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007. Babil (ancient: Babylon)

Also known today as Al Qasr or Mujellibeh, near Al Hillah.

Babil Governorate. Approximately 80 miles south of Baghdad.

Dates:  First mentioned in Akkadian period inscriptions in the mid-third millennium, and finally abandoned in Parthian times (Roman accounts of the first century AD characterize it as deserted.

The most renowned city of Mesopotamia, and one of the most famous urban centers of antiquity, celebrated for its ziggurat, hanging gardens and rulers Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar II.

Babylon (modern Al Hillah) was the "holy city" of Babylonia from around 2300 BC, and the seat of the Neo-Babylonian Empire from 612 BC. In the Bible, the name was interpreted by Genesis 11:9 to mean "confusion", from the verb balal, "to confuse". Babylon was an important city, both politically and aesthetically. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Comprising several mounds that used to be enclosed by a wall 20 km long. The archaeological levels earlier than the later second millennium BC are inaccessible because of the high water table. Sacked several times in antiquity (by the Hittites in 1595 BC, Sennacherib in 698 BC), the city was magnificently rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar II.  Bisected by the Euphrates, the city was protected by a defensive moat and a brick wall 85 feet thick, with 9 gateways, each named for a god-- according to Herodotus, wide enough on top for a four horse chariot to make a U-turn. Inside were the temple of Marduk, E-sagila, “the House of the Uplifted  Head”) and the ziggurat, E-Temenanki, “House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth”. The latter, which incorporates remains of earlier structures in a casing of  baked brick  49 feet thick,  was built on a platform about 300  ft sq, and is probably the best of the many candidates for the Tower of Babel. Through the Ishtar Gate, glazed in blue brick with symbols of the gods, ran the Processional Way, used in ceremonies for the New Year’s festival.

Fieldwork: Germans under Koldeway, ca 1900-14; Iraqi Antiquities Service

Collections: The Ishtar Gate, recovered by Koldeway, is now reconstructed in the Berlin Museum.

Site Assessment: For years, peasants have been removing bricks  to use for building so that the remains of the ziggurat are a depression. Saddam Hussein reconstructed part of Babylon, even stamping bricks “this was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq:, and installing a huge portrait of himself and that king.  After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, US military built a helipad on the ruins, and it has been claimed that vibrations from helicopter cause a near-by Babylonian structure to collapse.

The use of the area for a military base might also have caused some problems in areas that the team did not visit. Indirect war-related problem is the controversial reconstruction of the Neo-Babylonian palace on top of the ruins/foundations of the real buildings. For this reason the site has not been accepted on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Across the river on a huge artificial mound, Saddam Hussein built a monumental palace overlooking the site, but still within the city walls.

The earliest source to mention of Babylon may be a dated tablet of the reign of Sargon of Akkad (circa 24th century BC). The so-called "Weidner Chronicle" states that it was Sargon himself who built Babylon "in front of Akkad" (ABC 19:51). Another chronicle likewise states that Sargon "dug up the dirt of the pit of Babylon, and made a counterpart of Babylon next to Agade." (ABC 20:18-19).

Some scholars, including American linguist I.J. Gelb, have suggested that the name Babil is an echo of an earlier city name. According to Dr. Ranajit Pal, this city was in the East[1]. Herzfeld wrote about 'Bawer' in Iran which was allegedly founded by Jamshid; the name Babil could be an echo of Bawer. David Rohl holds that the original "Babylon" is to be identified with Eridu. Some Biblical literalists believe that Nimrod was the original founder of Babel (Babylon), because this is stated in Genesis 10. Joan Oates claims in her book 'Babylon' that the rendering "Gateway of the gods" is no longer accepted by modern scholars.

Over the years, the power and population of Babylon waned. From around the 20th century BC, it was occupied by Amorites (nomadic Semitic tribes), fleeing southern Mesopotamia from the west. The First Babylonian Dynasty was established by Sumu-abum, but the city-state controlled little surrounding territory until it became the capital of Hammurabi's empire. Hammurabi is known for codifying the laws of Babylonia, that were to have a profound influence on the region. (ca. 18th century BC). From that time onward, it continued to be the capital of Babylonia, although during the 440 years of domination by the Kassites (1595–1185 BC), the city was renamed "Karanduniash".

The city itself was built upon the Euphrates, and divided in equal parts along its left and right banks, with steep embankments to contain the river's seasonal floods. Babylon grew in extent and grandeur over time, but gradually became subject to the rule of Assyria.

It has been estimated that Babylon was the largest city in the world from c. 1770 to 1670 BC, and again between c. 612 and 320 BC. It was perhaps the first city to reach a population above 200,000.

Assyrian period. During the reign of Sennacherib of Assyria, Babylonia was in a constant state of revolt, led by Mushezib-Marduk, and suppressed only by the complete destruction of the city of Babylon. In 689 BC, its walls, temples and palaces were razed, and the rubble was thrown into the Arakhtu, the canal bordering the earlier Babylon on the south. This act shocked the religious conscience of Mesopotamia; the subsequent murder of Sennacherib was held to be in expiation of it, and his successor Esarhaddon hastened to rebuild the old city, to receive there his crown, and make it his residence during part of the year. On his death, Babylonia was left to be governed by his elder son Shamash-shum-ukin, who eventually headed a revolt in 652 BC against his brother in Nineveh, Assurbanipal.

