hittite Empire in Turkey and Mitanni, a kingdom composed of small Hurrian states unified at around 1500 BC and at its greatest extent encompassing much of Syria and northern Iraq. The period has been characterized as an ‘international age’,18 not least due to the remarkable archive known today as the Amarna letters. Found at the Amarna capital of Akhetaten, these documents reveal a correspondence between the pharaohs Amenophis III and Akhenaten and Kassite kings at Babylon, conducted in Babylonian cuneiform.19 Tablets from Iraq, Syria, the Levant and Anatolia now confirm that similar correspondence – accompanied by gift exchange and intermarriage – occurred between kings across the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East during the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries BC.

Kassite material and visual culture is distinct from that of the preceding Old Babylonian period, but also shows obvious continuity with the earlier Mesopotamian world. Perhaps the most distinctively ‘Kassite’ Babylonian artefacts are large stone land grants, called kudurrus, on which are carved texts, divine symbols and sometimes human beings. Even these monuments, however, are clearly Babylonian in their iconography and employ Babylonian cuneiform for their inscriptions. This is perhaps an early manifestation of a repeating pattern of assimilation in Babylon’s history, whereby the city’s conquerors would tend to emulate or adapt Babylonian cultural forms rather than attempting to impose their own. The reasons for this may well have varied over time, but certainly the tendency hints at the degree of cultural, religious and political cachet the city of Babylon held.

Elamites and others

During the reign of the Kassite king Kashtiliashu IV (1232–1225 BC) Babylon was sacked by the Assyrian army of Tukulti-Ninurta I (1243–1207 BC). The destruction, at least according to Assyrian texts, was substantial:

[Tukult]i-Ninurta (I) returned to Babylon and brought […]…[…] near. He destroyed the wall of Babylon (and) [pu]t the Babylonians to the sword. He took out the property of Esagil and Babylon amid the booty. He removed the great lord Marduk [from] his [dais] and sent (him) to Assyria. He put his governors in Karduniash (Babylon). For seven years Tukulti-Ninurta (I) controlled Karduniash.20

Babylon now came under Assyrian rule for the first time. It has been suggested that in describing this event in his royal inscriptions, Tukulti-Ninurta echoes the language of the much earlier kings of Akkad, Sargon and Naram-Sin, some of ancient Mesopotamia’s first empire builders, investing himself with titles such as King of Sumer and Akkad and King of the Upper and Lower Seas (i.e. from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf).21 ‘In the midst of battle’, the king declares,

I captured Kaštiliašu, king of the Kassites, (and) trod with my feet upon his lordly neck as though it were a footstool. Bound I brought him as a captive into the presence of Aššur, my lord. (Thus) I became lord of Sumer and Akkad in its entirety (and) fixed the boundary of my land as the Lower Sea in the east.22

Tukulti-Ninurta’s reign was followed by a period of instability and upheaval across the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world, affecting Assyria more directly than Babylonia and thus weakening Assyrian power over the latter. Kassite power was reasserted in Babylon (although Elamite interference may also have played some role in the weakening of Assyrian control) under Adad-shuma-usur (1216–1187 BC), Meli-Shipak (1186–1172 BC) and Marduk-apla-iddina I (1171–1159 BC). Eventually, however, a combination of Assyrian and Elamite military pressure proved enough to bring an end to the Kassite state. The Elamite king Shutruk-Nahhunte attacked the city c.1159 BC; his son was installed as king of Babylon and it was at this time that a number of monuments from Babylon were carried off to the Elamite capital at Susa. Today the most famous of these is the Code of Hammurabi, but much more deeply felt at the time was the loss of the divine statue of Marduk.23 The tradition of taking a city’s god was an ancient one in Mesopotamia, and an act with significance of several kinds. The cult statue was naturally an object of great material value, but this was only the beginning. Cult statues in ancient Iraq were far more than images: in some sense, today imperfectly understood, they embodied the gods themselves. That it should be possible for a foreign army to loot a city and take the gods’ statues suggested that the city had been forsaken by these deities. The loss of cult statues was thus a humiliating and traumatic experience and their recovery, even centuries later, an important matter of civic honour.

The short period of Elamite rule that followed was dogged by violent Kassite resistance, although the dynasty never returned to power. For the next several centuries Babylon was ruled by a succession of more-or-less local dynasties. Through a successful military campaign Nebuchadnezzar I (1125–1104 BC) of the Second Dynasty of Isin succeeded in recovering the statue of Marduk from Susa, an event with tangible consequences for Babylonian cultural and religious identity. Marduk had already risen to prominence from his obscure third-millennium origins, but it is thought that his reinstallation in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar marks his rise to the head of the regional pantheon. It was probably also during this period that the Babylonian Epic of Creation Enuma Elish first appeared, justifying Marduk’s – and thereby Babylon’s – pre-eminence through his heroic role in conquering the forces of chaos at the beginning of the world.24

