Minisitry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Poland, Bureau of Defense Matters Report on the current condition of the archaeological site of Babylon. (Used as "the military camp alpha site" of the invading allied forces) Dated December 2004.
Neo-Babylonian Empire and the building of Babylon
The political history of the Late Babylonian empire is complicated, and is a scene of continuous military conflict between Assyrians and Babylonias, and also with the later interventions of Egyptians who were active in the Levant at the time and the Medes of the Iranian plateau n the Zagros mountains immediately East of the Diyala River sources. Medes start to appear in Assyrian historical record in mid 9th c. BC, employed by the Assyrians as mercenaries and had become a significant military power in the 7th c. BC. There are accounts of the classical sources, mainly Herodotus who talk about Median presence on the Anatolian plateau and eventually confronting the powerful Lydian kingdom in the Halys bend. When archaeological evidence however is concerned Median presence is frustratingly elusive. Scholars are now more an more convinced that the Median empire actually never existed: it was a fictitous entity, either imagined by Greek historians like Herodostus or the later Persians who attempted to strengthen their legitimacy in Iran and Anatolia by means of claiming a Median heritage.
At the height of their power, the Assyrians were always politically and militarily involved with Babylonia, and the Babylonian kingdoms, who were not quite powerful at that time; but Babylon was already a prosperous and very ancient city, city of the god Marduk, and was the basic ceremonial center of Southern Mesopotamia, ever since it was the capital of the First Dynasty of Babylon under Hammurabi, in the first half of 2nd millennium (18th c. ) BC, as you will remember from our previous classes. You will also remember, when Hittites sacked Babylon in 1595 BC and took Marduk away, they marked the end of the Middle Bronze Age in Babylonia.
By the 1st millennium BC, it was a prestigious and holy city, and Assyrians cared for it, and always wanted to have their control over it. Around 9th c. BC, from the Assyrian accounts, we learn that so-called Chaldean tribes were living in the Southern marshland, having a tribal social organization but also city-dwellers. They were small states. As they had become powerful and troublesome to the Assyrian rulers, claiming an independent kingship under Marduk-apla-iddina in the late 8th c. BC, they had to confront them. The most violent of those occasions was perhaps Sennacherib’s destruction of Babylon in 698 BC. But his successor Esarhaddon immediately started to rebuild it.
By the mid 7th c. BC, after the king Assurbanipal, Assyria was already in decline, and the political vacuum helped the Chaldeans to become strong with their new dynasty, that ruled Babylonia from Babylon, and ancient historians refer to this new Empire, the Neo-Babylonian Empire, who was the last true empire in the Mesopotamian tradition, before the takeover of the Greeks. They collaborated with Medes of Iran, and sacked Nineveh in 612 BC, which is generally taken as the end of the Assyrian empire.
The culmination prosperity of Babylon starts at this point, what we are going to look at finally is the massive building project of the Neo-babylonian kings, especially at the time of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled between 604 and 562, a really long 38 years of reign. his father Nabupolassar was responsible for consolidating the empire by his military campaigns to the west and the destruction of Assyria. Nebuchadnezzar married the Median princess, the daughter of the Median king Cyaxares, and he is believed to have built the so-called Hanging gardens of Babylon, which we will look at, so that this Median princess would not miss living in her mountainous homeland. (All sounds like well-fitting fiction).
Babylon: myth of the city
Bruegel’s Tower of Babylon painting: Let’s return to Babylon, and Nebuchadnezzar’s massive project here. Babylon has become one of the widely known cities in later history and today, partly because perhaps it was continued to be inhabited by Persians and later Hellenistic Greeks, i.e. Seleucids, and they built at Babylon too; it was also recorded by ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who probably have never been there but described the city through secondary accounts, and also that it is extensively referred in biblical accounts. So there is a whole body of literature that followed this myth of the city, its tower and spectacular architecture, and one of the seven wonders: the so-called Hanging Gardens, one of the 7 wonders. Biblical story of the Tower of Babel. It would be intersting now to juxtopose this mythical image of Babylon of later accounts and classical authors and the imagination of European painters; with the actual archaeological record which we will turn.