The city of Babylon was reputedly surrounded by a wall 90 m high, 24 m wide, and 97 km in circumference. The wall was also buried 10 m into the soil in order to prevent enemies from burrowing into the city limits.

Once again, Babylon was besieged by the Assyrians and starved into surrender. Assurbanipal purified the city and celebrated a "service of reconciliation", but did not venture to "take the hands" of Bel. In the subsequent overthrow of the Assyrian Empire, the Babylonians saw another example of divine vengeance.

Neo-Babylonian Empire. Under Nabopolassar, Babylon threw off the Assyrian rule in 626 BC, and became the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

With the recovery of Babylonian independence, a new era of architectural activity ensued, and his son Nebuchadnezzar II (605 BC–562 BC) made Babylon into one of the wonders of the ancient world. Nebuchadnezzar ordered the complete reconstruction of the imperial grounds, including rebuilding the Etemenanki ziggurat and the construction of the Ishtar Gate — the most spectacular of eight gates that ringed the perimeter of Babylon. The Ishtar Gate survives today in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Nebuchadnezzar is also credited with the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), said to have been built for his homesick wife Amyitis. Whether the gardens did exist is a matter of dispute. Although excavations by German archaeologist Robert Koldewey are thought to reveal its foundations, many historians disagree about the location, and some believe it may have been confused with gardens in Nineveh.

Babylon under Persia. In 539 BC the Neo-Babylonian Empire fell to Cyrus the Great, king of Persia. It is said that Cyrus walked through the gates of Babylon without encountering any resistance. He later issued a decree permitting the exiled Jews to return to their own land, and allowed their temple to be rebuilt.

Under Cyrus and the subsequent Persian king Darius I, Babylon became the capital city of the 9th Satrapy (Babylonia in the south and Athura in the north), as well as a centre of learning and scientific advancement. In Achaemenid Persia, the ancient Babylonian arts of astronomy and mathematics were revitalised and flourished, and Babylonian scholars completed maps of constellations. The city was the administrative capital of the Persian Empire, the preeminent power of the then known world, and it played a vital part in the history of that region for over two centuries. Many important archaeological discoveries have been made that can provide a better understanding of that era[3][4].

The early Persian kings had attempted to maintain the religious ceremonies of Marduk, but by the reign of Darius III, over-taxation and the strains of numerous wars led to a deterioration of Babylon's main shrines and canals, and the disintegration of the surrounding region. Despite three attempts at rebellion in 522 BC, 521 BC, and 482 BC, the land and city of Babylon remained solidly under Persian rule for two centuries, until Alexander the Great's entrance in 331 BC.

Hellenistic Period. In 331 BC, Darius III was defeated by the forces of the Macedonian ruler Alexander the Great at the Battle of Gaugamela, and in October, Babylon fell to the young conqueror. A native account of this invasion notes a ruling by Alexander not to enter the homes of its inhabitants.

Under Alexander, Babylon again flourished as a centre of learning and commerce. But following Alexander's death in 323 BC in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, his empire was divided amongst his generals, and decades of fighting soon began, with Babylon once again caught in the middle.

The constant turmoil virtually emptied the city of Babylon. A tablet dated 275 BC states that the inhabitants of Babylon were transported to Seleucia, where a palace was built, as well as a temple given the ancient name of E-Saggila. With this deportation, the history of Babylon comes practically to an end, though more than a century later, it was found that sacrifices were still performed in its old sanctuary. By 141 BC, when the Parthian Empire took over the region, Babylon was in complete desolation and obscurity.

Persian Empire Period. Under the Parthian, and later, Sassanid Persians, Babylon remained a province of the Persian Empire for nine centuries, until around 650 AD. It continued to have its own culture and peoples, who spoke varieties of Aramaic, and who continued to refer to their homeland as Babylon. Some examples of their cultural products are found in: the Babylonian Talmud, the Mandaean religion, and the religion of the prophet Mani.

Archaeology of Babylon. Historical knowledge of Babylon's topography is derived from classical writers, the inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar, and several excavations, including those of the Deutsche Orientgesellschaft begun in 1899. The layout is that of the Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar; the older Babylon destroyed by Sennacherib having left few, if any, traces behind.

Most of the existing remains lie on the east bank of the Euphrates, the principal ones being three vast mounds: the Babil to the north, the Qasr or "Palace" (also known as the Mujelliba) in the centre, and the Ishgn "Amran ibn" All, with the outlying spur of the Jumjuma, to the south. East of these come the Ishgn el-Aswad or "Black Mound" and three lines of rampart, one of which encloses the Babil mound on the N. and E. sides, while a third forms a triangle with the S.E. angle of the other two. West of the Euphrates are other ramparts, and the remains of the ancient Borsippa.

We learn from Herodotus and Ctesias that the city was built on both sides of the river in the form of a square, and was enclosed within a double row of lofty walls, or a triple row according to Ctesias. Ctesias describes the outermost wall as 360 stades (42 miles/68 km) in circumference, while according to Herodotus it measured 480 stades (56 miles/90 km), which would include an area of about 520 km² (approx. 200 square miles).