Assyrian dominance

The achievements of Nebuchadnezzar I were considerable, but did not buy Babylonia long-term independence. Nebuchadnezzar himself appears to have been the most successful of the Second Dynasty of Isin kings, and throughout the reigns of his successors raiding by Aramean tribal groups revealed the limits of Babylonian state power. Meanwhile Assyrian fortunes had revived under Tiglath-pileser I (1114–1076 BC), and by the early first millennium BC Babylon was once again on the back foot politically and militarily. Successive kings of Assyria transformed their small state in northern Iraq into the dominant military power in the region, with a great empire covering most of the Middle East. Babylon was able to maintain its independence until the eighth century BC. From his accession in 745 BC, however, the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser III campaigned increasingly in the south, initially against Chaldean and Aramean tribal enemies. By the end of his reign in 727 BC the whole of Babylonia was under direct Assyrian control. The brief reign of Shalmaneser V (726–722 BC) and the rise to power of the usurper Sargon II (721–705 BC) allowed Babylonia to reassert its independence under Marduk-apla-iddina II (the biblical Merodach-baladan), a ruler of the Chaldean Bit Yakin tribe who installed himself as king of Babylon in 721 BC, maintaining an independent kingship of Babylonia until finally ousted by Sargon in 710 BC (Figure 2). The eighth and seventh centuries BC saw regular rebellions against Assyrian rule from Babylonia, often led by the powerful Chaldean tribes of Bit-Dakkuri, Bit-Amukkani and Bit-Yakin, whose territory collectively stretched from the area of Borsippa, near Babylon, south along the Euphrates to the Persian Gulf.25 Although largely sedentary, living in villages and even walled towns, the tribes apparently retained enough mobility to cause problems for Assyrian armies, possibly by making better use of the landscape and natural environment than their more powerful opponents.26 They had less to lose from Assyrian campaigns than their neighbours in the cities of northern Babylonia.

Sennacherib in particular was to suffer constant setbacks in attempting to maintain Assyrian control over Babylonia. In 703 BC Marduk-apla-iddina capitalized on a revolt and briefly seized the throne of Babylon for a second time.27 Sennacherib defeated the rebellion and installed Bel-Ibni, a Babylonian raised in the Assyrian court, as king of Babylon. Resistance persisted, however, and Sennacherib found it necessary to campaign against Marduk-apla-iddina again in 700 BC, at which time Bel-Ibni was also removed from the throne, and Sennacherib’s son Ashur-nadin-shumi was installed as the new king of Babylon. Another serious Babylonian revolt against Assyria began in 694 BC, triggered by an Elamite invasion of Babylonia itself. Ashur-nadin-shumi was captured (apparently betrayed by Babylonian conspirators)28 and a Babylonian, Nergal-ushezib, took up the kingship of the city. Nergal-ushezib’s reign was brief: he was captured by the Assyrians in 693 BC and presumably executed. The rebellion continued under his successor Mushezib-Marduk, but Babylonia was no match for Assyria militarily. The city of Babylon itself was well defended and withstood a protracted siege, though not without great suffering. A contemporary legal text gives some sense of the deprivation:

In the time of Mušēzib-Marduk, King of Babylonia, the land was gripped by siege, famine, hunger, want and hard times. Everything was changed and reduced to nothing. Two qa of barley sold for one shekel of silver. The city gates were barred, and a person could not go out in any of the four directions. The corpses of men, with no one to bury them, filled the squares of Babylon.29

In 689 BC Babylon was finally sacked, although whether the city was taken by force or forced to surrender due to starvation is unclear. The destruction that followed was the culmination of years of violence in which it might be argued that Sennacherib’s actions, along with the abolition of Babylon’s independent kingship, were measures of last resort, essential to the conclusion of an exhausting five-year war.30 Babylon had always held a special status in Mesopotamian culture, and surely such violence towards the city was not undertaken lightly. Nonetheless Sennacherib’s own texts emphasize the totality of the destruction. The Bavian Inscription, carved on cliffs near the mouth of Sennacherib’s irrigation canal for his capital at Nineveh, is explicit:

I destroyed the city and its houses, from foundation to parapet; I devastated and burned them. I razed the brick and earthenwork of the outer and inner wall (of the city), of the temples, and of the ziggurat; and I dumped these into the Arahtu canal. I dug canals through the midst of that city, I overwhelmed it with water, I made its very foundations disappear, and I destroyed it more completely than a devastating flood. So that it might be impossible in future days to recognize the site of that city and (its) temples, I utterly dissolved it with water (and made it) like inundated land.31

The destruction was especially shocking given Babylon’s cultural and religious importance, and both Babylonian and Assyrian historical texts later seem to avoid the topic, at times attributing the devastation to a flood brought about by the wrath of Marduk.32

His attempts to install a loyal vassal as king of Babylon having failed, Sennacherib now took direct control of Babylonia.33 Once again the statue of Marduk was removed, probably to Ashur.34 The Akitu Chronicle records that during the statue’s 20-year absence from Babylon the New Year festival did not take place.35 All this occurred within the context of a broader depopulation of Babylonia in the late eighth and early seventh centuries BC. The deportations of subject populations to the Assyrian heartland served both to reduce the danger of dissent and rebellion and to provide labour for ambitious building programmes at Nineveh and for agricultural work in other parts of the empire.36

