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Babylon (OT)

See also Babylon


BABYLON, OT băb’ ə lən (בָּבֶ֔ל, Akkad. bābilī, bāb-ilāni, “the gate of god(s),” Gr. Βαβυλών, G956). Capital of the land of Babylonia, S. Iraq, from which the land takes its name.


The etymology of the name Babel is given as “confused” (bālal) (Gen 11:9), and throughout the OT Babylon was thought of as the symbol of the confusion caused by godlessness. The most persistent meaning of the name was “gate of god” (Babili). There is no evidence for the view that the name was originally non-Sem. Rarely from c. 2100 b.c. and frequently in the Neo-Babylonian period the city was called tin. tir. ki “life of the woods,” possibly as then well surrounded by date groves. Another common name for the city was e. ki, “canal area,” because of the key part played in the local irrigation system. Šešaḵ (Jer 25:26; 51:41) may be related to a rare ideographic writing of the name for Babylonia (šeš.ki), though it is commonly assumed to be a cypher (‘atbash’; i.e. taking š = b, etc.) rendering for the name of Babel.


Babylon lay in the land of Shinar (Gen 10:10) and its general situation in Babylonia has never been in dispute. The precise site now is marked by the ruin-mounds of Bâbil, Qasr, ’Amran ibn Ail, Merkes and Ḥomera and the modern village of Jumjummah c. six m. NE of the town of Hillah and about fifty m. S of modern Baghdad. The River Euphrates runs by the ruins which extend over several square m.


Early travelers sought to identify Babylon with the upstanding remains of the ziggurrat towers at Aqarquf, W of Baghdad, or at Borsippa, seven m. SSW of Bâbil, because of the tradition of the “Tower of Babel” (Gen 11:1-11). Benjamin of Tudela correctly described the ruins without identification which first may be attributed to Pietro della Valle in a.d. 1616. Some of the early explorers sought to incorporate the ruins of Borsippa within a greater Babylon but this is disproved by inscrs. Some of these were brought to Europe by the Abbé de Beauchamp in a.d. 1784 and by C. J. Rich, Resident of the East India Company in Baghdad, and thus led to the confirmation of the identity of the ruins with the ancient capital of Babylon itself.


Rich made soundings in the two largest mounds, Bâbil and Qasr which he mapped in a.d. 1817. Though spasmodic work was carried out by A. H. Layard and others in 1850 and by the Frenchmen Fresnel and Oppert, much of the time the site was in the hands of locals who dug for inscribed tablets, and these were found in abundance. A major expedition by Die Deutsche Orient Gesellschaft under Robert Koldewey in 1899-1917 laid a firm foundation for Neo-Babylonian archeology, though only part of the citadel area was uncovered. Remains of earlier occupation in the Old Babylonian period were uncovered only in a limited area owing to the high water table. Further work has been carried out by the Germans under H. Lenzen since 1956 in conjunction with the Iraq Department of Antiquities who have undertaken clearing and restoration work in the citadel area (Procession Way, Ninmakh Temple and the Royal Palace Throne Room) as well as having constructed a museum and rest house on the site.

The citadel

(Qasr). Babylon had two citadels, the northern one built outside the N wall by Nebuchadrezzar II. Both it and the southern citadel were entered by the Ishtar Gate, a forty ft. high double tower decorated with alternate rows of glazed relief brickwork depicting the mušnuššu-dragon of Marduk and the bull of Hadad. Many changes in the building level in antiquity mean that the outstanding remains now visible are thus largely the massive foundations for this edifice.

Outside the gateway lay the small temple dedicated to Ninmakh (now reconstructed). It was built by Labashi, the architect, for Ashurbanipal (669-627 b.c.) and measured 163 ft. by 106 ft. Hundreds of female figurines in clay found here testify to its use and popularity. The Ishtar Gate led to the sacred Procession Way and to both citadels which together formed a single defense for the palace complex to the S. The citadel in Neo-Babylonian times seems also to have been used as a “museum” to display objects and inscrs. from earlier periods within and without Babylon. Here were found a stela of the Hitt. god Teshup from Zincirli (7th cent.) and inscrs. of the Assyrian kings Adad-nirari III and Ashurbanipal from Nineveh. The “Lion of Babylon,” a massive basalt sculpture depicting a lion trampling a fallen human enemy, also may be of Hitt. origin, though a similar design is also to be seen on the ivories of the 7th cent. from Nimrud.

