In the years between 908 and 811 BC, Babylonia was in regular contact with Assyria. Then the Assyrians invaded Babylonia and successively overthrew two kings. The country descended into anarchy. During the eighth century BC, Chaldean kings originating from three different Semitic tribes to the west alternately occupied the Babylonian throne whose subjects were Chaldean, Aramaean, Arabic, and Babylonian peoples. Shortly after the mid eighth century, Assyria rose again under the reign of Tiglath-pileser III, who launched a series of conquests. His aggressive policy was imitated by the next five occupants of the Assyrian throne.

Relations between Assyria and Babylonia were ambivalent. The former clearly venerated the older, more advanced Babylonian civilization, being envious of the ancientness of its cities and religious rites and its supremacy in the fields of learning and literature; on a political level, however, Assyria was wary of Babylonia, composed of a mixed population and headed by kings stemming alternately from rival interest groups. After 731 BC, Assyria decided to administer Babylonia directly, installing its choice of king on the throne, who would nevertheless be regularly overthrown by rebellions led by the Chaldeans, who then installed kings of their own choosing.

Finally, the Assyrian monarch Sennacherib (704–681 BC), irritated by the assassination of the crown prince, whom he had placed on the throne of Babylon, re-invaded the capital in 689 BC. His soldiers sacked the city, destroyed its main buildings, and altered the course of the Euphrates so that it flooded Babylon, turning the capital into a veritable marshland. The statues of gods were taken back to Assyria and kept there. The Babylonians were crushed by the destruction of their capital and religious center. When Sennacherib was assassinated eight years later by one of his own sons, the Assyrians themselves admitted that the torment was unleashed by gods unhappy with their king’s sacrilegious behavior toward Babylon.

Back in Babylon, the constant change of kings came to an end. After the death of Sennacherib, his son Esarhaddon (680–669 BC) reigned over both Assyria and Babylonia, and he rebuilt Babylon. Esarhaddon divided his royal domains between his two sons: Ashurbanipal (668–631 BC) inherited the throne of Assyria, while Shamash-shum-ukin (667–648 BC) inherited Babylonia. Since Ashurbanipal curbed his brother’s power, Shamash-shum-ukin gathered a coalition of Chaldeans, Aramaeans, citizens of Northern Babylonia, Elamites, and Arabs, then triggered a civil war that divided the kingdom of Assyria, which continued to weaken until Ashurbanipal died. Taking advantage of the succession crisis, Nabopolassar, a figure of obscure origin probably from the province of the “land-by-the-sea” (on the Persian Gulf), seized power in Babylon in 626 BC and had himself proclaimed king. In subsequent years, Nabopolassar fought the Assyrians with his allies, the Medes. Nineveh fell in 612, and the Assyrian empire crumbled. In the fall of 605 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II inherited Babylonia on the death of his father and went to war against the Egyptians and Arabs. Babylonian hegemony over Syria-Palestine was complete by the early sixth century BC.


Nebuchadnezzar II (605–562 BC)

Two-thirds of the existence of the Neo-Babylonian empire was spent under a single reign, that of Nebuchadnezzar II, who occupied the throne for forty-three years (605–562 BC). The king of Babylon’s ambitions were not just territorial but also civic and artistic—his conquests and imperial income provided him with the resources to carry out such plans. Booty from conquered cities and Nebuchadnezzar’s policy of deporting the inhabitants (notably intellectuals and specialized artisans) enabled the king to launch major construction programs and provided him with the cheap labor essential to the task. Nebuchadnezzar II was the builder of the grand, magnificent Babylon often mentioned in the Bible. His Babylon was also the lavish city described by Herodotus.

His concern to defend Babylon and Babylonia from all attack obliged Nebuchadnezzar II to reinforce the city’s defensive system, spurring his architects to carry out grandiose projects: the city was placed within a terrific defensive network consisting of two sets of walls that created a stronghold admired and dreaded by his enemies. The inner walls were punctuated by eight gates, including the Gate of Ishtar, rebuilt several times during Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, becoming a symbol of Babylon’s power and magnificence—Marduk’s religious procession passed through this gate. To these formidable walls Nebuchadnezzar added, on the vulnerable north side of Babylon, two large bastions—one on the Euphrates, along the west side of the southern palace, and another outside the city to north, between the Gate of Ishtar and the river.
Nebuchadnezzar II had three palaces in Babylon, all located to the east of the Euphrates, on its left bank, in the northern part of the city. The “grand,” or northernmost, palace was set on a large terrace structure, suggesting that the “hanging gardens” took the form of a terraced slope descending to the river, bordered by a park.

In the heart of Babylon, near the Euphrates, was located the most important religious complex in the kingdom: the sanctuary of Marduk, the supreme god. It was composed of two architectural units, including the notorious Etemenanki tower, the “house that is the foundation of heaven and earth.” This site still stirs people’s imaginations today, and is considered to be the Biblical setting for the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11: 1–9). German archaeological digs have demonstrated that it was indeed the tower described in historical texts.

In addition to the major construction work carried out in the religious complex dedicated to Marduk, Nebuchadnezzar II restored several important temples. Eight of them, including the ziggurat, have been found through excavations on the east bank of the river, while eight other temples have been approximately located thanks to topographic data and to contracts that provide precise information on houses and property sold in the vicinity of the temples.

At his death in 562 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II bequeathed his successors an empire stretching across Mesopotamia and the Levant; he apparently had five sons, and his succession led to several years of instability. It was Amel-Marduk (556-554 BC) who succeeded his father, but his brief reign ended with a plot that brought his brother-in-law, Neriglissar, to the throne. The latter’s short reign is known only for a campaign in Cilicia; on his death in 556 BC, his son Labashi-Marduk acceded to the throne only to fall three months later in another palace plot that brought to power a certain Nabonidus, probably from Harran in northern Syria and of Assyro-Aramaean background. The Harranian origins of his family explain his devotion to the moon-god, Sin. Nabonidus apparently concluded an alliance with Cyrus; the Persians went to war against the Medes while Nabonidus left on campaign in Arabia. There he settled in the oasis of Tayma where he allegedly built a replica of his palace in Babylon. The king’s stay in Tayma is not only recounted in Babylonian sources, but also left strong traces in Jewish tradition. The book of Daniel’s theme of the madness of Nebuchadnezzar—changed into an animal who wandered the steppes—is a legend inspired by Nabonidus’s expatriation.

On returning to Babylon in the autumn of 543 BC, Nabonidus began promoting worship of the moon-god, thus provoking the ire of priests of the god Marduk. During the summer of 539 BC the Babylonians expected a major Persian offensive—Nabonidus had the statues of the kingdoms main gods sent to the capital to protect them from potential capture. The anticipated invasion occurred in early October. The Babylonian armies were crushed at Opis (Upi), not far from today’s Baghdad; when the Persian army entered Babylon on October 12th, the history of ancient Babylonia as an autonomous political entity came to an end.