Sennacherib’s son and successor Esarhaddon (681–669 BC) faced further rebellions, but also rebuilt Babylon after 11 years during which the city had apparently been abandoned following Sennacherib’s destruction.37 His inscriptions suggest that the rebuilding was accompanied by a reassertion of the piety and reverence towards Babylon that had traditionally been expressed by Assyrian kings and only briefly interrupted during the reign of Sennacherib. Brinkman summarizes their content as follows:

In Esarhaddon’s Babylon inscriptions, attention is focused on the divine framework within which the destruction and resurrection of Babylon occurred: malportent omina, the iniquitous conduct of the Babylonians (including misappropriation of temple funds), the destruction of the city by a severe flood, Marduk’s decision to shorten the years of desolation (from 70 to 11), auspicious omina, and restoration. The Assyrians assembled a large group of workmen drawn – according to various versions – from all of Babylonia, from Assyria, and/or from conquered lands; and Esarhaddon claimed to have taken part in the work personally.38

Esarhaddon did not, however, install a new king on the throne of Babylon. Instead he aimed to resolve the problem through the Assyrian succession: two of his sons, Ashurbanipal and Shamash-shuma-ukin, were to inherit the kingdoms of Assyria and Babylonia respectively. This arrangement was intended not to divide the empire, but to place the two brothers in a close but unequal arrangement whereby ultimately Ashurbanipal held authority over both kingdoms. The succession occurred as planned and this dual monarchy held for some 16 years, during which time Ashurbanipal, as king of Assyria, continued his father’s contribution to the rebuilding of Babylon and campaigned vigorously, extending and strengthening the Assyrian Empire. The return of kingship (in the form of Shamash-shuma-ukin) and the statue of Marduk (whether the original or a new statue produced in Assyria) were cause for great celebration in Babylonia but also Assyria, as recorded in texts of Ashurbanipal.

For much of Ashurbanipal’s reign, the great military threats were posed by Egypt to the west and Elam to the east; Assyrian campaigns against both powers were successful and the empire’s reach extended. In 652 BC, however, the system of dual kingship came to an abrupt end as Shamash-shuma-ukin turned against his brother, beginning the most serious of all the Babylonian revolts against Assyria. Whether the cause was overuse by Ashurbanipal of his prerogative as his brother’s overlord or Shamash-shuma-ukin’s perception that he was militarily able – with Elamite and tribal support – to stand against Assyria, the result was a devastating war, ultimately ruinous for both kingdoms. By the time the city of Babylon fell in 648 BC it had been under siege for two years. Again war was accompanied by famine and disease, and other cities in Babylonia also suffered grievously as the rebellion failed. Even after the reconquest of Babylon, the Assyrian army was occupied for several more years in campaigns of retribution against Elam, the tribes of southern Mesopotamia and those of the western desert. At the end of seven years of fighting, Assyria had successfully overcome all of its enemies, yet the campaign seems to have exhausted even this most formidable of military machines. After the rebellion there are no records of further Assyrian campaigns.39 Ashurbanipal had triumphed, but the struggle had drained the Assyrian Empire’s resources and perhaps even sown the seeds of its collapse. Shamash-shuma-ukin burned to death, though whether through suicide, murder or accident in the destruction of Babylon is unclear.40 A prism of Ashurbanipal recording the events claims that the god Ashur himself threw Shamash-shuma-ukin into the flames.41 The story of the two brothers survived into later, non-cuneiform tradition: a fourth-century BC papyrus fragment from Egypt carries an Aramaic version of the story.42 It may even be the inspiration behind the Greek story of Sardanapalus.43 Whatever the details of his fate, Shamash-shuma-ukin is absent from the Assyrian relief showing Ashurbanipal taking Babylon’s surrender and tribute.44

Following the war, Babylon was ruled by a king known as Kandalanu, for whom very little textual information survives.45 Over the next two decades Babylonia recovered economically, but around the time of the deaths of Ashurbanipal and Kandalanu in 627BC46 it fell into political chaos. A new Babylonian leader, Nabopolassar, defeated an Assyrian army sent to Babylon and took the throne as an independent king of Babylonia. Assyria was never able to regain the upper hand, and in 612 BC Nineveh fell to a coalition of Babylonians and Medes. With support from its former rival Egypt, Assyria continued to hold north-western Mesopotamia, but the Assyrian and Egyptian forces were finally defeated decisively at the battle of Carchemish in 605 BC.47 The overthrow of the Assyrian Empire altered the political landscape of the Middle East permanently, restoring Babylon to a central role.

Babylon triumphant: The Neo-Babylonian period

Under Nabopolassar (625–605 BC) and Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 BC) a new dynasty established Babylon as capital of most of the area formerly ruled by the Assyrians from Nineveh, an empire extending from the Zagros mountains in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. There is some reason to believe that this dynasty, today called Neo-Babylonian, itself had some links with the Assyrian court.48 The Old Testament ascribes the dynasty the name Chaldean,49 and modern scholarship has held that Nabopolassar was a member of the tribe of Bit Yakin, although evidence for this is actually very limited.50 Whatever the dynasty’s origins, the territory and administration Nabopolassar inherited were very much those of the Assyrian Empire.

