THE NEO-BABYLONIAN EMPIRE

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Babylonian king Nabopolassar The founder of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in the 7th century BC.

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Babylonian Soldier

DECLINE OF THE ASSYRIAN EMPIRE

Few historical sources remain for the last 30 years of the Assyrian empire. There are no extant inscriptions of Ashurbanipal after 640 BC, and the few surviving inscriptions of his successors contain only vague allusions to political matters. In Babylonia the silence is almost total until 625 BC, when the chronicles resume. The rapid downfall of the Assyrian empire was formerly attributed to military defeat, although it was never clear how the Medes and the Babylonians alone could have accomplished this. More recent work has established that after 635 a civil war occurred, weakening the empire so that it could no longer stand up against a foreign enemy. Ashurbanipal had twin sons. Ashur-etel-ilani was appointed successor to the throne, but his twin brother Sin-shar-ishkun did not recognize him. The fight between them and their supporters forced the old king to withdraw to Harran, in 632 at the latest, perhaps ruling from there over the western part of the empire until his death in 627. Ashur-etel-ilani governed in Assyria from about 633, but a general, Sin-shum-lisher, soon rebelled against him and proclaimed himself counter-king. Some years later (629?) Sin-shar-ishkun finally succeeded in obtaining the kingship. In Babylonian documents dates can be found for all three kings. To add to the confusion, until 626 there are also dates of Ashurbanipal and a king named Kandalanu. In 626 the Chaldean Nabopolassar (Nabu-apal-uṣur) revolted from Erech (Uruk) and occupied Babylon. There were several changes in government. King Ashur-etel-ilani was forced to withdraw to the west, where he died sometime after 625.

About the year 626 the Scythians laid waste to Syria and Palestine. In 625 the Medes became united under Cyaxares and began to conquer the Iranian provinces of Assyria. One chronicle relates of wars between Sin-shar-ishkun and Nabopolassar in Babylonia in 625–623. It was not long until the Assyrians were driven out of Babylonia. In 616 the Medes struck against Nineveh, but, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, were driven back by the Scythians. In 615, however, the Medes conquered Arrapkha (Kirkūk), and in 614 they took the old capital of Ashur, looting and destroying the city. Now Cyaxares and Nabopolassar made an alliance for the purpose of dividing Assyria. In 612 Kalakh and Nineveh succumbed to the superior strength of the allies. The revenge taken on the Assyrians was terrible: 200 years later Xenophon found the country still sparsely populated.

Sin-shar-ishkun, king of Assyria, found death in his burning palace. The commander of the Assyrian army in the west crowned himself king in the city of Harran, assuming the name of the founder of the empire, Ashur-uballiṭ II (611–609 BC). Ashur-uballiṭ had to face both the Babylonians and the Medes. They conquered Harran in 610, without, however, destroying the city completely. In 609 the remaining Assyrian troops had to capitulate. With this event Assyria disappeared from history. The great empires that succeeded it learned a great deal from the hated Assyrians, both in the arts and in the organization of their states.

The Chaldeans, who inhabited the coastal area near the Persian Gulf, had never been entirely pacified by the Assyrians. About 630 Nabopolassar became king of the Chaldeans. In 626 he forced the Assyrians out of Erech (Uruk) and crowned himself king of Babylonia. He took part in the wars aimed at the destruction of Assyria. At the same time, he began to restore the dilapidated network of canals in the cities of Babylonia, particularly those in Babylon itself. He fought against the Assyrian Ashur-uballiṭ II and then against Egypt, his successes alternating with misfortunes. In 605 Nabopolassar died in Babylon.

NEBUCHADREZZAR II

Nabopolassar had named his oldest son, Nabu-kudurri-uṣur, after the famous king of the second dynasty of Isin, trained him carefully for his prospective kingship, and shared responsibility with him. When the father died in 605, Nebuchadrezzar was with his army in Syria; he had just crushed the Egyptians near Carchemish in a cruel, bloody battle and pursued them into the south. On receiving the news of his father’s death, Nebuchadrezzar returned immediately to Babylon.

