Part 3—Mighty Babylon—The Third Great World Power
Ancient Babylon reached her zenith under Nebuchadnezzar, passed her religion on to the world, and was conquered in one night. Knowing more about this city will strengthen your conviction in the Bible’s accuracy and in the unerring fulfillment of its amazing prophecies.
MIGHTY Babylon sat majestically astride the Euphrates River in southern Mesopotamia. She was a “decoration of kingdoms,” a religious, commercial, and military center. (Isaiah 13:19) She had great wealth, magnificent buildings, and world-famed gardens. She was the world power of her day!
Nevertheless, Jehovah’s prophet Jeremiah was inspired to write: “Babylon must become piles of stones, the lair of jackals, an object of astonishment and something to whistle at, without an inhabitant.”—Jeremiah 51:37.
This great city a total ruin? Who could imagine such a thing? Yet, once proud Babylon is now no more than a disappointing collection of desolate ruin-mounds, some 50 miles [80 km] south of Baghdad, in southeastern Iraq. What led to her fall?
Babylon, one of the world’s oldest cities, was founded by Noah’s great-grandson Nimrod, the mighty hunter in defiance of Jehovah. (Genesis 10:8-10) However, the period that interests us came long after Nimrod’s time. It came after both Egypt and Assyria had been the dominant world powers.
Babylon in Nebuchadnezzar’s Day
Some 2,600 years ago, back in the year 632 B.C.E., the Babylonians and their allies overthrew Assyria.* Babylon then replaced Assyria, becoming the third great world power in Bible history.
Nebuchadnezzar, who assumed the throne of this Neo-Babylonian, or New Babylonian, Empire, was not only a conqueror but also a city builder. Babylon’s mighty walls and impressive buildings can, for the most part, be attributed to him. Great quantities of bricks have been found bearing the name “Nebuchadnezzar”—the very same Nebuchadnezzar mentioned so often in the Bible books of Jeremiah and Daniel, the Nebuchadnezzar whom the Bible quotes as boasting: “Is not this Babylon the Great, that I myself have built?”—Daniel 4:30.
Two great walls surrounded Babylon, with rubble filling the space between them. Together, they made a barrier over 80 feet [24 m] thick. Outside the walls a moat from 65 to 260 feet [20 to 80 m] wide, with a brick-lined inner face, was used by boats of all kinds.
The highway from the north passed through the 40-foot-high [12 m] Ishtar Gate into the city’s main artery, the broad Procession Way. Nebuchadnezzar’s palace was on the right, inside the Ishtar Gate. Its huge throne room measured 55 by 170 feet [17 by 52 m]. The gate and the walls leading up to it were ornamented with brilliantly colored glazed brick panels representing lions, bulls, and dragons. One of the lions can be seen on display in the Louvre museum in Paris.
The Babylonian Religion
The Hebrew name of the city, Babel, means “confusion,” while the Sumerian and Akkadian names for it mean “Gate of God.” Both meanings tie Babylon in with its religion. Some scholars believe that the Babylonian god Marduk (Merodach in the Bible) may have been Nimrod deified. The Babylonian religion also acknowledged a number of triads of gods. One such was composed of Sin (the moon god), Shamash (the sun god), and Ishtar (goddess of love and fertility).
Astrology was rampant there. The Babylonians named the then known planets after their five leading gods and goddesses. A modern historical work explains: “We refer to these planets by their Roman names, but the Romans had adopted the Babylonian terms and simply translated them into their equivalents in Rome. Thus the planet of Ishtar, the goddess of love, became Venus, and that of the god Marduk was changed to Jupiter.”* The name “Chaldean,” used by the Babylonians, came to be almost synonymous with “astrologer.”
The Bible says that Babylon was “a land of graven images” and of filthy “dungy idols.” (Jeremiah 50:2, 38) Yet its religious ideas became a major source for other religions worldwide. Professor Morris Jastrow states in The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria: “In the ancient world, prior to the rise of Christianity, Egypt, Persia, and Greece felt the influence of the Babylonian religion.” Later, many of its false ideas were accepted and taught even in the churches of Christendom. Thus, the Bible calls the world empire of false religion “Babylon the Great.”—Revelation 17:3-5.
Jerusalem Captured by Babylon
The prophet Isaiah lived when Assyria, the second world power, dominated the ancient world. Yet he was inspired by God to prophesy that Jerusalem would be destroyed, not by the then powerful Assyrians, but by the Babylonians. (Isaiah 39:6, 7) Did this prophecy prove true? Let us see.
It was a century after Isaiah’s time that Babylon and her allies conquered Assyria, and Babylon became the new world power. Then, in 617 B.C.E., Babylon’s king Nebuchadnezzar captured King Jehoiachin of Jerusalem and sent him and other “foremost men of the land” as prisoners to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar made Mattaniah king in Jerusalem and “changed his name to Zedekiah.”—2 Kings 24:11-17.
The Babylonians’ own records, found by archaeologists, also confirm this event. The Babylonian Chronicle, ancient clay tablets on which were recorded major events, says that Babylon’s king “besieged the city of Judah [Jerusalem], and . . . took the city and captured the king. He appointed therein a king of his own choice, received its heavy tribute and sent (them) to Babylon.”
Further, the Bible refers to the food allowance that was given to Jehoiachin while he was in exile in Babylon. (2 Kings 25:27-30) Archaeologists have found administrative documents in Babylon that refer to the allowance of food given both to “Jehoiachin, king” and to the “sons of the king of Judah.”