The Babylonian kings also inherited the Assyrians’ rivalry with Egypt for control of territory in the Levant. As crown prince, Nebuchadnezzar had already campaigned successfully against Egypt in the west. As king, he was required to maintain territory and to prevent subject states from shifting their allegiances or withholding tribute from the Babylonian crown. One such problem state was Judah. Twice, in 597 and 587–586 BC, Nebuchadnezzar was compelled to besiege Jerusalem in order to re-establish his authority. On the first occasion the Judaean king Jehoiachin, his family and other deportees were taken into exile in Babylon. On the second the city of Jerusalem was sacked, the temple looted and many more people deported from Judah to Babylon. The Book of Jeremiah suggests that further deportations occurred in 582–581 BC.51 The next chapter will discuss this event and its significance in more detail; here it suffices to say that as a result of its centrality to the Old Testament this aspect of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign has defined both the king and his city far more completely than could have been guessed at the time, since in fact no aspect of the procedure was particularly new or unusual, and there was already a long tradition of deportations of this kind. Assyrian military strength led to control over a huge geographical area during the early first millennium BC, but administration to deal with this expansion developed slowly and piece-meal. Tax and tribute from the provinces, vassals and puppet states made a major contribution to the wealth of the Assyrian heartland, but came with the increased complexity of ruling a large and disparate empire. Preventing uprisings on the fringes of the empire was a major concern for Assyrian kings and a number of policies developed to meet this need, among them mass deportations. When new territory was conquered or a rebellious vassal crushed, an increased imperial presence in the trouble spot was often complemented by the removal of large numbers of the indigenous population to the imperial core, effectively breaking up the rebellious population and reducing the potential for future resistance.52 The practice was effective, and continued throughout the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods until the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 BC. The majority of the immigrant population were not slaves,53 and some did rise to high status positions at the core of the empire (a possibility reflected in the career of the biblical Daniel, who receives a full Babylonian scribal education and ultimately achieves the status of trusted royal confidant). This last aspect of the deportations, also common if not as formalized in later empires, could be seen as a harmonizing, inclusive approach to creating and maintaining a viable imperial identity, and to effectively ruling a religiously and ethnically diverse empire. Non-Babylonian sources understandably take a dimmer view of the policy. Of these foreign sources one group – the biblical sources covering the Judaean Exile – have had an impact far greater than other ancient texts, including those of the imperial elites themselves, in forming a modern identity for ancient Babylonia. The capture and destruction of Jerusalem and subsequent deportation of Jews to Babylon is not only a major event from the perspective of the biblical authors, but one of enormous and continuing symbolic importance in Judaism and Christianity.

That the Judaean Exile should come to dominate Nebuchadnezzar’s image and legacy would undoubtedly have come as a surprise to the king himself. In Babylonian terms his most significant acts were to secure the young empire established under his father Nabopolassar and to rebuild the city of Babylon itself as an imperial capital (Figure 3). The city as excavated by archaeologists in the early twentieth century is largely that constructed by Nebuchadnezzar in the early sixth century BC – precisely the period that is of most interest in terms of the Judaean Exile, but also that of Babylon’s greatest world political significance. Nebuchadnezzar’s achievements were listed in his building inscriptions and one text, known as Nebuchadnezzar, King of Justice, presents him as a model of the just king, maintaining law and order and punishing the wicked.54 These qualities emulate those of Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar’s most illustrious predecessor, and more concrete signs exist to show the king’s reference to antiquity in his own inscriptions. Most strikingly, Nebuchadnezzar’s monumental inscriptions appear in an archaizing script which imitates that of the Old Babylonian period, and thus the proclamations of a king who had reigned well over 1,000 years earlier.55

Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 BC and was succeeded by his son Amel-Marduk. It seems that the latter had once been out of favour and imprisoned, the victim of court intrigue.56 That court life in Babylon could be precarious is demonstrated by the speed of the succession that followed. Nebuchadnezzar had ruled for over four decades, but, although he may have acted as regent in the final years of his father’s reign, Amel-Marduk lasted only two as king in his own right. He was murdered by his brother-in-law Neriglissar in 560 BC, the latter taking the throne. Neriglissar himself died not long after, in 556 BC, while his successor, his young son Labashi-Marduk, died, almost certainly murdered, after only three months on the throne. The crown now passed to Nabonidus (556–539 BC), a king who was to have more longevity, though not necessarily better fortune.

Did Nabonidus murder Labashi-Marduk? A stela of Nabonidus claims that ‘Labashi-Marduk, a minor (who) had not (yet) learned how to behave, sat down on the royal throne against the intentions of the gods’, going on to stress that ‘I (Nabonidus) am the real executor of the wills of Nebuchadnezzar and Neriglissar, my royal predecessors!’57 Dougherty makes the case for the defence, cautioning that there is no actual mention of the killing of Labashi-Marduk, nor of usurpation of the throne, and that since Nabonidus is keen to stress his links with Nebuchadnezzar and Neriglissar rather than to found a new dynasty, ‘There is sufficient ground for the view that the last reign of the Neo-Babylonian empire was an integral part of the Neo-Babylonian dynasty’.58 Nonetheless there are obvious political explanations for not mentioning murder or usurpation, and for supporting a claim to the throne with reference to earlier kings. It should be noted that the story is also known through the later Babylonian historian Berossus, whose account both preserves Nabonidus’ indictment of Labashi-Marduk and states that the young king was murdered in a coup, with Nabonidus elevated to the throne by his co-conspirators.59 The assumption should remain that Labashi-Marduk was murdered, and that Nabonidus was the beneficiary, if not the leader, of a violent coup.