In his numerous building inscriptions he tells but rarely of his many wars; most of them end with prayers. The Babylonian chronicle is extant only for the years 605–594, and not much is known from other sources about the later years of this famous king. He went very often to Syria and Palestine, at first to drive out the Egyptians. In 604 he took the Philistine city of Ashkelon. In 601 he tried to push forward into Egypt but was forced to pull back after a bloody, undecided battle and to regroup his army in Babylonia. After smaller incursions against the Arabs of Syria, he attacked Palestine at the end of 598. King Jehoiakim of Judah had rebelled, counting on help from Egypt. According to the chronicle, Jerusalem was taken on March 16, 597. Jehoiakim had died during the siege, and his son, King Johoiachin, together with at least 3,000 Jews, was led into exile in Babylonia. They were treated well there, according to the documents. Zedekiah was appointed the new king. In 596, when danger threatened from the east, Nebuchadrezzar marched to the Tigris River and induced the enemy to withdraw. After a revolt in Babylonia had been crushed with much bloodshed, there were other campaigns in the west.

According to the Bible, Judah rebelled again in 589, and Jerusalem was placed under siege. The city fell in 587/586 and was completely destroyed. Many thousands of Jews were forced into the Babylonian Exile, and their country was reduced to a province of the Babylonian empire. The revolt had been caused by an Egyptian invasion that pushed as far as Sidon. Nebuchadrezzar laid siege to Tyre for 13 years without taking the city, because there was no fleet at his disposal. In 568/567 he attacked Egypt, again without much success, but from that time on the Egyptians refrained from further attacks on Palestine. Nebuchadrezzar lived at peace with Media throughout his reign and acted as a mediator after the Median-Lydian War of 590–585.

The Babylonian empire under Nebuchadrezzar extended to the Egyptian border. It had a well-functioning administrative system. Though he had to collect extremely high taxes and tributes in order to maintain his armies and carry out his building projects, Nebuchadrezzar made Babylonia one of the richest lands in western Asia—the more astonishing because it had been rather poor when it was ruled by the Assyrians. Babylon was the largest city of the “civilized world.” Nebuchadrezzar maintained the existing canal systems and built many supplementary canals, making the land even more fertile. Trade and commerce flourished during his reign.

Nebuchadrezzar’s building activities surpassed those of most of the Assyrian kings. He fortified the old double walls of Babylon, adding another triple wall outside the old wall. In addition, he erected another wall, the Median Wall, north of the city between the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers. According to Greek estimates, the Median Wall may have been about 100 feet (30 metres) high. He enlarged the old palace and added many wings, so that hundreds of rooms with large inner courts were now at the disposal of the central offices of the empire. Colourful glazed-tile bas-reliefs decorated the walls. Terrace gardens, called the Hanging Gardens in later accounts, were added. Hundreds of thousands of workers must have been required for these projects.

The temples were objects of special concern. Nebuchadrezzar devoted himself first and foremost to the completion of Etemenanki, the “Tower of Babel.” Construction of this building began in the time of Nebuchadrezzar I, about 1110. It stood as a “building ruin” until the reign of Esarhaddon of Assyria, who resumed building about 680 but did not finish. Nebuchadrezzar II was able to complete the whole building. The mean dimensions of Etemenanki are to be found in the Esagila Tablet, which has been known since the late 19th century. Its base measured about 300 feet on each side, and it was 300 feet (91 metres) in height. There were five terracelike gradations surmounted by a temple, the whole tower being about twice the height of those of other temples. The wide street used for processions led along the eastern side by the inner city walls and crossed at the enormous Ishtar Gate with its world-renowned bas-relief tiles. Nebuchadrezzar also built many smaller temples throughout the country.

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THE LAST KINGS OF BABYLONIA

Awil-Marduk (called Evil-Merodach in the Bible; 561–560), the son of Nebuchadrezzar, was unable to win the support of the priests of Marduk. His reign did not last long, and he was soon eliminated. His brother-in-law and successor, Nergal-shar-uṣur (called Neriglissar in classical sources; 559–556), was a general who undertook a campaign in 557 into the “rough” Cilician land, which may have been under the control of the Medes. His land forces were assisted by a fleet. His still-minor son Labashi-Marduk was murdered not long after that, allegedly because he was not suitable for his job.

