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Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam Hussein: The history of the myth of Babylon

‘Babylon’ is a name which throughout the centuries has evoked an image of power, wealth, and splendour – and decadence. Indeed, in the biblical Book of Revelation, Rome is damned as the ‘Whore of Babylon’ – and thus identified with a city whose image of lust and debauchery persisted and flourished long after the city itself had crumbled into dust. Powerful visual images in later ages, like Bruegel’s Tower of Babel and Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast perpetuate the negative image Babylon acquired in biblical tradition. The latter found musical expression in William Walton’s composition Belshazzar’s Feast, and the reign of Babylon’s most famous – and infamous – king Nebuchadnezzar in Verdi’s opera Nabucco, best known for its ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.’ In recent years, the representation of Nebuchadnezzar as a ruthless, despotic tyrant was given a fresh airing in the political propaganda of Saddam Hussein who claimed to be the ancient king reincarnated – and sometimes had himself depicted on posters riding a chariot and decked out in Nebuchadnezzar’s military gear.

Babylon lies near the political centre of gravity of modern Iraq, close to its capital, Baghdad. It was the royal seat of the southern part of Iraq (also known as Mesopotamia or southern Mesopotamia), stretching southwards to the Persian Gulf. When referring to its ancient history and civilization, scholars often call this region Babylonia. Its natural environment is harsh. Large desert tracts of land occupied much of its flat arid plain, barely moistened by the region’s meager rainfall which frequently failed altogether. Drought was an ever-present threat to human survival, and natural resources, including metals and timber, were extremely scarce. Yet human determination and ingenuity, which found expression in the construction of a complex system of irrigation canals and the undertaking of wide-ranging trade and military expeditions, enabled the peoples of the region to survive and flourish. Already during the 3rd millennium, several major civilizations, like the Sumerian and Akkadian civilizations, had arisen in southern Mesopotamia. Babylon’s rise to prominence came in the early 2nd millennium, in the reign of Hammurabi, its first great ruler. Hammurabi built the first of three great Babylonian kingdoms, all of them major powers within the Near Eastern world. Though a highly successful war-leader, Hammurabi is best remembered as a great builder, social reformer, and guardian of justice. Many cities in his kingdom, and especially their religious sanctuaries, were restored and redeveloped under his rule, and many of his successors maintained his building and restoration programmes, and his responsibilities for ensuring justice throughout the land over which they held sway.

Powerful visual images in later ages, like Bruegel’s ‘Tower of Babel’ and Rembrandt’s ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ perpetuate the negative image Babylon acquired in biblical tradition. Image Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ by Rembrandt, purchased by the National Gallery with support of The Art Fund. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This brings us back to Nebuchadnezzar. Babylon was some 2,000 years old when in 605 BC Nebuchadnezzar succeeded his father on its throne as the second ruler of the short-lived Neo-Babylonian empire, which ended with the Persian conquest of it in 539 BC. Was the Babylon of that period the city of wantonness and depravity, and was its king Nebuchadnezzar the monster of cruelty and oppression, as depicted in our biblical sources and later artistic tradition? This image of the city and its most famous ruler has now been largely countered by the recovery of Babylon’s own history and civilization, through the decipherment of the language of its tablets, and the sifting of its archaeological remains. Both sets of sources reveal to us a city that became the centre of one of the most culturally and intellectually vibrant civilizations of the ancient world, exercising a profound influence on its Near Eastern contemporaries, and contributing in many respects to the religious, scientific, and literary traditions of the Classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. In keeping with a legacy that goes back at least as far as Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar devoted himself to building and restoration projects throughout his land, and proclaimed his responsibilities in ensuring justice and protection for all his subjects, especially those who were most vulnerable – as Hammurabi had done in his famous (and still extant) set of laws. Under Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon became the largest and most sophisticated city of the ancient world. The so-called ‘Tower of Babel’ was one of its defining landmarks. It was a multi-platformed building, of a kind found in many Babylonian cities as well as Babylon itself, and was known as a ziggurat. Though it was certainly a religious building, its precise function remains unknown. (One suggestion is that it served as a substitute for the mountains in which the gods originally lived.)

Babylonian contributions to the arts and social and physical sciences remain among the most important achievements of all ancient civilizations, as the decipherment of the ancient Near Eastern languages and the excavation of the Babylonian cities have so amply demonstrated. Yet the image of Babylon itself as the archetypal city of decadence, profligacy, and unrestrained vice is the one that remains paramount in modern perceptions. Thanks to the influence of the Judaeo-Christian view of this city, strongly reinforced by the lurid depictions of it and its rulers in western art, this image continues to dominate all others, despite all that modern Mesopotamian scholars have done to provide a more balanced view of this the centre of one of the world’s greatest civilizations.

Featured image credit: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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