The Babylonian empire flourished in the mid-first millennium BC, and marked the final stage of ancient Mesopotamia as an independent civilization.
Historical background: Babylonia in the early first millennium
Southern Mesopotamia - Babylonia - suffered even more than Assyria during the “Age of Confusion”, as Babylonian scribes called the centuries around 1000 BC. From the west, large numbers of Aramaean peoples invaded, and from the south, a nomadic people called the Kaldu moved in to the coastal area of Babylonia. These people are known to history as the Chaldeans.
In this dark period of Babylonia’s history, a social revolution seems to have taken place. For centuries, the temples had been gradually losing wealth and influence, as powerful kings kept them in their place and large royal estates had come to overshadow the temples’ land holdings. A class of private merchants and landowners had risen in numbers, wealth and influence, rivalling the temple’s economic position.
With the chaos of the centuries on either side of 1000 BC, however, the peasants of Mesopotamia, with the royal authorities in disarray, seem to have turned to the temples for protection. By the time southern Mesopotamia re-emerges into the light of history, the temples have regained a degree of power and wealth they had not known for more than a thousand years.
The Chaldeans in particular represented a continual threat to the cities of Babylonia. They established their base in the coastal area of Mesopotamia, from where they emerged to raid neighbouring territory. The extensive marshes of the area provided an ideal shelter from reprisals.
From the 9th century BC the Assyrians of northern Mesopotamia posed as protectors of Babylon, for which they had an enduring and genuine reverence as the cultural and spiritual centre of Mesopotamian civilization. They mostly treated the Babylonian kings with great respect and campaigned against their enemies, principally the Chaldeans and the kingdom of Elam. Even so, on at least two occasions the Chaldeans were able to capture Babylon itself, and hold it for years at a time.
In return for their aid the Assyrian kings expected the allegiance of the king of Babylon and his subjects, which was usually forthcoming as the urban populations of Babylonia saw the Assyrians as their best protection against raiders and invaders. However, they did occasionally rebel. Once, in the early 7th century, this led to the destruction of the city of Babylon by an Assyrian army. The city was soon rebuilt, however, and the general Assyrian policy towards Babylonia was resumed. This involved the Assyrian kings confirming the temples in their predominant position, showering them with favours, not only from feelings of religious deference, but also as a way of keeping the local population happy. Nevertheless, these monarchs also kept the temples firmly in their place, and when need arose they had not hesitation in levying tribute (or forced loans) on them.
The Assyrian kings also regularly followed the practice of installing one of their sons as king of Babylon, subordinate to the king of Assyria.
In the late 7th century, events began to unfold which would lead to the collapse of the Assyrian empire. The death of the last of the great Assyrian kings, Ashurbanipal, in 627 BC, was shortly followed by civil war between two of his sons, the king of Assyria and the king of Babylon. The king of Babylon was victorious, but by then the Chaldeans had taken Babylon again (626 BC). They were led by one of their chiefs called Nabopolassar, who now became one of the key players in the great events which now took place.
With the Assyrians’ civil war over and the former king of Babylon now king of Assyria, Nabopolassar now faced a strenuous Assyrian attempt to regain control of Babylonia. The war raged on for seven years, but the Assyrians had also to deal with events on their northern frontier, where Scythian and Cimmerian raiders from the steppes north of the Black Sea mounted devastating raids through Assyrian territory. By 616 BC the Chaldeans had repelled the Assyrians and were in full control of Babylonia.
The end of Assyria
In 616 BC the Chaldeans under Nabopolassar, who had styled himself king of Babylon for the past 10 years, invaded Assyria itself. In the following year, the Medes also invaded Assyria, and captured the Assyrian holy city of Ashur. Here, the Medes (who had be now united much of Iran under their king, Cyaxes) and the Babylonians agreed to act in unison (614 BC), and, after a year’s slow campaigning, they besieged the Assyrian capital, Nineveh (612 BC). After three months, the great city fell, and was utterly destroyed. All the other cities of Assyria were also taken and raised to the ground. Only Harran remained, and it fell in 610 BC. Only villages were left in the land. Two hundred years later a Greek army would march through Assyria and have no idea that the heaps of rubble they saw had once been the greatest cities in the world.
The huge Assyrian empire was shared out amongst its victorious enemies, the Babylonians and Medes. The Medes took Iran, from where they would later expand into Armenia and Cappadocia. Nabopolassar held all Mesopotamia – that is, Babylonia and Assyria - and claimed Syria and Palestine. These were under Egyptian control, and in 607 BC, Nabopolassar sent his crown prince, Nebuchadnezzar, to drive them out. After two years of hard campaigning he was able to dislodge the Egyptians from the strategic city of Carchemish, in northern Syria. This opened the way for the Babylonians to swiftly take the whole of Syria and Palestine from the Egyptians. Nebuchadnezzar may well have been planning on invading Egypt itself but just at that point he heard of his father’s death. He therefore hurried back to Babylon to claim the throne (605 BC).
This was the opportunity for the peoples of Syria and Palestine to rebel against their new masters. All the cities of the Philistines joined in this rebellion, and Nebuchadnezzar made an example of Ascelon by raising it to the ground and exiling all its people. As an exemplary punishment, this clearly did not work: Nebuchadnezzar had to send armies to put down rebellions in his western provinces virtually every year, at least until 573 BC. The Egyptians were of course keen to stir up trouble and on two occasions the Babylonians had again to drive Egyptian armies back to their borders.
