Persian domination

In 539 BC, the Persians crushed Nabonidus at Opis (Upi), and on October 29th the Achaemenid king Cyrus entered Babylon. Cyrus thus became the rule of an empire that stretched from India to Egypt and from central Asia to Ionia. His conquest opened the way to the unification of inner Asia under the Persian crown, and permitted more intense cultural exchanges between the empire’s provinces, known as satrapies. Babylon lost the international supremacy it had acquired during the dynasty of Nebuchadnezzar II but retained its rank of capital city; it also maintained its status of main cultural and administrative center of Mesopotamia, being the seat of the ninth satrapy.

Although the break with the past was dramatic on the historical level—for the first time in its entire history, Mesopotamia (and Babylon in particular) lost its independence and fell under the rule of a foreign dynasty whose roots and traditions came from Iran—on the cultural level the life of its inhabitants did not display traumatic change and even seemed to carry on as it had in the past. When it came to dwellings in the neighborhood known as Merkes (meaning center), in particular, the houses built during the Neo-Babylonian era survived into subsequent periods. Changes in funerary practices also reflect purely local developments, with no direct Iranian influence. Confirmation of the continuity of Babylonian tradition is even stronger when it came to everyday objects.

Nebuchadnezzar’s palace district, known as the Kasr (Qasr), remained the seat of rulers during the Achaemenid period. Construction work by Achaemenid kings is documented by the presence of a small building, at the edge of the western sector of the old palace, on an artificial terrace that encompasses the Neo-Babylonian walls, between the wall of the southern palace and the city walls. Almost nothing survives of its elevation but it would seem to be a rectangular edifice with a north-facing facade featuring a four-column portico flanked by two towers, fronted by a staircase and leading to a rectangular hypostyle hall whose ceiling was supported by two rows of four columns, a design that freely followed the principles of early imperial architecture between Cyrus and Darius. The floors were done in an extremely refined technique for which parallels can be found at Persepolis and Susa. The columns, probably made of painted, gilded wood, stood on bases of dark gray limestone; in the hall they adopted Persepolis-style decoration of a corolla of leaves. The glazed bricks on the walls were richly decorated with motifs typical of those found at Persepolis and especially Susa: compositions showing imperial guards armed with bow, quiver, and spear; borders of geometric patterns; and friezes of rosettes used as framing device.

Greek and Parthian domination

On October 1, 331 BC, Darius III was routed at Gaugamela. His retreat left the Babylonian plain open to the phalanxes of Alexander the Great. Shortly afterward, the satrap Mazaios (Mazday) opened the gates of Babylon to the Macedonian conqueror, who took possession of the city with the pomp of a liberator. Alexander made ritual sacrifices to the god Belos (Marduk), and before leaving for further conquest he ordered that the god’s temple be restored. Babylon would become the capital of Alexander’s empire, and it was where he would die, on his return from India, on June 10, 323 BC.

Thus began a new era that opened the Orient to Hellenistic culture and to the complex dialogue the latter entertained with the ancient traditions of Oriental peoples. Seleukos was perhaps the last of the Mesopotamian builder-kings: he established his royal city on the Tigris, although Babylon remained one of the most important centers of the Seleucid empire. Antiochos I, who behaved like a Babylonian king, began building in the Esagila again. The Greek community in the city, which Antiochos IV Epiphanes recast as a Greek polis, prospered alongside the Babylonian community almost until the end of the Parthian period. The founding of Seleucia nevertheless marked the end of ancient Babylon’s political supremacy. In 141 BC, Mithridates I, king of the Parthians (a dynasty of Iranian origin) captured both the old and new capitals. With Mithridates II (123–88 BC), the Parthian crown established lasting control of the entire region from its new Babylonian capital, Ctsiphon. Babylon was no longer at the center of political developments, except perhaps during the brief conquests of Trajan and Septimus Severus, but its economic and cultural importance would survive throughout the Parthian period. It was only with the Sassanid dynasty that the historical and archaeological records of the city would progressively fall silent until, by the Islamic period, Babylon was reduced to an insignificant village with a rich, legendary past.

Potential archaeological traces of the presence of later monarchs in the ancient royal and religious buildings were destroyed by the salvaging of construction materials and the pillaging that began in late antiquity, even before the city was abandoned.