Nabonidus was not himself part of the royal family. He describes himself as one who had not expected the role, and had no thought of kingship, even as ‘the son of a nobody’,60 but his background was certainly not a humble one. He had spent his life close to power, claims in his inscriptions to have served kings from Nebuchadnezzar onward faithfully, and he may even be the ‘Labynetus of Babylon’ who appears in Herodotus brokering peace between Lydia and Media.61 Nonetheless, Nabonidus’ own account suggests that his accession was sufficiently unexpected as to require a more than usual degree of divine sanction:

(This is) the great miracle of Sin that none of the (other) gods and goddesses knew (how to achieve), that has not happened to the country from the days of old.

That (you), Sin, the lord of all the gods and goddesses residing in heaven, have come down from heaven to (me) Nabonidus, king of Babylon! For me, Nabonidus, the lonely one who has nobody, in whose (text: my) heart was no thought of kingship, the gods and goddesses prayed (to Sin) and Sin called me to kingship.62

Inscriptions of his mother Adda-Guppi, the high priestess of the moon god Sin at Harran, also claim that the moon god called Nabonidus to kingship,63 and his own inscriptions suggest that throughout his reign Nabonidus focused to an unusual degree on the cult of Sin. The moon god was always a major figure in the Babylonian pantheon; normally, however, a king’s devotion would be directed primarily towards Babylon’s patron deity Marduk and his son Nabu. From the surviving textual sources it appears that Nabonidus’ particular devotion to the moon god stemmed from his upbringing, and especially from his remarkable mother. Adda-Guppi strikes an imposing figure even at a distance of two-and-a-half millennia. The fact that her name survives at all puts her in a tiny minority among ancient Mesopotamian royal women; that long texts should survive describing her life is almost unique. A text on two stelae found at Harran is known today as the ‘autobiography’ of Adda-Guppi. As well as suggesting power, these texts attest to what – particularly in the ancient world – seems to have been an incredibly long and healthy life. If the ‘autobiography’ is to be believed, Adda-Guppi lived happily to the age of 104. ‘My eyesight was good (to the end of my life)’, she tells us, ‘my hearing excellent, my hands and feet were sound, my words well chosen, food and drink agreed with me, my health was fine and my mind happy. I saw my great-grandchildren, up to the fourth generation, in good health and (thus) had my fill of old age’.64

Just how far Nabonidus’ devotions and cultic behaviour actually diverged from the expectations of his court is difficult to judge, in part because several of the key surviving sources are unambiguously anti-Nabonidus propaganda. A prime example is the gathering of gods’ cult statues from other cities in Babylon prior to the Persian invasion. The gods’ entry into the city was conceived as a matter of their own choosing, and indeed not all local gods did enter Babylon on this occasion. Following the conquest, however, it was easy to level the charge that the statues had been brought into the city against their will (hence their subsequent failure to protect the city or its king).65

The most puzzling aspect of Nabonidus’ reign is his long absence from Babylon itself. In around 553 BC Nabonidus travelled to Teima in north-western Arabia, where he stayed for the next ten years, leaving his son Bel-sharra-usur – the biblical Belshazzar – as regent in Babylon. This arrangement, certainly highly irregular, was also far from satisfactory, since there were cultic duties which only the king could perform and which therefore went neglected for a decade. The reasons for Nabonidus’ decision to stay away are unclear. From his own account of events it would seem that there had been a rebellion against the king by priests and citizens of Babylon, Borsippa, Nippur, Ur, Uruk and Larsa, all of whom refused to contribute to the rebuilding of the Ekhulkhul temple of Sin at Harran. Whatever the connection, it seems that Babylon was also suffering seriously from disease and famine at the time of Nabonidus’ departure.66

A tradition preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls, known as the Prayer of Nabonidus,67 claims that it was the king himself who suffered from a disease:

[I, Nabonidus], was (there) smitten with [the evil bushāna-disease] for seven years, and when, from [that] time, I became as [a dying man(?), I prayed to the Most High] and he forgave my sin. (Thereupon) a holy man who was a Judean fr[om the Exiles, came to me saying], ‘Proclaim (your forgiveness) and write it down so as to give honour and glo[ry] to the name of [the Most High]’.68

Other possible causes are political and economic: there is every reason to believe that Nabonidus set out to conquer and control Arabian trade routes, since the value of trade in aromatics and spices was enormous and rising during the sixth century BC. This explanation, however, accounts only for the Babylonian presence in general. It does not explain why the king of Babylon himself might want or need to be present, neglecting his political and religious duties in Babylon all the while. One anti-Nabonidus text, theVerse Account of Nabonidus,69 asserts that during the years of his absence the Babylonian New Year festival known as akitu, apparently the most important in the calendar,70 could not be performed. The king acted as a mediator between human and divine worlds, a role that seemingly could not be played by Belshazzar as regent. The Verse Account is a propagandistic text, but the hiatus in the akitu festival is real enough: it is confirmed by Nabonidus’ own royal chronicles:

