Babylon’s Fall Turns the Tide of History
YOU may wonder why the Bible has so much to say about the fall of Babylon, especially its fall in 539 B.C.E. to Cyrus, though the city was not destroyed at that time but continued for some centuries afterward. Readers of history have similarly asked why historians have said so much about this particular overthrow of the city. An excerpt from history gives us the answer:
Military conquest affected the fortunes of Babylon at many critical stages in its history. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that the capitulation to Cyrus in 539 B.C., should be designated ‘The Fall of Babylon,’ as if no other like event had occurred in the city’s history. Even the submission of Babylon to Alexander [the Great] in 331 B.C. pales in importance when compared with the disaster which brought the Neo-Babylonian empire to a close.
A reasonable explanation of this phenomenon commends itself to the inquirer. Cyrus, capture of Babylon brought about far-reaching consequences. Its subjugation by Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal had not removed the balance of power from Semitic control, but the triumph of Persia in 539 B.C. introduced a new predominating influence in ancient Oriental developments. That date marks the turning-point in favor of Aryan leadership, a directing force which has maintained itself at the forefront of civilization down to the present day.—Nabonidus and Belshazzar, by R. P. Dougherty, page 167.
Says The Encyclopedia Americana, Volume 2, page 441b: “The fall of Babylon before the advance of Cyrus meant the fall of Semitic sway in Babylonia and the rise of Aryan power.”—Edition of 1929.a
Since it was such an important event, and since Babylon’s fall is an outstanding Bible theme, it is good for us to have some of the details of what happened on Babylon’s fatal night. It will help us to see greater significance in the Bible’s account and to understand how it paints a prophetic picture of something greater to take place in connection with Babylon the Great in our day, as will be discussed in later issues of The Watchtower.
It is of interest to observe how easily this great city fell to Cyrus the Persian on the history-making night of Tishri 16 in 539 B.C.E. Mainly, it occurred in this way because it had been foretold by Jehovah’s prophets, and he saw to it that his prophecies were carried out. Why were the inhabitants of Babylon so careless and unwatchful when they knew the armies of Cyrus were camped outside the city? ‘Ah,’ they thought, ‘the defenses of Babylon are strong and the city is amply supplied with provisions, so let Cyrus try to take Babylon.’ Even though the Babylonians under King Nabonidus had been beaten in the open field of battle and Nabonidus had taken refuge in Borsippa, a short distance southwest of Babylon, the Babylonians felt that, behind the walls of Babylon, they could laugh to scorn any besieger. They thought that any army besieging Babylon would wear out (and it might have been so with Cyrus had he not gained the easy access to the city that he did). Additionally, this was the night of a certain festival, and Belshazzar probably selected this as an opportunity to display his contempt of the besieger Cyrus before his thousand grandees.
Following the example of their king, the Babylonians gave themselves up for the night to orgies, filling the city with noises of religious frenzy and drunken excess. But what was going on outside the walls? A most unexpected thing. Cyrus had taken a large section of his army up the Euphrates River, above Babylon. Here he had set them to work digging a canal or canals to drain off the water of the Euphrates before it reached the city. In the still darkness of the night outside Babylon’s walls, the force of Medes and Persians left by Cyrus gathered at one end of the city where the Euphrates entered, near the Ishtar Gate, and at the other extremity of the city where the Euphrates flowed out. Eagerly they watched the receding waters. They would naturally be apprehensive that someone might notice the dropping water level and sound the alarm. So far, no cry was raised. The Babylonian watchmen seemed fully absorbed in the revelry. But the night was wearing on, and the invaders could not afford to wait until the river was completely drained. As soon and as silently as possible, they poured into the riverbed, sloshing almost up to their thighs, as they made for the nearest gates. Had the Babylonians been at all on the alert they could easily have trapped the Medo-Persian invaders and annihilated them with missiles from the top of the walls before they could even get out with their own lives by the way they had come. But the hapless Babylonians within the city were entirely oblivious to what went on outside. The only sounds coming to the invaders’ ears were sounds of festivity.