The southern citadel incorporated a royal palace c. 350 x 200 yards grouped around five courts. One of these (197 ft. by 164 ft.) gave access to the throne room (165 ft. by 143 ft. with its wall covered with glazed bricks forming friezes of garlands, palmettes and rosettes in blue, white and yellow. It may well have been in this palace, with its harem and domestic quarters attached, that Belshazzar gave his feast to more than one thousand guests (Dan 5:1, 5). The extensive and lofty walls built by Nebuchadrezzar would have been an impressive place for the writing to be seen by all. This area was reopened by the Iraqi Government in 1968.

The NW corner of the citadel, near the Ishtar Gate, was occupied by a building at a lower level comprising a series of vaults which, to judge by the discovery of documents made there, were used as administrative quarters or stores for the palace. It has been suggested that these were the sub-structure for the “Hanging Gardens” described by Herodotus. This was a palace built on ranges of lofty terraces on which were laid out trees and gardens watered by special hoists. They were said to have been constructed by Nebuchadrezzar on his marriage to Amytis, daughter of Astyages the Mede, to cement the alliance and to remind her of her hilly homeland.

The walls.

Babylon was encircled by a double system of defenses each comprising two walls. The inner Imgur-Bēl was twenty-one ft. thick and reinforced with towers at sixty foot intervals. The outer (Nimit-Enlil) was eleven ft. in width and also had protruding watchtowers. About six ft. outside these ring walls lay a brick-lined quay wall to contain the waters fed from the Euphrates River which formed a flood defense. The walls were initally the work of the Amorite kings of the First Dynasty but were strengthened by the last Assyrians to hold Babylon, Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal, and by the successive rulers of the Chaldaean line. Of the latter, it was Nebuchadrezzar who added an outer wall E of the Euphrates to enclose his Summer Palace (“Bâbil”) to the N and to run for seventeen m. to defend the plain between the city and the outskirts, thus forming an enclosure within which the local population could retreat and camp in time of war. Later writers describe the outer city walls as running for forty-two m. with the inner walls extending for 2 1/2, 4 1/2 and seven m. respectively (Ctesias) with the middle wall 300 ft. high with its towers reaching 420 ft. The wall behind the moat was said to be fifty royal cubits. Herodotus declared that the city walls were 480 furlongs or a circuit of fifty-six m.

Inscriptions show that eight gates gave access to the inner city; of these four have been excavated: the Ishtar Gate to the N; Marduk (Urash) and Zababa to the E; Urash to the S. There were also the thus far undiscovered gates of Sin (N), Enlil and Shamash (S) and Adad (W). This gave three major gates, to which must be added four minor gates, to the N and S. On the W only one gate gave entrance to the New City on the right bank of the Euphrates built by Nebuchadrezzar II.


The city was planned on a symmetrical basis with the main thoroughfares linking the city gates running parallel or at right angles to each other. Each street had its expressive name, the most distinguished being the “Procession way” (Ai-ibūr-ša̱bū, “the enemy shall not prevail”) which began at the Ishtar Gate and ran E of the southern citadel for more than a thousand yards before it turned westward by the sacred precincts of Esagila, Marduk’s temple, to the seven-piered bridge which spanned the river to the New City. This road was forty to fifty ft. wide and paved with stone, some inscribed “I am Nebuchadrezzar, King of Babylon....I paved the road of Babylon with mountain stone for the procession of the mighty lord Marduk. May Marduk, my lord, grant me eternal life!” Such an inscr. is typical of many in Babylon of the time of Nebuchadrezzar whose boast in Daniel 4:30 is justified.

The Temple area.