Archaeology of the city
Most of what we know about the archaeology of Babylon is Robert Koldewey and his German team’s excavations at the site at the beginning of the century, lasted until 1917. Because of the high ground water, I will reiterate as we were talking about Hammurabi’s First dynasty, nothing could be excavated from the 2nd millennium, all they have excavated were basicly the Neo-Babylonian period Babylon, Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar’s time basicly. Iraqi government’s restoration program at the site beginning in 1957. During the American invasion of Iraq, at least until 2005, it was used as an army base by the Americans, lots of earth-moving operations and the movement of heavy machinary left substantial damage at the site.
The name of Babylon, comes from ká.dingir.raki, translated into Akkadian as Bābilim (the Gate of the Gods- perhaps a false etymology some have claimed), and Greek version from Herodotus is Babylon.
The Neo-babylonian city was very strongly fortified and it was particularly famous with its multiple layered fortifications and the spectacular gates that punctuated it. Euphrates river cuts the city into two halves, and with that, the general layout is a bit peculiar. There is a very large outer city in the Eastern bank of the river, taking the river as part of its fortified enclosure. The city wall that covered this large area was about 11 miles (18 km) long: it was a baked brick wall and supplemented by a very strong embankment and a large moat, practically extending the waters of the Euphrathes around the city walls all around the city, and enveloping the city with this deep and wide canal-moat.
To the Northern end of this outer city also on the Eastern bank there was the Summer palace of Nebuchadnezzar that was also enclosed right at the edge of the city. The Assyrian tradition of building the major palaces roght at the edge of the settlement, adjacet to the fortifications, on high terraces and overlooking the plain and the river is followed up and even better treated at Babylon.
The inner city, then is a rectangular layout, and it is contained withn the outer city walls but it also extends the Western bank of the river, and a monumental bridge was built between these western and eastern halves of the city which we will see in closer detail. The network of the streets within the city was orthogonal in its general layout and roughly had the NW-NE and SE-SW orientation, considered to be ideal for winds.
When we come to the fortification wall, first of all, the outer wall comprised 3 separate walls: the innermost, 7m thick and was constructed of sun-dried mudbrick. After a 12 m. space inbetween, there was a second and slightly thicker wall of baked bricks; and finally on the very outside, another baked brick wall about 3 m thick, forming the scarp of the moat, which was like 100 m. wide. Along the inner wall, there were projecting towers with regular intervals. The space between the walls was filled with rubble to certain level, for chariots perhaps ride around the walls. The multiple layer construction of the city wall becomes ever more complicated in the Northwestern edge of the city where the large extend of palaces met the edge of the city overlooking the water. Inner fortifications consisted of two mudbrick walls, one 6.5 m thick and the other 4m. and the space between them was also a military road.
One of the earliest projects of Nebuchadnezzar must have been the fixing of the riverbanks for the enhancement of the quays for the embankment of the building material shipped from the north up the Euphrates, esp cedar trees. The moat system that envelopes the city was only part of the hydraulic systems that were developed and executed in the urban scale, so it wasn’t only for military purposes. There were not only problems of flooding, but also in terms of the functioning of trade, they needed elaborate embankments for the loading and unloading. Several canals led into the city, as part of the massive hydraulic network and the obscure structure called the Eastern Outwork was suggested to be a huge water reservoir and river-water clarification basin.
The west outwork was also intended to have diverted the Euphrates a little bit so that the artificial that Nebuchadnezzar built could stand on firm foundations and would not be swept away. Massive western outwork on which Nebuchadnezzar’s own residence was built. The river embankments were carried even outside the settlement in this direction to the north.