Though the people of Jerusalem were in a covenant relationship with Jehovah God, they still stubbornly refused to follow God’s ways or to heed his prophets. Jehovah said they had “hardened their neck in order not to obey [his] words.” Through Jeremiah he warned that “all Judah I shall give into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he will actually take them into exile in Babylon and strike them down with the sword.”—Jeremiah 19:15; 20:4.
So when Zedekiah rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonians returned and laid siege to Jerusalem. They breached its walls on Tammuz 9, 607 B.C.E. They burned the temple, pulled down the city walls, and took Zedekiah and most of the people captive to Babylon. Jehovah’s words indeed proved true: “And all this land must become a devastated place, an object of astonishment, and these nations will have to serve the king of Babylon seventy years.”—Jeremiah 25:11.
Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream Image
Later, Babylon’s king Nebuchadnezzar, head of the world power of his day, received some extraordinary information. God gave him a dream of an immense image. The dream revealed the outline of world history from Nebuchadnezzar’s time all the way down through the succeeding world powers of Medo-Persia and Greece, on through Rome, and even beyond our present time to the permanent replacement of all human governments by God’s Kingdom. God’s prophet Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar: “The grand God himself has made known to the king what is to occur after this. And the dream is reliable, and the interpretation of it is trustworthy.”—Daniel 2:28-45.
Nebuchadnezzar also had to learn personally, in a most forceful way, that God can have a hand in such world affairs—that “the Most High is Ruler in the kingdom of mankind, and that to the one whom he wants to he gives it.”—Daniel 4:25.
Babylon’s Desolation Foretold
However, Babylon’s excessive cruelty to Jehovah’s people would not go unpunished. Through Jeremiah, God had said: “And I will pay back to Babylon and to all the inhabitants of Chaldea all their badness that they have committed in Zion before the eyes of you people.” And through Isaiah he had foretold: “I am arousing against them the Medes.”—Jeremiah 51:24; Isaiah 13:17.
Some two centuries in advance, Jehovah even gave the name of the leader who would bring Babylon down and liberate His people—Cyrus, known also as Cyrus the Great. The prophecy about Cyrus said there would be open “before him the two-leaved doors, so that even the gates will not be shut.” (Isaiah 44:26–45:1) Did such a thing really happen? History answers.
As the foretold 70 years of Jewish captivity were about to end, the Medes and the Persians were on the march. Babylon’s king Nabonidus had already fled from Cyrus on the field of battle. The Greek historian Herodotus says that the Babylonians were equipped to withstand a very long siege. And apparently they had great confidence in Babylon’s mighty walls.
As the Bible account relates, on the night of October 5/6 of the year 539 B.C.E., Belshazzar was hosting a great feast inside Babylon, wining and dining a thousand exalted guests. (Daniel 5:1-4) Herodotus confirms that there was a festival in Babylon that night. He says that the people of the city “were dancing at the time, and enjoying themselves.” Outside, however, Cyrus had diverted the waters of the Euphrates, which ran right through the center of the city. As the water level sank, his army sloshed through the riverbed, past the towering walls, and entered through what Herodotus called the “little gates that lead down to the river,” gates left open by the Babylonians.
Many years in advance, the prophet Jeremiah had written a graphic description of Babylon’s fall: “The mighty men of Babylon have ceased to fight. . . . One runner runs to meet another runner, and one reporter to meet another reporter, to report to the king of Babylon that his city has been captured at every end, and that the fords themselves have been seized, and the papyrus boats they have burned with fire.”—Jeremiah 51:30-32.
The Nabonidus Chronicle, now in the British Museum, confirms this description. It says that “the army of Cyrus entered Babylon without battle.”
Jehovah’s Prophecy Fulfilled
In one night Babylon had fallen. The third world power of Biblical history had come to a sudden halt. Cyrus could boast on a cuneiform document, known as the Cyrus Cylinder: “I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, legitimate king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer.” Soon thereafter, Cyrus issued his famous decree, and about 50,000 Jewish captives returned to rebuild Jerusalem and Jehovah’s temple, arriving back there just at the end of the foretold 70 years of captivity.—Ezra 1:1-11.
Centuries later, Jesus’ apostle Peter came to teach a Jewish community that flourished here, and it was from Babylon that Peter wrote at least one of his inspired Bible letters. (1 Peter 5:13) In the course of time, however, the prophecy was fulfilled: “And Babylon, the decoration of kingdoms, the beauty of the pride of the Chaldeans, must become as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. She will never be inhabited.”—Isaiah 13:19, 20.
Today, mighty Babylon is nothing but dusty piles of stones, ruins in a wasteland—a silent and eloquent testimony to the unfailing accuracy of Jehovah’s prophetic Word.—Jeremiah 51:36, 37.
As to dates, we accept the chronology that is found in the Bible, which at times differs from ancient dates based on less reliable secular sources. For a detailed discussion of Bible chronology, see the book Aid to Bible Understanding, pages 322-48.
The Dawn of Civilization and Life in the Ancient East (1940 edition), by R. M. Engberg and F. C. Cole, pages 230-2.
[Map on page 31]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
EXTENT OF BABYLONIAN EMPIRE
Based on a map copyrighted by Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est. and Survey of Israel
[Pictures on page 31]
Reconstruction of Babylon’s Ishtar Gate (right)
Museum of Western Asiatic Antiquity, East Berlin, GDR
The ruins of Babylon today (below)