The sacred precinct of Babylon now lies in the Sahn, S of Qasr, near ’Amran ibn ’Ali whose mausoleum dates from c. a.d. 680. The dominant feature was the temple tower (ziggurat) Etemenanki (“House of the foundation of Heaven and Earth”) standing in a courtyard measuring 460 x 408 x 456 x 412 yards and entered by twelve gates. It is likely that the main entry was kept closed except for the annual procession of the gods Marduk and Nabu. One inscr. (Esagila tablet) and the description by Herodotus (History I. 187) show that the ziggurat had a square base (c. 300 yards) and rose in eight stories to the small temple of blue enamel brick which topped it. Ascent was by staircases to the first platform (as at Ur) and thence by ramps or stairs diagonally to each upper and smaller level, thus giving the appearance to Herodotus of a “circular stair.” The total height was c. 300 ft. However, excavations in 1913 yielded little evidence in support of this picture of the “Tower of Babel,” since the site had been robbed heavily in the preceding centuries by locals searching for building materials. The site is now a deep depression, hence its name (“Sahn”).

The tower also overshadowed the adjacent Temple of Marduk, the city’s prime deity, called Esagila (“House of the Uplifted Head”). Since Shulgi of Ur restored the shrine in 2100 b.c. most kings who revered Babylon had maintained it in repair. It thus remained in use until about the 1st cent. a.d. despite the successive sackings of Babylon. Within the sanctuary, with its walls of gold and alabaster pillars supporting the cedar roof beams, Marduk was shown sitting on his throne with his sacred bed nearby. The temple area measured 470 x 270 yards and also housed chapels for Nabu and his wife Tashmetum in Ezida (“House of Knowledge”) and lesser divinities. The texts list more than fifty shrines within the city, fifteen of them built by Nebuchadrezzar. Babylon was certainly conspicuous for its many statues (Jer 50:38), and one text alone tells of “180 open-air shrines for Ishtar” and more than 1,800 niches, pedestals or sacred places for other deities.

Other areas.

E of the temple area the mound of Merkes was found to contain private houses of all periods from the First Dynasty to the Parthians. Here too was a temple to Ishtar of Akkad (Emeshdari). To the NE at Ḥomera was the debris as removed by Alexander in clearing the city for his planned reconstruction and also a Gr. theater.



Genesis 10:10 ascribes the founding of Babylon to Nimrod and makes it contemporary with early Erech (Warka) and Accad (Agade). Babylonian tradition commonly considers any religious site to have been created by the deity to whom it was dedicated, hence Marduk, but he did not come into prominence until c. the 18th cent. b.c. The earliest literary reference is by Sharkalisharri c. 2250 b.c. when he removed earth from the city to found Agade nearby which his father Sargon had begun, to preserve the sanctity and continuity of the site (cf. 2 Kings 5:17).

Second millennium.

The Ur III kings appointed governors over the city before the Amorite invasion led to the founding of the First (Semitic) Dynasty of Babylon under Sumu-Abum (1894). He restored the walls and the sixth king of the line (Hammurabi, 1792-1750 b.c.) enlarged the city and made it a prosperous capital and trading center. It was in Esagila that Hammurabi set up the copy of his laws as a report to Marduk of his stewardship as king. With the capture of the city by the Hittites c. 1595 and its subsequent occupation by Kassites, Babylon lost much of its power and splendor. Sometimes under governors ruling on behalf of Assyrian overlords, at other periods she harbored a series of local dignitaries who sought to keep out the surrounding tribesmen.

First millennium.

