Located about 50 miles south of Bagdad in present-day Iraq, Babylon was built around 2300 BC along the River Euphrates, by the ancient Akkadian people of southern Mesopotamia. With the rise of the First Babylonian dynasty, it became part of a small independent city-state. However, Babylon became a major military power in the 18th century under Amorite King Hammurabi, who brought a vast area of the southern and central Mesopotamia under the unified Babylonian rule by creating a new empire called Babylonia. While he turned Babylon into a rich and powerful city to surpass the other cities in the region, its wealth, status and reputation made it a target for the foreign conquerors. But soon after the death of Hammurabi, his empire was shattered. After the invasion of the Hittite Empire of Asia Minor in 1595 BC, the Kassites from Ancient Iran captured Babylon to usher a dynasty that lasted for 435 years, until 1160 AD. Eventually, the Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta I took the throne of Babylon in 1235 BC.
Nevertheless, Babylon escaped Assyrian rule under Nabopolassar, a previously Caldanian King and finally destroyed the Assyrian Empire between 612 BC and 605 BC. As a result, Babylon became the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire and also a major imperial power during the reign of his son Nebuchadnezzar II. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Babylon was largely built by Nebuchadnezzar. Although Hammurabi encircled the city with walls, Nebuchadnezzar further fortified it with three rings of 40 feet high walls. The walls were so thick that chariot races were held on top of them. The city inside the walls occupied an area of around 200 square miles.
Apart from the three major palaces, lavishly decorated with blue and yellow glazed tiles, he also built several shrines, including the 280 feet tall Esagil, dedicated to Marduk, the patron god of Babylon. He ordered the complete reconstruction of the imperial grounds, paved the Processional Way and decorated its walls with enamelled lions. Nebuchadnezzar was responsible for the construction of the famous Ishtar Gate, the most prominent of the eight gates of the city of Babylon, which marked the entrance to the city at the beginning of the Procession Way. The gate was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar and was named after her. A partly reconstructed Ishtar Gate is now displayed at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Nebuchadnezzar is also credited with the construction of the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, although the existence of the said Garden is doubtful.
However, although Nebuchadnezzar restored the region’s ancient and cultural traditions, he was also associated with the notorious mass exile of the Jews to Babylon, after he conquered Jerusalem in the early 6th century. According to the Hebrew Bible, he also destroyed the Solomon’s Temple and stole the sacred objects from the temple to decorate the temple of Marduk in Babylon.
Babylon fell to the Persian king, Cyrus the Great in 539 BC when the Jews were allowed to return home from exile and much later, surrendered to the Macedonian king Alexander the Great in 331. While the Hellenistic science was enriched by the contributions of Babylonian astronomy, Babylon was brought into the orbit of Greek culture by the conquest of Alexander. Alexander recognized the commercial importance of the city and planned to make Babylon his Imperial capital. But before the implementation of the plan, he suddenly died in 323, in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar and his empire was divided amongst his generals. Babylon became part of the Seleucid dynasty in 312 and lost its importance with the construction of Seleucia on the Tigris, a new capital city, where a major portion of Babylon’s population was transferred in 275 BC. Finally, as Mesopotamia was invaded and settled by the expanding Muslim Empire in the mid-7th century, Babylon was marginalized only as a province.
With the decline of power, prestige and glamour of the past, the magnificent structures of Babylon remained neglected, eventually collapsed and ultimately lost from the face of the earth, hidden under hundreds of years of desert storms. The forgotten brilliance of the ancient city was finally unearthed by a German archaeologist, Robert Koldewey, whose excavation of Babylon lasted from 1899 until 1917, when the original foundation of the Ishtar gate was discovered.
It is unfortunate that, after some 2,600 years of rough weather, war, plunder and negligence, the invaluable ancient site of Babylon was also maltreated and damaged in modern times. On 14 February 1978, Saddam Hussein, the fifth President of Iraq began the Archaeological Restoration of Babylon Project and starting in 1983, he ordered the rebuilding of the ancient city.
Though nobody has any idea about the image or the planning of the Southern Palace of Nebuchadnezzar, he was determined to reconstruct it with its 250 rooms, five courtyards, and a 30-metre entrance arch. The project also included the Processional Way, the Lion of Babylon and an amphitheatre constructed in the city's Hellenistic era. That was the time of the bloody war between Iraq and Iran and due to the scarcity of sufficient workers, Saddam Hussein brought in thousands of Sudanese workers to lay new yellow bricks, with his name inscribed on each of them, on top of the ruins where once stood the ancient palace of Nebuchadnezzar. Hussein also arranged to put huge images of himself and Nebuchadnezzar at the entrance of the ruins.
At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, he commissioned a palace over the top of the ruins of Babylon in the style of a Sumerian ziggurat, calling it Saddam Hill and the massive garish structure almost completely covered the original ruins. However, his plans for a cable line running over the heritage site were halted with the 2003 invasion.
Unfortunately, the vast area of the archaeological site of Babylon was badly damaged, when following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to remove Saddam Hussein from power, the area around Babylon came under the control of the US troops, before being handed over to the Polish forces in September 2003. During that time, the whole area was turned into a military base that included a helicopter pad. Trenches were dug by the troops into archaeological mounds, heavy war vehicles broke the pavement of the Processional Way and even nine dragon figures on the Gate of Ishtar were also damaged. As if that was not enough, the archaeological site, with an area of around 300,000 sq m, had been covered with gravel, which badly damaged the unexcavated areas.
Today, the extensive archaeological site of the ancient city of Babylon contains several mounds that include, among others, the Babil, the remains of the palace of Nebuchadnezzar in the northern corner of the outer rampart. The Amran, the most southerly mound, is the site of Esagila, the great temple of Marduk, with its associated ziggurat, a tower built in several stages, Etemenanki. Between Babil and Amran lies the mound of Qasr, containing the remains of the chief palace of Nebuchadnezzar, the Ishtar Gate and the Emakh temple. All these three mounds are on the eastern side of the Euphrates. While the Merkez marks the ancient residential area east to Esagila, Humara contains the rubbles removed by Alexander the Great from the ziggurat for rebuilding and a theatre he built with those materials. A depression, known as Sahn, marks the former site of the ziggurat, Etemenanki. Apart from that, a larger-than-life-size basalt lion stands north of the Ishtar Gate.
The ancient city of Babylon represents the expression of the creativity of the Neo-Babylonian Empire at its height. Although around 85 per cent area of the archaeological site of Babylon is yet to be excavated, it was designated as one of the UNESCO World Heritage sites, in recognition of its outstanding contribution and value to humanity. The Iraqi Department of Antiquities took the huge project to restore the Emak temple, the palace complex, the Processional Way and part of the Ishtar Gate in 1958 and built a half-size model of the complete Ishtar Gate at the entrance of the historic site.