The City of Babylon: A History, c.2000 BC – AD 116

The history of the Mesopotamian city of Babylon had a powerful legacy even within antiquity. Today, many are familiar with the city, situated in modern Iraq, for its numerous appearances in the Bible and for the fabled wonder of the ancient world, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. For the Roman emperor Trajan, who had taken control of the region of Babylonia, the city also had a special draw. It was in the Summer Palace built by Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC) that the Macedonian king Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, a death that seems to have turned the city into something of a place of pilgrimage. Four centuries later, in AD 116, Trajan went to Babylon, as Cassius Dio said, ‘because of its fame – though he saw nothing but mounds and stones and ruins to justify this – and because of Alexander, to whose spirit he offered sacrifice in the room where he died.’

Stephanie Dalley, author of The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon, among other works on Mesopotamia, guides us through Babylon’s long and rich history up until Trajan’s visit in her new book, which brings the mounds, stones, and ruins the emperor saw back to life, along with the people who lived among them.

One of the better-known of these people is Hammurabi, a king of the first recorded dynasty to rule Babylon. Hammurabi ruled between 1792 and 1750 BC, leaving behind an important text: a set of laws written on a black stone. Hammurabi’s Code was found east of Babylon, at the city of Susa, carted off as loot by the Elamites in the 12th century BC. The laws shed light on the life of people of all classes, covering things like the necessity of marriage contracts, inheritance, and land tenure. As Dalley writes, the object shows the skill of Babylon’s scribes. School texts also survive from around the time of Hammurabi, and the book uses these to give an enlightening account of the curriculum and the intense training that scribes – mostly male, but some female – would go through.

Dalley also explores the importance of Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon, in cementing the city’s status and far-reaching influence. As Marduk declares to his fellow gods in the Babylonian Epic of Creation, ‘I shall make a house to be a luxurious dwelling for myself… Your night’s resting place shall be in it, receiving you all. I hereby name it Babylon, home of the great gods. We shall make it the centre of religion.’ Indeed, Babylon was made a centre of religion, with Marduk worshipped in a huge temple-complex called Esagila, which contained shrines to other gods. A few years after the death of Nebuchadnezzar II (the builder of the Summer Palace and the magnificent Ishtar Gate, seen on the cover of the book) came Nabonidus, who ruled Babylon from 556 BC until the kingdom was conquered by the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great in 539 BC. In one interesting episode in Babylon’s history, Nabonidus spent ten years in Arabia, leaving someone else in charge in his absence, and on his return attempted to raise the Moon-god to the highest position in the Babylonian pantheon, but without supplanting Marduk. He also busied himself with construction work in Ur and Harran, major centres for the worship of the Moon-god.

Many more kings feature in the cast list of this insightful book, handily summarised in the opening pages (along with the different written languages used in the region). As well as telling the rich ancient history of the site, its religion, and its culture over two millennia, Dalley gives an overview of early exploration and investigation of Babylon, including visitors Benjamin of Tuleda, a 12th-century Spanish rabbi who was somewhat dismissive of the ruins, and Claudius Rich, an East India Company representative in Baghdad who dug at the site in the early 19th century.

There are a number of interesting illustrations in the book which it would be good to see in colour rather than the black and white here (though Dalley does point readers in want of more illustrations in the direction of three exhibition catalogues). Still, this detailed history, drawing on fascinating ancient texts and the archaeology of the site, is valuable reading for anyone wanting to get to grips with ancient Babylon.

Review by Lucia Marchini.
The City of Babylon: A History, c.2000 BC–AD 116, Stephanie Dalley, Cambridge University Press, £19.99, Paperback, ISBN 978-1316501771.