Assyria was drawn into the politics of Babylon when Shalmaneser III was called to intervene in a dispute for the throne among the sons of Nabu-apla-iddina. He settled the quarrel, offered sacrifices in Marduk’s temple and treated the inhabitants with respect. The mother of his son and successor, Adad-nirari III (870-783), was Samuramat, possibly the classical Semiramis who, according to Herodotus, did much to embellish the city. Tiglath-pileser of Assyria left a native king Nabu-nasir on the throne until his death in 734 b.c. The southern tribes under Ukin-zēr of Amukkani thereupon seized Babylon, and to regain it Tiglath-pileser first negotiated to win over his rival Marduk-apla-iddina (Merodach-baladan) of Yakin and was successful until, on the death of Shalmaneser V in 722/1, Merodach-baladan proclaimed Babylon’s independence by taking “the hand of Bel” and the title “king of Babylon” (Isa 39:1). With Elamite support he was able to repulse an Assyrian advance at Dēr and hold the city for ten years. Sargon II led a successful Assyrian attack on the S in 710, being welcomed into Babylon where he celebrated the New Year festival but only adopted the title of “viceroy of Marduk.” Marduk-apla-iddina was allowed to remain as sheikh of his tribe. In 703 he made another bid for power and it is prob. at this time that he wrote to Hezekiah and sent an embassy to urge him to join the anti-Assyrian league (2 Kings 20:12-17). Isaiah’s opposition to such a pact was soon vindicated. Merodach-baladan ousted the Assyrian puppet king and prepared to meet Sennacherib’s counter attack. The men of Babylon, ill supported by the Elamites and the local tribesmen, were defeated near Kish. Babylon was plundered and given in charge of an Assyrian nominee. Scarcely had the Assyrian army withdrawn than intrigues developed again. In 700 b.c. Sennacherib mounted a major offensive to remove Bēl-ibni and replace him by his own youngest son, Ashur-nadin-shuma. A further expedition in 695 b.c. caused the Elamites to react by capturing Ashur-nadin-shuma and putting their own governor, Mushezib-Marduk, in his place. This led to prolonged hostilities which culminated in a bloody battle at Hallule on the Tigris. Sennacherib thereafter besieged Babylon for nine months and sacked the city. The statue of Marduk was removed with some of the sacred soil. Such drastic action established peace for the rest of Sennacherib’s reign, but was never to be forgiven by the people of Babylon.

Esarhaddon, who followed his murdered father to the throne (681-669 b.c.), had firsthand experience of the city where he had acted as governor for some years. His father’s decree calling for “the devastation of the city for seventy years” was rescinded. He rebuilt the city, introduced an efficient administration, and returned many of the refugees. His son Shamash-shum-ukin was made “crown prince of Babylonia” while Ashurbanipal was chosen as “crown prince of Assyria.” This arrangement worked well for twelve years after Esarhaddon’s death. Dissension between the new ruler and his brother mounted with the growing restlessness of the southern tribes. Ashurbanipal advanced on Babylon in 651 and besieged the town for three years until, in despair, Shamash-shum-ukin set fire to his palace and perished in the flames. The Assyrians then installed Kandalanu as governor.

The Chaldaeans.

The Babylonian Chronicle notes an insurrection in Babylonia in Nebuchadrezzar’s tenth year (595/4) and a legal document of the following year records a decision to appropriate the land of a man put to death in Babylon for high treason. This has been compared with Hananiah’s prophecy that in the same year the yoke of the king of Babylon would be broken (Jer 28:2), perhaps indicating that the plot was widely known and approved.

Nebuchadrezzar added considerably to the defenses of Babylon, esp. to the E, for he foresaw that the main threat would come from the Medes. His death was followed by a steady weakening of the regime for his successor Amēl-Marduk (Evil-merodach of 2 Kings 25:27; Jer 52:31) ruled but two years and was replaced in 560 after an army coup by the commander-in-chief, Neriglissar (Nergal-shar-uṩur, the Nergal-Sharezer of Jer 39:3), son-in-law of Nebuchadrezzar. After frequent absences on active service, including Cilicia, he was in turn ousted and his weak son Labashi-Marduk lasted only a few months before another coup d’état brought Nabu-na’id (Nabonidus) to the throne.