The city and its monumental complexes
As I mentioned before, Marduk, the god associated with magic and wisdom, water and vegetation; was the chief god of the city, and every year at the outset of spring, New Year’s festival was organized (approx. early April, spring equinox), called akītu, when all Babylonian gods symbolicly and mythically gathered at Babylon and the mythical tradition shows that Babylon was built by the Gods for the purpose of this divine assembly, which we have seen before as you remember at Hattusha, the Hittite capital. The celebration of the akītu festival involved a sacred procession, lead by the King himself to a temple just outside the city, to a temple called bīt akīti, and through a spectacularly built Processional street, that passed through the famous Ishtar Gate, so when we look at the arrangement of this part of the city, you should keep this in mind.
For the various god, there were several temples scattered in the city, like the Temple to Adad and Belet Nina in the Western inner city, Temple of Ishtar Agade, Temple of Gula, Temple of Ninurta in the Inner eastern city, but we will mainly investigate the major complexes of the city: The temple complex and ziqqurat of Marduk, Northern and Southern Palaces, the Processional way that led to the Akitu house through the Ishtar gate and their glazed molded bick decorations.
Ishtar Gate and the Sacred Processional Street:
The city had several gates and all of them were named. And most of the followed a similar double tower plan type. However the most famous of these gates is the reconstriuted Ishtar Gate, since it was also the gate through which the New Years procession passed through to get to the akitu temple and come back to the city. So it was the most spectacular in its architectural grandiosity and decoration as well.
The ishtar gate is an enormous baked brick structure, that rose more than 12 m. high, ca 35 feet. it was a double gate encompassing the whole span of the fortifications, flanked by monumental towers. Its façade was decorated with glazed moulded brick decoration, with reliefs of bulls (symbol of the weather god Adad) and the so-called mušhuššu, the dragon-snake (the symbol of the god Marduk). These decorations were repeated hugely in different phases, only the latest phase is glazed. Snake dragon, really a composite animal with horns, a snakes body and head, lion forelegs, and bird’s hindlegs. Akkadian name mušhuššu means the furious snake. Very ancient creature in Mesopotamian mythology.
The approach to the gate was very well defined since you had to aprroach between the terrace of the Northern Palace and the terrace wall of the Eastern outworks. The processional street was about 25 m wide, and was traced for about 250 m., half a mile; and it gently sloped up towards the gate, increasing probably the monumental effect of the structure.
The construction of the Processional street was also pretty elaborate: filled wioth pure earth, reinforced with burnt bricks set in bitumen, hardened with the insertion of limestone slabs making the street as a raised highway. Foundation deposits were recovered under the Processional way. Center of the road was laid with huge limestone pieces.
This street was flanked on either side with 7 m thick walls. This wall was lined with figures of some 120 lions, which was considered as the symbols of Ishtar, and they were executed in moulded glazed bricks. Part of these glazed wall pieces are reconstructed in a museum in Berlin, as well as the Ishtar Gate.
The temple Precinct of Marduk
The temple lists from Babylon gives us the existence of at least 43 sacred precincts-temples in babylon itself. Only 8 of these have been identified and excavated. Most famous is undoubtedly the one dedicated to Marduk, a double cult complex, a temple precinct that was called Esagil (House, whose head is raised high) and the seperate layout of the ziqqurat complex which was called Etemenanki (foundation of heaven and earth), which included the famous Tower of Babel, nothing other than the ziqqurat of the Marduk temple complex.
Esagila included the cult center of Marduk, the main temple, its gates, upper and lower courts and a court named as “Court of the Divine assembly,” (Ub-šu-ukkin-na) the location where the akitu procession started. Impressive in its dimensions: 180x125 m., walls preserved to a height of 10 m in places. Because of its depth only part of the temple was exposed, the rest was traced by tunneling. A large inner courtyard leading to surrounding wings which contained chapel like sanctuaries dedicated to the gods of the Babylonian pantheon who arrive for the assembly. The main cult room was never actually excavated.
Etemenanki , “House, Foundation of Heaven and Earth”, is the vast enclosure that included the ziqqurat for Marduk, laid just North of the Esagila. The construction of this complex started all the way at the time of Assyrian king Esarhaddon in 7th c. BC, completed by Nebuchadnezzar in 6th c. BC. Only the foundation of the ziqqurat survives, and on the air photograph, it can be traced with the foundations of its central monumental staircase to the south. It had a 15 m. thick baked brick facing which was completely robbed in antiquity.