The king did not come to Babylon for the [New Year] ceremony of the month of Nisannu; the god Nabû did not come to Babylon, the image of the god Bêl did not go out of Esagila in procession, the festival of the New Year was omitted.71

Nabonidus returned to Babylon in 543 BC. By this time, however, the balance of power in the Middle East was shifting. Cyrus II of Persia in southern Iran had come to the throne in 559 BC and led a successful rebellion against the western Iranian empire of Media, overthrowing its king Astyages. From here had followed the conquest of Turkey, including the Lydian Empire of King Croesus, leading ultimately to a position whereby Cyrus was strong enough to mount a challenge for the Babylonian throne. His armies defeated those of Nabonidus and Belshazzar at the battle of Opis in 539 BC, allowing Cyrus to enter Babylon peacefully as a conqueror (a fact stressed in the Cyrus Cylinder, the Persian king’s own account of his conquest, of which more below). Probably the lack of resistance had also to do with elements friendly to Cyrus inside the city. The most popular theory has been that priests of Marduk at Esagila, disaffected due to Nabonidus’ favouring the moon god Sin, were responsible both for the ease of Cyrus’ entry into Babylon and the composition of propagandistic documents such as the Verse Account and Cyrus Cylinder.

The fates of Nabonidus and Belshazzar are uncertain. According to the third-century BC historian Berossus, Nabonidus was captured but not executed, and was given land in Carmania (Kerman, in south-eastern Iran), a remote outpost of the vast new empire created by Cyrus.72

Babylon in the Persian Empire

The conquest of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 BC has been understood in later tradition as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. The language of that prophecy was fiery and pointed to a total destruction, but in fact the conquest marked a relatively quiet transition between the end of the Neo-Babylonian dynasty and the beginning of Persian rule. Babylon lived on, now as part of the vast Achaemenid Empire. Far larger than any political unit that had preceded it, the empire built by Cyrus and his successors stretched from the Eastern Mediterranean in the west far into Central Asia in the east. Not that Babylon was now a small fish in a big pond: the city remained a royal capital, albeit one of four,73 a major administrative centre and surely the world’s largest commercial centre. Cyrus himself was anxious to support an image of continuity, as can be seen in the text of the famous Cyrus Cylinder. A foundation inscription excavated at Babylon by Hormuzd Rassam in the late nineteenth century,74 the Cylinder describes Cyrus restoring religious and cultural life in Babylon to its proper order following the strange reign of Nabonidus. The document is Babylonian in format, language and in its dedication to Marduk, chief god of the city. It is a document of the city’s conquest, unquestionably an important historical event in itself, but its modern fame really rests on a particular aspect of this conquest – the end of the Judaean Exile – and on a close connection with the Bible.

Babylon during the two centuries of Persian rule (539–330 BC) continued to play an important political, cultural and economic role, now as part of a much larger empire.75 The famous return to Jerusalem and commencement of the Second Temple period belies the fact that the whole region remained subject to the rule of a foreign empire, administered in part from Babylon. Following Cambyses’ successful campaign of 525–522 BC, that empire also incorporated Egypt, removing the only remaining major power in the region and effectively guaranteeing that the small kingdoms of the Levant could exist only as subjects of Persia. Nonetheless, the support the Cyrus Cylinder gives to the biblical account of the return to Jerusalem76 has encouraged many to see it as an ancient charter of human rights.77 This it certainly is not; instead it is a document expressing benevolent kingship. The idea that people could have ‘rights’ independent of the will of the king and the gods is a very modern one, and was simply alien to the world in which the text was produced. Nor was Persian rule always accepted: Persian kings faced further Babylonian rebellions, one of which may have caused Xerxes to close Esagila, the great temple of Marduk, and perhaps even to destroy the cult-statue of the god himself.78


Like Cyrus, Alexander entered the most heavily fortified city in the world through open doors, having defeated the incumbent king in battle elsewhere.79 In the Macedonian case a series of victories over Persian forces culminated in the battle of Gaugamela (331BC), at which the Persian army was decisively defeated and following which the Persian king Darius III fled. His attempts to organize further resistance to Alexander failed, and having outlived his usefulness he was ultimately murdered by his erstwhile allies. Our principal sources on these events are Greek. A Babylonian astronomical diary gives the dates of Alexander’s defeat of Darius at Gaugamela and entry into Babylon with precision, but sadly does not include any additional information on the event.80

It has been argued that Alexander’s rule should be seen as a continuation of Achaemenid government, with the real break coming only in the fragmentation of the empire following his death in 323 BC.81 This conception certainly fits with the specific fate of Babylon. Alexander had intended it for his capital, and had begun work on restoring the city’s temples, including Esagila and the ziggurat Etemenanki, in the grand tradition of his predecessors.82 Famously his Macedonian generals are reported to have become increasingly dismayed at Alexander’s willingness to adopt Persian court customs and manners, notably in accepting divine honours.83 Particularly unacceptable was the idea that Macedonians, proud of what they saw as their more egalitarian traditions, might have to perform proskynesis (prostrating oneself, kneeling or bowing in obeisance) before Alexander.84

One of Alexander’s greatest projects at Babylon85 was an ephemeral one: the funeral pyre of his companion Hephaestion, who had died at Ecbatana (modern Hamadan in western Iran) in 324 BC. Diodorus describes the destruction of an enormous stretch of city wall to create a pyre measuring around 200 metres on each edge.86 This was then lavishly decorated. Diodorus writes that:

