BABYLON

   Ancient city on the river Euphrates, south of modern Baghdad. The name is the Greek version of the Babylonian Babili, which was rendered as “Gate of the Gods,” although the etymology is unclear.
   The river used to run through the city but has shifted its course, and the denuded site was left uninhabited for centuries, while the baked bricks used in the monuments were reused by local villagers for their own shelters. There are several scattered tells on an area that used to be enclosed by a wall of some 20 kilometers in length. Due to the high water table, archaeological levels lower than those of the later second millennium B.C. are inaccessible. The extensive archaeological site was excavated by the German Oriental Society starting in 1899, originally led by Robert Koldewey; more recently, Iraqi archaeologists have been at work at the sites. The most spectacular remains, such as the restored Ishtar Gate with its glazed tile reliefs of sacred animals, are in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Babylon always had a reputation as a sacred site. It was first mentioned in an inscription of the Akkad kingShar-kali-sharri, but it is unlikely that the city’s main temple, the Esagil, was founded by Sargon of Akkad, as a Babylonian Chronicle states. It was the seat of a governor during the Third Dynasty of Ur but only grew to some importance in the Old Babylonian period when Sumu-abum made it the capital of his kingdom. Hammurabi enlarged and fortified the city in the 18th century B.C. The MarduktempleEsagil and the first ziggurat may also have been constructed at this time, although there is no archaeological proof for this.
   The Hittiteking Mursili Idestroyed Babylon around 1595 B.C. It was rebuilt under the Kassite Dynasty, which promoted the cult of the venerable Babylonian gods. The city suffered another sacking (c. 1174) at the hands of the Elamites, who also abducted the statues of Marduk and his consort. It was NebuchadrezzarIwho vindicated this insult by invading Elam and bringing back the stolen gods. In subsequent centuries Babylon was under foreign influence and occupation, first by Elam and then by the Assyrians. While some Assyrian kings wrought havoc in the “sacred city” (e.g., Sennacherib in 698), others endowed the sanctuaries lavishly. However, it was during the time when Babylonia had regained its independence and became a powerful empire that the city began to be invested with magnificence. This was largely the work of NebuchadrezzarII. He used the enormous revenue generated from taxes and tribute to embellish the capital, which became the largest and wealthiest of cities in the Near East.
   It was surrounded by a strongly fortified double wall, some 20 kilometers long, pierced by several gates. Huge bulwarks of baked brick protected the wall at the places where the Euphrates entered the city. Nebuchadrezzar built new palaces and decorated the throne room with glazed brick wall designs, which have also been partially reconstructed in Berlin.
   Of particular importance was the sacred precinct of the god Marduk, with the temple Esagil and the ziggurat, remembered in the Bible as the Tower of Babel, which took 17 years to complete. It incorporated the remains of earlier structures under a casing of brick some 15 meters thick.
   A straight, walled street that served military as well as ritual purposes linked the temple to the western gate. It was used for the annual processions during the New Year festival, and glazed bricks lined the walls, showing the symbols of the main deities: the dragon of Marduk, the lion of Ishtar, and the bull of Adad (see ARCHITECTURE, RELIGION). When the Persianstook political control of Mesopotamia, they did not destroy the city. In the Seleucid period, a theater and a new market were built, while older temples continued to flourish. Despite the foundation of a new capital, Seleucia-on-the-Tigris, Babylon remained an important urban and especially religious center but declined when Parthian rule isolated Babylonia from the Hellenized world.

Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. . 2012.

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