The first stage had dimensions 91x91 m. and rose about 90 m. enormous in comparison to other ziqqurats of mesopotamia. (Remember that the Ur ziqqurat was 40x60m. approx.) . Several scholars argued for different numbers of stages for the tower, and hypothesized different heights and this is still controbversial. But a tablet was found at the site which gives the actual heights of various stages of the building, and archaeologists reconstructed the building based mostly on these proportions. A monumental outside staircase and two side staircases lead to the top of the ziqqurat.
The rooms that were discovered a number of cellae, cult chambers to various gods, also a range of storehouses. The processional street ran to the southern corner of Etemenanki and curved in the direction of the Euphrates, and crossed the Euphrates by means of a very elaborate huge bridge, the piers of which were found, 7 piers in the shape of boats. It was 123 m. long.
What makes Babylon also most famous is probably the luxury of its palaces, and the famous Hanging gardens associated with them. 3 palaces are known, the Northern palace, enclosed in the Northern citadel, cascading, protruding out from the Nortwestern edge of the Inner city; the Southern palace which is most extensively known, is just inside the city walls to the South of the North palace, and the less known Summer palace in the Outer town.
This is the most extensive and best known, and most elaborate of these palaces. covered an area of 322x190 m. A trapezoidal complex consisting of 5 major blocks of buildings, each arranged around a central courtyard. It included the royal household, the administrative quarters of the Empire with spectacular thronerooms, and the subsidiary rooms and apartments for the staff. It was built on a massive towering terrace and it probably rose right above the whole city like an artificial acropolis, or high citadel. a fortress. It is suggested that itwas this building where Alexander the Great died.
The first courtyard at the entrance to the East had the rooms belonging to the palace guard and other memebers of the household. The second court was presumably that of the administrative officials. The thir is the largest and most important central court. The further sections probably the royal residence.
The major throneroom was located in the largest central courtyard. The outer façade of this throneroom revealed evidence of spectacular glazed brick decoration and reliefs as it was in the Ishtar Gate and the Processional way. The lower part of the wall was decorated with a frieze of lions, above which were the very elaborate palm columns with volute capitals and elaborate borders of flowers. And a crennalalted finish at the very top, all the composition included in a geometric layout.
Western Outworks: Hanging Gardens of Babylon?
At the very northeast, a very odd structure has been found, an underground crypt of a series of 14 vaulted rooms enveloped by an extraordinarily thick walls. It has been suggested that this must have been a hydraulic system for lifting water up for the Hanging gardens. But too conjectural. Other scholars suggested it functoned as a warehouse, but couldn’t explain the weirdness of the building.
On the other hand Strabo stated that the Hanging gardens were quadrangular in shape, and consisted of arched vaults, situated one after another. The ascent to the uppermost terrace was reached by a stairway, and alongside the stairway there were screws, through which water was continually conducted up from the Euphrates, and the garden is at the bank of the river” Still common scholarly opinion rejects this hypothesis. On the other hand the royal inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar also confirm the presence of vast royal gardens overlooking the river. Recently S. Dalley has argued that Hanging gardens were located not at Babylon but at Nineveh, and that the classical sources were confused about ths site name. Other scholars suggested that they were located to the riverside of the North citadel, which is less known archaeologically.
North Palace: an ancient museum?
North palace was built by Nebuchadnezzar later in his reign. It was not completely excavated, but there was a moat between the two palaces. Peculiar about this complex is that they found numeraous objects from various sites, were found in here, which suggested to the archaeologiusts that this place functioned like a museum for Nebuchadnezzar, but now this is highly doubted. Among them were an unfinished lion statue, a stela of Assurbanipal, a basalt stele of a Hittite weather god, an 8th c. Mari stele, countless fragments from UrIII dynasty period Ur.