One who peered into the darkness between the canyon-like Babylonian walls would have seen shadowy groups approach the gates, growing in size as hundreds of the attackers came up the river banks to reinforce their numbers. As they had hoped, the gates were carelessly left open. The Babylonians had depended on the river for defense rather than the gates. The guards at the gates were overpowered, but Babylonian runners started for the king’s palace from both extremities of the city with the alarming news. Cyrus gave orders that the soldiers should kill anyone blocking their way to the palace. ‘If anyone shouts at you, shout back as though you are fellow Babylonian revelers. Do not waste time hunting out those who run into the houses. On with all haste to Belshazzar’s palace!’ As the Medes and Persians rushed through the streets, no Babylonian missiles rained down on them from the house-tops. Every factor seemed to be on the side of the attackers.
Now the runners began to reach Belshazzar, one with the breathless report that the invaders had entered the end of the city from which he had come; on his heels another, saying the city had been taken at the other extremity. Paralyzed with fear, what would Belshazzar do? Would he commit suicide? About this time a noise is heard at the palace gates. We leave it for a historian to describe the cause of the disturbance and what ensued:
And Gobryas [Ugbaru the governor of Gutium] and Gadatas and their troops found the gates leading to the palace locked, and those who had been appointed to attack the guard fell upon them as they were drinking by a blazing fire, and without waiting they dealt with them as with foes.
But, as a noise and tumult ensued, those within heard the uproar, and at the king’s command to see what the matter was, some of them opened the gates and ran out.
And when Gadatas and his men saw the gates open they dashed in in pursuit of the others as they fled back into the palace, and dealing blows right and left they came into the presence of the king, and they found him already risen with his dagger in his hand.
And Gadatas and Gobryas [Ugbaru] and their followers overpowered him; and those about the king perished also, one where he had sought some shelter, another while running away, another while actually trying to defend himself with whatever he could.b
Succinctly the Bible notes the fate of Belshazzar: “In that very night Belshazzar the Chaldean king was killed, and Darius the Mede himself received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.”—Dan. 5:30, 31.
Events that followed during that historical night are described in Xenophon’s historical work entitled “The Education of Cyrus” (written about 370 B.C.E.).
Cyrus then sent the companies of cavalry around through the streets and gave them orders to cut down all whom they found out of doors, while he directed those who understood Assyrian to proclaim to those in their houses that they should stay there, for if anyone should be caught outside, he would be put to death.
While they were thus occupied, Gadatas and Gobryas came up, and first of all they did homage to the gods, seeing that they had avenged themselves upon the wicked king, and then they kissed Cyrus’s hands and his feet with many tears of joy.
And when day dawned and those in possession of the citadels discovered that the city was taken and the king slain, they surrendered the citadel, too.
And Cyrus at once took possession of the citadels and sent up to them guards and officers of the guards. As for the dead, he gave their relatives permission to bury them. He furthermore ordered the heralds to make proclamation that all Babylonians deliver up their arms; and he ordered that wherever arms should be found in any house, all the occupants should be put to the sword. So they delivered up their arms and Cyrus stored them in the citadels, so that they might be ready if he ever needed them for use.—¶31-34, Section VII, chapter 5.
After the capture of Babylon, Cyrus marched against Borsippa, where Nabonidus the first ruler of Babylon, had taken refuge, for Nabonidus might be able to gather forces enough to become a formidable foe. But Nabonidus did not put up a fight; instead he came out in surrender to Cyrus. Cyrus extended mercy to Nabonidus as a reward for his submission. He spared his life, but is said to have deported him to Carmania, making him governor of that important province. Nabonidus, being a man who was interested in matters of history and archaeology, left behind inscriptions, one of which is known as the Nabonidus Chronicle. (The Encyclopedia Americana, edition of 1929, Volume 19, page 677)c Thus perished the Babylonian Empire.