Upon the foundation course were golden prows of quinqueremes in close order, two hundred and forty in all. Upon the catheads each carried two kneeling archers four cubits in height, and (on the deck) armed male figures five cubits high, while the intervening spaces were occupied by red banners fashioned out of felt. Above these, on the second level, stood torches fifteen cubits high with golden wreaths about their handles. At their flaming ends perched eagles with outspread wings looking downward, while about their bases were serpents looking up at the eagles. On the third level were carved a multitude of wild animals being pursued by hunters. The fourth level carried a centauromachy rendered in gold, while the fifth showed lions and bulls alternating, also in gold. The next higher level was covered with Macedonian and Persian arms, testifying to the prowess of the one people and to the defeats of the other. On top of all stood Sirens, hollowed out and able to conceal within them persons who sang a lament in mourning for the dead.87

We need not credit the particular details, but again according to Diodorus, whose source is the Alexander historian Cleitarchus, Alexander ‘showed such zeal about the funeral that it not only surpassed all those previously celebrated on earth but also left no possibility for anything greater in later ages’.88 This would certainly be fitting behaviour for Alexander, a self-styled Achilles who in Hephaistion had lost his Patroclus. The tragic sequel, in June 323 BC, was the death of Alexander himself, following two weeks of fever.89 The circumstances of his death in Babylon, surrounded in the classical accounts by dark portents and warnings from Chaldean sages, remain disputed. Malaria, typhoid and poisoning have all been suggested, though the latter seems unlikely.90

Few of Alexander’s own building projects at Babylon had time to reach fruition. The ziggurat was not restored (Strabo records that simply clearing the rubble of the ziggurat required the work of 2,000 men for two months, and that the work was not continued by any of Alexander’s successors91). Meanwhile, what had seemed under Alexander the nascent process of orientalizing a Hellenistic empire was to reveal itself in the subsequent centuries as the opening of conduits for Hellenistic art and culture to spread into large parts of Western and Central Asia.92 A process that had begun under the Achaemenid kings was accelerated, and with it the flow of art and ideas east and west. From this time onward, Hellenistic influence can be strongly felt in the material culture of Mesopotamia, and indeed much farther east.

Babylon fades from view

For all the power and longevity of the image of a cataclysmic fall of Babylon, the truth is that the city’s end came very gradually, and through political and economic changes rather than military force. At the end of the fourth century BC Seleucus Nicator, having secured for himself the provinces of Western Asia in the battle for succession fought among Alexander’s former generals, founded a new capital at Seleucia on the Tigris, greatly expanding a pre-existing settlement on the site.93 The new city became a major centre for trade, and from this point onward Babylon’s decline proved unstoppable, though it remained a bastion of cultic and scholarly activity. By the first century AD the temples of Babylon seem to have been among the last places in which the cuneiform script was in regular use and the old documents could be read.

We do not possess a clear picture of the rate of Babylon’s decline in economic importance or its depopulation over the centuries. It is thought that the city never recovered from the Parthian sack of 127 BC, and after this date it is probably more accurate to imagine a city of ruins than anything resembling its former imperial pomp. Nonetheless, the journey from world capital to complete abandonment was extremely long, probably in the order of 1,500 years. Ibn Hauqal, writing in the tenth century AD, records a small village at Babel.94 By the time of Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela’s visit in the twelfth century even this seems at last to have vanished. Several villages continue to surround the site even today, but from the twelfth century onwards the major local settlement was the present town of al-Hillah. In a sense this fading from view is an end even more complete than a violent destruction. Babylon’s last days proved as unspectacular and went just as unnoticed by posterity as its beginning.

Babylonian ghosts

The summary above is intended simply to give some historical context to what follows, to outline Babylon’s place in the history of the ancient Middle East, and to present an approximate historical and archaeological view from which to proceed in looking at other visions of the ancient city. The principal subject of this book is not the ancient city itself but its reception and representation, its afterlife. Before moving on to later tradition, therefore, it is perhaps worth pausing to consider the substantial body of myth, legend and lore that developed around the city of Babylon within ancient Mesopotamian culture itself.

To begin at the Beginning, Babylon was not only the centre of the universe but also the site of the world’s creation. If this is to overstate the Mesopotamian view of the second and first millennia BC it is to do so only slightly. Enuma Elish, the epic poem describing the world’s creation in a form probably adjusted to fit the political reality of Babylon’s resurgence under Nebuchadnezzar I in the late twelfth century BC, makes Marduk the hero god who is able to create order from chaos. Defeating the monstrous army of Tiamat, the primordial sea, Marduk is able to create the world and of course its centre, Babylon.95 The rise of Marduk in the pantheon, supplanting earlier supreme gods such as Enlil, is thought to coincide in particular with Nebuchadnezzar I’s recovery of the god’s statue from Susa, whence it had been taken as war booty following the fall of the Kassite dynasty. This event itself took on the quality of legend, and Nebuchadnezzar himself acquired a heroic reputation in Babylonian culture.