The estimate of Ctesias is essentially the same as that of Q. Curtius (v. I. 26) -- 368 stades -- and Cleitarchus (ap. Diod. Sic. ii. 7) -- 365 stades; Strabo (xvi. 1. 5) makes it 385 stades. But even the estimate of Ctesias, assuming the stade to be its usual length, would imply an area of about 260 km² (100 square miles). According to Herodotus, the width of the walls was 24 m (80 ft).

Reconstruction. In 1985, Saddam Hussein started rebuilding the city on top of the old ruins, investing in both restoration and new construction, to the dismay of archaeologists, with his name inscribed on many of the bricks, in imitation of Nebuchadnezzar. One frequent inscription reads: "This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq". This recalls the ziggurat at Ur, where each individual brick was stamped with "Ur-Nammu, king of Ur, who built the temple of Nanna". These bricks became sought after as collectors' items after the downfall of Saddam, and the ruins are no longer being restored to their original state. He also installed a huge portrait of himself and Nebuchadnezzar at the entrance to the ruins, and shored up Processional Way, a large boulevard of ancient stones, and the Lion of Babylon, a black rock sculpture about 2,600 years old.

When the Gulf War ended, he wanted to build a modern palace, also over some old ruins, it was made in the pyramidal style of a Sumerian ziggurat. He named it Saddam Hill. In 2003, he was ready to begin the construction of a cable car line over Babylon when the invasion began and halted the project.

Interestingly enough, an article published in the New York Times in July 2006 states that UN officials and the Iraqi administration have plans for restoring Babylon, making it a gem of a new Iraq as a cultural center complete with shopping malls, hotels, and maybe even a theme park.

Effects of the U.S Military. US forces were criticised for building a helipad on ancient Babylonian ruins following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, under the command of General James T. Conway of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. The vibrations from helicopter landings led a nearby Babylonian structure to collapse.[7]

US forces have occupied the site for some time and have caused damage to the archaeological record. In a report of the British Museum's Near East department, Dr. John Curtis describes how parts of the archaeological site were levelled to create a landing area for helicopters, and parking lots for heavy vehicles. Curtis wrote that the occupation forces

"caused substantial damage to the Ishtar Gate, one of the most famous monuments from antiquity [...] US military vehicles crushed 2,600-year-old brick pavements, archaeological fragments were scattered across the site, more than 12 trenches were driven into ancient deposits and military earth-moving projects contaminated the site for future generations of scientists [...] Add to all that the damage caused to nine of the moulded brick figures of dragons in the Ishtar Gate by people trying to remove the bricks from the wall."

The head of the Iraqi State Board for Heritage and Antiquities, Donny George, said that the "mess will take decades to sort out". Colonel Coleman issued an apology for the damage done by military personnel under his command in April 2006, and explained that they were protecting the site from looters of the strife that filled the streets of Iraq's major cities following the fall of Saddam.

Camp Babylon. The First Marine Expeditionary Force transferred authority for five provinces in southern Iraq to the Polish-led Multinational Division Central-South, in a ceremony Sept. 3, 2003 at Camp Babylon, Iraq.

Multinational Division South Central Iraq is headquartered in the amphitheatre at Babylon. Designed to protect the historic Babylon ruins next to the Euphrates River from looters, the camp is home to a number of Coalition countries supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom, including Poland, Spain, the United Kingdom, France and Germany, all under the command of the Multinational Defense Force Southeast, or MND(SE).

When Navy Seabees attached to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) advanced into the ancient biblical city of Babylon at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), they arrived to find the city's museum and its ruins looted and damaged. After Marines secured the city to protect it from further destruction, the Seabees built Camp Babylon around the ancient city in order to protect one of history's most important archaeological treasures. The individual talent of one Seabee led to the repair of one of the museum's most prized re-creations of ancient history; a scale model of the tower of Babel. The tower, according to biblical history, was built by Noah's descendants who intended it to reach up to heaven. God foiled them by confusing their language so they could no longer understand each other.

According to a January 15, 2005 article in the UK’s Guardian and a British Museum report, Camp Babylon and operations ran out of Camp Babylon caused “widespread damage and severe contamination to the remains of the ancient city of Babylon.”

The report claims that heavy military vehicles crushed some archaeologically significant sites and vast amounts of sand and earth were removed from the site in order to fill sandbags. Also, because the city was home to a coalition military base it became the site of frequent insurgent attacks which caused further damage to the ancient site.

In September 2003 the base was passed to a Polish-led force, which held it until January 2005 when the site was handed over to the Iraqi culture ministry. In January 2005 Polish forces transferred control of Camp Babylon to the Iraqi Culture Ministry. Polish forces moved to a nearby area. Polish officials said that the moving out of Camp Babylon was as a result of security reasons and not because the base was allegedly damaging the ancient city.

  32° 32' 31.20" 
  32.542° N
  44° 25' 14.52" 
  44.420° E

Click to view GoogleEarth satellite Image of ancient Babylon (external resource)