Although Babylon fell on Tishri 16 (October 5-6), 539 B.C.E., Cyrus did not enter into the city himself until seventeen days after Babylon had been occupied by his troops. This was on the third day of Marchesvan (October 22-23). Receiving a good welcome from the Babylonians, he proclaimed peace to the city and treated its inhabitants with leniency. Eight days later his main general, Ugbaru (Gobryas), died, and a period of mourning followed. King Cyrus had a governor with him, namely, Gubaru; and when Cyrus made his entry, this Gubaru appointed governors in Babylon.d
Who was Darius the Mede, mentioned at Daniel 5:31? At the present time there is some difficulty in proving this matter from the uninspired pagan documents. It may be that in the future more documents will be discovered that will clarify the question. But the argument is strong that he was the same as Cyrus’ governor named Gubaru.e
Jehovah, as the handwriting on King Belshazzar’s palace walls had indicated, did divide Babylon’s kingdom between the Medes and Persians, for Darius the Mede ruled first. God’s infallible Word speaks of him as a king and recounts that he “set up over the kingdom one hundred and twenty satraps, who were to be over the whole kingdom.” (Dan. 6:1, 2) At Daniel 9:1 he speaks of the “first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus of the seed of the Medes, who had been made king over the kingdom of the Chaldeans.” His was a short reign, Cyrus the Persian soon taking the title of King of Babylon, King of Countries. So the throne of Babylon was divided and given first to the Medes, then to the Persians. For a time Cyrus continued to reign from Babylon, which he had overthrown but not destroyed.
The fall of Babylon, then, meant the downfall of the Third World Power of sacred history and the installation of the Fourth World Power, Medo-Persia. Medo-Persia was the world power seen as successor to Babylon in two visions by Daniel the prophet during the reign of Belshazzar, at Daniel 7:5 and Da 8:3, 4, 20.
The fall of Babylon meant much to true worship and to God’s chosen people, for the Jews were released by Cyrus to go back to Jerusalem and to rebuild the temple. But a second and greater significance attaches to the fall of Babylon, for it foreshadows the fall of Babylon the Great, which has held many people in captivity to false religion and has made them suffer oppression and misery. Knowing the details of ancient Babylon’s fall and the prophecies in connection with it will enable us to save our lives by getting out and staying out of Babylon the Great.
a Says page 65 of the book On the Road to Civilization (1937), by Heckel and Sigman: “With the opening of the gate of Ishtar to Cyrus, twenty-two centuries of Semitic supremacy ended and the Persian Empire became a power in the East.”
Says page 236 of The Dawn of Civilization (1940), by Engberg: “Moreover, Cyrus was the first great Aryan conqueror of whom we know, and through his efforts the Semites, long the lords of western Asia, lost control until the coming of the Arabs a thousand years later.”
b Quoted from the translation of the Cyropaedia (or, The Education of Cyrus), by the ancient Greek historian and general, Xenophon (VII, 5:27-30). It is believed that the Gobryas mentioned by Xenophon may refer to Ugbaru the governor of Gutium, whom the Nabonidus Chronicle mentions as having conquered Babylon for Cyrus the Persian and who is not the same as Gubaru who appointed governors in Babylon for Cyrus.—See Darius the Mede (page 75, footnote), by J. C. Whitcomb, Jr.
Concerning Gobryas as Ugbaru, see also Nabonidus and Belshazzar, by R. P. Dougherty, pages 170-173, 175, 180, 184, 185, 187, 188, 192, 195, 196, 198, 199.
c See also Berosus, a Babylonian priest of Bel, about 250 B.C.E. He wrote about his people with the aid of cuneiform sources, but wrote in Greek. His works have disappeared, but the Jewish historian Josephus and also historian Eusebius Pamphilius have preserved fragments of Berosus’ writings. See Contra Apionem, Book I, section 20, by Josephus. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, edition of 1955, Volume 1, page 368a, says Nabonidus was imprisoned.
d See Babylonian Problems (page 201), by W. H. Lane, 1923 Edition.
e See chapter 7 of Darius the Mede, published in 1959 in the United States of America, by John C. Whitcomb, Jr.