In one of these campaigns, in 597, he had to put down a rebellion in the kingdom of Judaea. he captured Jerusalem, deporting 3000 of its leading citizens to Babylon. In 589 the people of Jerusalem rebelled again, and Nebuchadnezzar visited his full fury on that city. After an 18 month siege the city was sacked, its walls pulled down and its temple burnt. The last king of Judah, Zedekiah, was blinded and taken prisoner, and many thousands more people deported. Others took refuge in Egypt.
In 586 Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Tyre, which had refused to pay tribute to him. This siege would last thirteen years. Finally, in 573, Tyre agreed to submit to Babylonian rule and pay tribute; and this seems to have brought peace to Nebuchadnezzar’s western provinces.
Nebuchadnezzar and Babylonia
At home, Nebuchadnezzar lavished attention on Babylonia. He paid close attention to the economic welfare of the people, taking seriously the traditional duty of Mesopotamian kings to repair and maintain the canals, dykes and pools on which their wellbeing depended. Indeed, he expanded the irrigation system of southern Mesopotamia as never before, bringing much new land under cultivation.
Babylon was rebuilt, enlarged and beautified, becoming the largest and most magnificent city in the world at that time. Other cities in southern Mesopotamia also received great attention, with all the ancient Sumerian cities having their temples restored and enlarged.
This period, indeed, marked the high point of the temples’ wealth and influence in Babylonian society; they were the predominant social and economic institutions of the time. The Chaldean kings, being of foreign descent and having no deep roots in the sympathies of the native population, were critically dependent upon the support of the immensely powerful Babylonian priesthood. When this support was withdrawn, as it seems to have been under the last king, Nabonidus, then the foundations of their rule were undermined.
Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 BC. Three obscure kings then followed one another in quick succession, each brought down by palace coups. Then, in 556 BC, a man called Nabonidus came to the throne (reigned 556-539 BC).
Nabonidus was not of royal birth, and he was over sixty years old when he came to the throne. His mother (who, remarkably for that time, was still alive at the time of his accession) had been a priestess of the god Sin, in the city of Harran in northern Mesopotamia, which had been under the control of the Medes since the fall of Assyria, and Nabonidus himself was a devotee of the god Sin. From the outset of his reign he harboured an ambition to regain Harran and rebuild the sanctuary of Sin there.
Sin was not widely worshipped amongst the Babylonians, who were loyal to their national god, Marduk; however, the god’s cult was widespread amongst both the Arameians and Chaldeans. Given the wealth and influence of the Babylonian temples and their priesthoods, and given too the central role played by the kings in the religious life of the Babylonians, Nabonidus’ devotion to the god Sin was likely to give rise to religious and political tensions.
The monarch was certainly in need of resources. As his reign progressed the international situation deteriorated rapidly for the Babylonian empire. To some extent this may have been instigated by Nabonidus himself. As we have seen he had a burning wish to restore the temple to Sin in Harran, which was in the hands of the Medes. He may well have had strategic reasons as well. A struggle with the Medes, the other great power in the region, was bound to come sooner or later, and Harran was very strategically situated astride the major routes leading into Syria, Iran and Asia Minor. Its possession would have given Nabonidus a military advantage in any conflict with the Medes.
The rise of Cyrus
Whatever Nabonidus’ motives, he plotted with one of the vassals of the Mede king to rebel against him. This vassal was Cyrus, king of the Persians. By 550 BC, Cyrus had emerged victorious against his Mede master. Over the next ten years he consolidated his hold over the Mede empire and carried out swift conquests of neighbouring regions – all of Asia Minor in the west, and the regions eastwards into India.
For most of this time, Nabonidus was absent from Babylon. This may have been due to tensions with the temple priesthoods, especially of the chief god, Marduk. This, plus the fact that he had imposed stricter controls over the temples to try and extract more wealth from them, had aroused their bitter hostility. When a famine struck the city, open insurrection flared up, and, leaving Babylon, Nabonidus went to Arabia, where he based himself for almost ten years.
Again, there may have been strategic reasons for Nabonidus’ actions. With hostilities with the Medes growing, and then with the rise of the Persian threat, Babylon’s trade with the east - a source of immense wealth, especially for the royal treasury - was under pressure. Nabonidus’ expedition to Arabia may have been an attempt to win control of new trade routes, the valuable incense routes from Arabia. This idea is supported by his campaigns there, when he penetrated south down into the region of Medina and Mecca.
In 539 Cyrus turned his attentions on Babylon. He marched into Mesopotamia and down the Euphrates. Nabonidus was now back in his capital, and he and his son, Belshazzar, drew up their army north of Babylon. Just before the impending battle a large contingent of their already outnumbered army went over to the Persians. Unsurprisingly they were decisively defeated; Belshazzar was killed and Nabonidus probably withdrew to Babylon.
Here, the final act of the long history of Babylon as an independent power was played out. The gates were opened to Cyrus, who was able to enter the great city almost unopposed. This was only able to happen because, in his career as a conqueror, Cyrus had won for himself a reputation as one who respected the national gods of his various subjects. This was in stark contrast to Nabonidus, who had won the hostility of the priests and people of his capital. He vanishes from view at this moment, probably dying as the Persians entered, and Cyrus the Persian was welcomed as a liberator.
For what happened to Mesopotamia next, see the Persian Empire.
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