The next king was the Aramaean Nabonidus (Nabu-na556–539) from Harran, one of the most interesting and enigmatic figures of ancient times. His mother, Addagoppe, was a priestess of the god Sin in Harran. She came to Babylon and managed to secure responsible offices for her son at court. The god of the moon rewarded her piety with a long life—she lived to be 103—and she was buried in Harran with all the honours of a queen in 547. It is not clear which powerful faction in Babylon supported the kingship of Nabonidus. It may have been one opposing the priests of Marduk, who had become extremely powerful.

Nabonidus raided Cilicia in 555 and secured the surrender of Harran, which had been ruled by the Medes. He concluded a treaty of defense with Astyages of Media against the Persians, who had become a growing threat since 559 under their king Cyrus II. He also devoted himself to the renovation of many temples, taking an especially keen interest in old inscriptions. He gave preference to his god Sin and had powerful enemies in the priesthood of the Marduk temple. Modern excavators have found fragments of propaganda poems written against Nabonidus and also in support of him. Both traditions continued in Judaism.

Internal difficulties and the recognition that the narrow strip of land from the Persian Gulf to Syria could not be defended against a major attack from the east induced Nabonidus to leave Babylonia around 552 and to reside in Taima (Taymā’) in northern Arabia. There he organized an Arabian province with the assistance of Jewish mercenaries. His viceroy in Babylonia was his son Bel-shar-uṣur, the Belshazzar of the Book of Daniel in the Bible. Cyrus turned this to his own advantage by annexing Media in 550. Nabonidus, in turn, allied himself with Croesus of Lydia in order to fight Cyrus. Yet, when Cyrus attacked Lydia and annexed it in 546, Nabonidus was not able to help Croesus. Cyrus bode his time.

In 542 Nabonidus returned to Babylonia, where his son had been able to maintain good order in external matters but had not overcome a growing internal opposition to his father. Consequently, Nabonidus’s career after his return was short-lived, though he tried hard to regain the support of the Babylonians. He appointed his daughter to be high priestess of the god Sin in Ur, thus returning to the Sumerian-Old Babylonian religious tradition. The priests of Marduk looked to Cyrus, hoping to have better relations with him than with Nabonidus. They promised Cyrus the surrender of Babylon without a fight if he would grant them their privileges in return. In 539 Cyrus attacked northern Babylonia with a large army, defeating Nabonidus, and entered the city of Babylon without a battle. The other cities did not offer any resistance either. Nabonidus surrendered, receiving a small territory in eastern Iran. Tradition has confused him with his great predecessor Nebuchadrezzar II. The Bible refers to him as Nebuchadrezzar in the Book of Daniel.

Babylonia’s peaceful submission to Cyrus saved it from the fate of Assyria. It became a territory under the Persian crown but kept its cultural autonomy. Even the racially mixed western part of the Babylonian empire submitted without resistance.

By 620 the Babylonians had grown tired of Assyrian rule. They were also weary of internal struggle. They were easily persuaded to submit to the order of the Chaldean kings. The result was a surprisingly rapid social and economic consolidation, helped along by the fact that after the fall of Assyria no external enemy threatened Babylonia for more than 60 years. In the cities the temples were an important part of the economy, having vast benefices at their disposal. The business class regained its strength, not only in the trades and commerce but also in the management of agriculture in the metropolitan areas. Livestock breeding—sheep, goats, beef cattle, and horses—flourished, as did poultry farming. The cultivation of corn, dates, and vegetables grew in importance. Much was done to improve communications, both by water and land, with the western provinces of the empire. The collapse of the Assyrian empire had the consequence that many trade arteries were rerouted through Babylonia. Another result of the collapse was that the city of Babylon became a world centre.

The immense amount of documentary material and correspondence that has survived has not yet been fully analyzed. No new system of law or administration seems to have developed during that time. The Babylonian dialect gradually became Aramaicized; it was still written primarily on clay tablets that often bore added material in Aramaic lettering. Parchment and papyrus documents have not survived. In contrast to advances in other fields, there is no evidence of much artistic creativity. Aside from some of the inscriptions of the kings, especially Nabonidus, which were not comparable from a literary standpoint with those of the Assyrians, the main efforts were devoted to the rewriting of old texts. In the fine arts, only a few monuments have any suggestion of new tendencies.

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