The Monumental Fall of Babylon: What Really Shattered the Empire?

Kane Khanh | Archeaology
April 1, 2024

The fall of Babylon is a historical event that occurred in 539 BC. This event saw the conquest of Babylon by the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great and marked the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The fall of Babylon is reported by a number of ancient sources, including the Cyrus Cylinder, the Greek historian Herodotus, as well as a number of books in the Old Testament.

The Monumental Fall of Babylon: What Really Shattered the Empire?

The Tower of Babel  by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. (Public Domain )

Immense Growth Before the Destruction of Babylon

The city of Babylon is located in modern day Iraq and its history stretches back to the 3rd millennium BC, when it was a small port town on the Euphrates River. At that time, Babylon was part of the Akkadian Empire. Over time, the town would grow and develop into one of the most important cities in ancient Mesopotamia . It was during the 18th century BC that Babylon became a major power in the region under the rule of the Amorite king, Hammurabi.

Hammurabi (reigned from 1792-1750 BC) was the sixth ruler of the First Dynasty of Babylon. During his long reign, he oversaw the great expansion of his empire, conquering the city-states of Elam, Larsa, Eshnunna and Mari, an act which he regarded as part of a sacred mission to spread civilization to all nations. By ousting the king of Assyria, Ishme-Dagan I, and making his son pay tribute, he made Babylon a major power in Mesopotamia.

Hammurabi streamlined administration, commissioned huge building projects, improved agriculture, repaired and rebuilt infrastructure, enlarged and heightened the walls of the city, and built extravagant temples dedicated to the gods. His focus was also military and conquest, but according to his own writings, his main goal was to improve the lives of those who lived under his rule.

By the time of Hammurabi’s death, Babylon was in control of the whole of Mesopotamia, although his successors were not able to maintain this control. This may be due to the lack of an effective bureaucracy, as his active participation on regional wars meant that he did not focus on establishing an administrative system that would ensure the continual running of his empire after his death. Thus, this First Babylonian Empire was short-lived and it soon fell under the dominion of foreigners, including the Hittites, the Kassites, and the Assyrians.

The Monumental Fall of Babylon: What Really Shattered the Empire?

Panorama of Babylon ruins, Hillah, Iraq. (homocosmicos / Adobe Stock)

Destruction of the Neo-Assyrian Empire and Birth of a New Babylon

Following the death of Ashurbanipal around 627 BC, civil war broke out in the Neo-Assyrian Empire, causing it to weaken. Many subjects of the Neo-Assyrian Empire seized this opportunity to revolt. One of these was a Chaldean chief by the name of Nabopolassar, who formed an alliance with the Medes, Persians, Scythians, and Cimmerians. This coalition succeeded in destroying the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Having gained independence from the Assyrians, Nabopolassar established the Neo-Babylonian Empire, with Babylon as its capital. When he died, he left his son with immense stores of wealth and a strong Babylonian city. This ruler set the groundwork for the impressive Neo-Babylonian Empire, leaving his son Nebuchadnezzar II with the ideal circumstances to bring Babylonia to the forefront of ancient society. And that is exactly what the son did.

The Neo-Babylonian Empire reached its zenith during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II , who succeeded Nabopolassar in around 605 BC. During Nebuchadnezzar II’s reign, which lasted until around 562 BC, the Neo-Babylonian Empire was in control of Babylonia, Assyria, parts of Asia Minor, Phoenicia, Israel, and northern Arabia.

Nebuchadnezzar II is most remembered today for a handful of important acts. Firstly, he is documented for driving the Jews out of Babylon, capturing the city of Jerusalem in 597 BC, and destroying the First Temple and that city in 587 BC. He is also generally credited with the construction of two major features of Babylon – the Ishtar Gate in 575 BC and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which are considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. There is, however, some contention if Nebuchadnezzar II can really receive recognition for creating the Hanging Gardens.

Even more exciting and controversial is the proposal that this king ordered the construction of the Tower of Babel, but not by that name. The closest candidate for this construction is said to be the Etemenanki of Babylon . This was a ziggurat dedicated to Marduk, the patron god of Babylon.

The Monumental Fall of Babylon: What Really Shattered the Empire?

René-Antoine Houasse’s 1676 painting – Nebuchadnezzar giving royal orders to the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to please his consort Amyitis. (Public Domain )

How Did Babylon Fall – Did Nabonidus’ Rule Contribute to the Destruction of Babylon?

The kings who succeeded Nebuchadnezzar II were much less capable than him and had rather short reigns. In the decade that followed Nebuchadnezzar II’s death, the Neo-Babylonian Empire had four different rulers, the last of whom was Nabonidus, who reigned from 556 BC to the fall of Babylon in 539 BC.

Nabonidus reigned for a total of 17 years and is remembered for his restoration of the region’s ancient architectural and cultural traditions, hence earning him the nickname ‘the archaeologist king’ among modern day historians. Nevertheless, he was unpopular with his subjects, especially the priests of Marduk, as he had suppressed the cult of Marduk in favor of the moon god Sin.

A previous Ancient Origins article also notes that in some ways this ruler was not very attentive to Babylon: “During many years of his kingship, Nabonidus was absent at the Arabian oasis of Tayma. The reasons for his long absence remain a matter of controversy, with theories ranging from illness, to madness, to an interest in religious archaeology.”

The Monumental Fall of Babylon: What Really Shattered the Empire?

Nabonidus in relief showing him praying to the moon, sun, and Venus. (Jona lendering / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

When Did Babylon Fall?

In the meantime, the Persians to the east were growing in power under the leadership of Cyrus the Great . In 549 BC, the Medes were defeated by the Persians, who then proceeded to conquer the territory around Babylon. Finally, in 539 BC, the city of Babylon itself was taken by the Persians.

The fall of Babylon marked the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. The momentous event has been recorded by a number of ancient historians, though due to inconsistencies, it is difficult to reconstruct the actual events that took place.

The Greek writers Herodotus and Xenophon report that Babylon fell after it was besieged. On the other hand, the Cyrus Cylinder and the Nabonidus Chronicle (which is part of the Babylonian Chronicles ) claim that Babylon was conquered by the Persians without a fight. Moreover, the Cyrus Cylinder presents the Persian king as chosen by Marduk to capture Babylon.

The Monumental Fall of Babylon: What Really Shattered the Empire?

Cyrus the Great is said, in the Bible, to have liberated the Jews from the Babylonian captivity. (Public Domain )

The Fall of Babylon Prophecy – What Story Does It Tell?

The fall of Babylon is significant for Biblical history as it is mentioned in a number of books in the Old Testament. In the Book of Isaiah, a story similar to that found in the Cyrus Cylinder is told. Instead of Marduk, it was the God of Israel who chose Cyrus.

After the fall of Babylon, the Jews, who had been exiled since their subjugation by Nebuchadnezzar II, were allowed to return home. In another book, the Book of Daniel, the fall of Babylon was already prophesized during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II. According to this book, the king had a dream, in which he saw a statue with a head of gold, breasts and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with clay.

The statue was destroyed by a rock, which then turned into a mountain filling the whole earth. The interpretation of the king’s dream by the prophet Daniel was that the statue represents four successive kingdoms, the first of which being the Neo-Babylonian Empire, all of which would be destroyed by the Kingdom of God.

The Monumental Fall of Babylon: What Really Shattered the Empire?