Babylon was a city of sufficient import to play a role in the mythology of others. One highly mythologized area of Mesopotamian historiography concerns the rise and fall of the kings of Akkad at the end of the third millennium BC. Sargon of Akkad created a polity that covered all of Mesopotamia, claiming to have campaigned from the ‘Upper Sea’ (the Mediterranean) to the ‘Lower Sea’ (the Persian Gulf).96 Small wonder then that as the real founder of what was arguably Mesopotamia’s – even the world’s – first empire, Sargon’s name grew in stature until, long after his death, he acquired the status of a legendary hero-king, with attributes comparable to those of Gilgamesh, the legendary king of Uruk. As great as Sargon’s fame, however, was the infamy that would attach to his grandson Naram-Sin. In life Naram-Sin seems to have been a highly successful king, a military leader in the mould of his illustrious predecessor (he is also, incidentally, the first ancient Mesopotamian king known to have had himself deified, appearing with the horned cap of a deity on a victory stela).97 The decline of Akkadian power with which his name was to become associated seems in fact to have begun only after his reign. In legend, however, he became the king who both caused and presided over the city’s catastrophic downfall. Texts describe in detail the city of Akkad’s abandonment by the gods following Naram-Sin’s impious rebuilding of the temple of Enlil at Nippur, which he is said to have carried out despite not receiving the necessary favourable omens.98 A further legend of impiety, however, concerns Sargon and the very foundation of Akkad. The Weidner Chronicle99gives the impression that against the will of Marduk Sargon took soil from Babylon in order to found a new settlement, either Akkad itself or another city nearby, which in a further transgression he made so bold as to name Babylon.100 From this point onward Marduk turned against the kings of Akkad, and when Naram-Sin committed further offences (the text says that he ‘destroyed the people of Babylon’), Marduk’s wrath came in the form of Gutian invaders from Iran, leading to chaos and collapse and finally giving sovereignty ‘of the whole world’ to King Shulgi of Ur.101 The overall impression is that the building of Akkad is a hubristic attempt to found a new Babylon or to create a mirror image of the city, and thus the history of Akkad becomes a facet in a story of divine favour and destiny that is really Babylon’s.

None of this accords very well with our history of the period: Babylon’s rise to pre-eminence among the cities of southern Iraq did not occur until centuries after the fall of Akkad. For the time of Sargon we have only the very limited evidence mentioned at the beginning of this chapter that Babylon even existed. Nonetheless, the perception that Babylon was a city of extreme antiquity seems to have been widely held, the Epic of Creation being only one example of interest in the city’s origins and ancient past. Ancient Mesopotamian kings with an eye to posterity recorded their achievements in a variety of ways, among the more important of which was the burial of foundation inscriptions in new constructions and restorations of temples, city walls and palaces. Burying foundation documents was a standard practice throughout Mesopotamian history, and the discovery of such documents by later kings during their own restoration works was considered auspicious. Later periods in Babylon see an acute awareness of royal predecessors and the city’s antiquity, expressed most visibly in Nebuchadnezzar II’s use of an archaic script in his building inscriptions. To render the script of Hammurabi’s era accurately on the monuments of Nebuchadnezzar required epigraphic scholarship to bridge well over a millennium of change, and indeed evidence does exist of scribal study of earlier scripts. Tablets from Babylon and Borsippa show clearly that Neo-Babylonian scribes collected and studied ancient documents bearing earlier scripts, even to the point of reconstructing lost sound values with some accuracy.102 As well as this technical aspect, the practice clearly shows a reverence for Hammurabi himself, a consciousness of Babylon’s great history and the achievements of earlier rulers. The king himself took his name from another predecessor, the Nebuchadnezzar who had recovered the statue of Marduk for Babylon some 500 years earlier and whose glorious reign had also become a part of the city’s legend.

When Cyrus of Persia in his turn conquered Babylon in 539 BC, his propaganda echoed that of Nebuchadnezzar II in format and language. Among the many remarkable qualities of the Cyrus Cylinder is the extent to which it is a conventional Babylonian document. In format, language, script, even its devotion to the Babylonian god Marduk,103 the Cylinder emphasizes continuity with local tradition. It even refers to the auspicious discovery of an inscription of Ashurbanipal, to Cyrus an ancient king, during Persian building works. At the same time as linking himself with the long tradition of Babylonian kingship, of course, Cyrus also succeeded in demonizing his immediate predecessor, Nabonidus. This legendary Nabonidus, neglectful, irresponsible and possibly insane, has gone on to have a long and interesting life of his own in culture, as we shall see in later chapters. Cyrus’ presentation of his own and Nabonidus’ behaviour lived on through biblical tradition. Interestingly, Cyrus’ account of his conquest also followed what seems from a later perspective to have been a consistent pattern of conquerors of Babylon emphasizing their peaceful entry into the city, their reverence for its gods, and their responsible kingship and civic works. Accounts of Alexander’s behaviour, in particular, mirror those of the founder of the dynasty he conquered.104

All of these are mythologized representations of Babylon in their own right, legends that thrived even within the living city itself. They lie at the beginning of a long tradition. Babylon was destined to engender myths, fantasies and legends so powerful as eventually to occlude the ancient city itself. That transformation begins with the biblical and ancient Greek accounts of the city, and it is to these sources that we now turn.

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