In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Babylon

  • Introduction
  • Cuneiform Sources for Babylon’s Topography
  • Cultural Heritage

Biblical Studies Babylon
Heather D. Baker
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0291


Babylon, located on the river Euphrates some 56 miles south of modern Baghdad, is first documented in the second half of the 3rd millennium BCE, although very little is known about it from that time. The city rose to prominence in the early 2nd millennium BCE after Sumu-la-el (1880–1845 BCE), a predecessor of Hammurabi, made it the capital of the newly founded Amorite dynasty of Babylon (the so-called “First Dynasty of Babylon”). From then on Babylon remained the most important city of southern Mesopotamia, achieving the status of imperial capital following the final defeat of Assyria by the Babylonian king Nabopolassar (626–605 BCE) and his Median allies in 612 BCE. The reign of Nabopolassar’s son, Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 BCE), is regarded as Babylon’s heyday. This was a time of enormous prosperity, intense building activity, and urban population growth. It was also the time of the Babylonian exile, when deported Judeans were settled in Babylonia following Nebuchadnezzar’s sack of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. However, the Neo-Babylonian empire was short-lived: with its conquest by Cyrus II in 539 BCE, Babylon was no longer an imperial capital, although it remained a major city within the Achaemenid empire. After Alexander the Great conquered the region in 331 BCE, Babylon remained important in spite of the new foundation of Seleuceia-on-the-Tigris in around 300 BCE. Scholars attached to the great temple of Marduk were instrumental in preserving and handing down Mesopotamian learning right down until the demise of the cuneiform writing tradition in the 1st century CE (or possibly even later). Babylon’s legacy is such that popular accounts have tended to prioritize the well-known classical and Biblical stories at the expense of the contemporary archaeological and cuneiform textual evidence that bear direct testimony to the city and its history. Although the ruins of Babylon had attracted the interest of travelers for several centuries, it was not until the 19th century that archaeological investigation began, and this only took on a more systematic, scientific format with the German excavations that began at the turn of the 20th century. Those campaigns, and the publication of their results, revolutionized our knowledge of the city and made it possible for scholars to integrate information about the city’s topography drawn from the cuneiform tablets. The last fifty years or so have seen further excavation campaigns, more limited in scope, and in some cases associated with ambitious reconstruction projects aimed at making the remains more accessible to the public and showcasing Iraq’s cultural heritage. The archaeological evidence as a whole is skewed toward the city’s later history: the excavators were hardly able to access the 2nd-millennium-BCE occupation levels on account of the high ground water. The excavated remains primarily reflect the city layout of Nebuchadnezzar II’s time, although a good many of its monuments survived well into the Seleucid or even the Parthian era.

Historical Overview

Histories of Babylon generally deal with the political and cultural history of Babylonia, rather than focusing on the city itself. General histories cover the period from the late 3rd millennium BCE down to the end of the cuneiform writing tradition in the 1st century CE, which is the conventional cut-off point (albeit an arbitrary one imposed by disciplinary specialization). The detailed timeline is divided into sections represented by the major dynasties that ruled over the city: Old Babylonian period (c. 2000 BCE to 1595 BCE); Kassite and Middle Babylonian period (1595 BCE to 1000 BCE); Neo-Assyrian Period (729 BCE to 626 BCE); Neo-Babylonian (626 BCE to 539 BCE); Achaemenid Period (539 BCE to 331 BCE); and the Hellenistic and Parthian Eras (331 BCE to CE 79).

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