Soon after his election Nabonidus led the army to Pal. and N. Arabia, leaving his son Bēl-shar-uṩur (Belshazzar) as co-regent in Babylon. Nabonidus’ decision to stay in Arabia at Teima’ resulted from his unpopularity at home as much as from his desire to found a settlement there with exiles from Pal. In Babylon there had been inflation brought on both by the continuing military expenditure and by the extensive program of public works begun by Nebuchadrezzar. This amounted to fifty per cent between 560 and 530 b.c., resulting in widespread famine. Nabonidus’ absence has been connected with the seven-year madness of Nebuchadrezzar (which might also have been a royal throne-name assumed by Nabonidus himself in Dan 4:28-33) and described in the Qumran “Prayer of Nabonidus.” After being away ten years, Nabonidus returned to Babylon in 544 but was soon thereafter captured by Pers. troops and exiled to Carmania.

The fall of Babylon.

In the last year of Nabonidus the Babylon Chronicle records that the gods of the cities around Babylon, except Borsippa, Kutha and Sippar, were brought in, an action taken only at the sign of impending war. The Pers. army clashed with the Babylonians at Opis while in the city Nabonidus seems to have quelled a popular uprising with much bloodshed. Sippar fell to the Pers. army led by Ugbaru, the district governor of Gutium, who entered Babylon the next day without a battle. This ease of entry may have been due to action by fifth columnists or, as Herodotus asserts, to the diversion of the River Euphrates which rendered the flood defenses useless and enabled the invaders to march through the dried up river bed to enter by night. Belshazzar was killed (Dan 5:30) and Gutean soldiers guarded the temple area of Esagila where services continued without a break. Sixteen days later on 29 October 539 Cyrus himself entered amid public rejoicing. A peace settlement was reached quickly and Gubaru appointed sub-governor. The fall of Babylon and the coming of Cyrus is mentioned frequently in the OT (Isa 13:14; 21:1-10; 44:28; 47:1-5; Jer 50; 51). Cyrus decreed religious freedom and the restoration of national shrines. Since Judah had no statues to be restored, compensation was granted (Ezra 1).

The Achaemenids.

Cyrus claimed the title “King of Babylon” and made his son Cambyses “take the hands of Bēl” in the New Year ceremonies of 538. This enabled him to act as his viceroy in Babylon which remained peaceful until his death in 522.

In the reign of Darius II (521-486) a further return of exiles to Jerusalem was allowed (Ezra 5:16; 8:1). His rule did not go unchallenged and several local Babylonians controlled the city for varying periods, usually taking the throne-name of Nebuchadrezzar to bolster their claims. Thus Nidintu-Bēl (Nebuchadrezzar III) held sway October-December 522. Nebuchadrezzar IV (Araka) was put to death 27 November 521. Darius introduced a rigid royal control with local administrative reforms aimed at curbing corruption and establishing a courier system between Babylon and other capitals. He built himself a palace (apadana), a house for his crown prince, and an arsenal. In the fourth year of Xerxes (485-465) the Babylonians made another attempt to gain their independence. Bēl-shimanni and Shamash-eriba claimed the throne in 482 and this revolt was suppressed with much cruelty and damage to Babylon, from which the statue of Marduk was removed. On his visit, c. 460, Herodotus claims to have seen the city virtually undamaged which is contrary to the accounts of Ctesias and Strabo.


Xerxes and his successors (Artaxerxes I-Darius III, 464-332) had little to spare for Babylon amid their lengthy and expensive wars with Greece and little of architectural merit from this time has been found. Irrigation work was neglected and the diversion of trade on the main Pers. road from Sardis to Susa aided the diminution of the city’s influence. On 1 October 331 b.c. Alexander (III) was welcomed by the Babylonians when he entered the city after his victory over the Medes at Gaugamela (near Erbil). He was acclaimed king and on his return from the E nine years later he planned extensive renovations including the creation of a port for the city. Though the site of Esagila was cleared, work ceased on Alexander’s death in Babylon on 13 June 323. The subsequent struggles among his generals did not leave the city unscathed. Seleucus, who claimed the title of king in 305 b.c., was acknowledged from 311 when all documents were dated by his “era.” The foundation of a new capital city at Seleucia on the River Tigris increased the decline of the ancient metropolis. Documents on clay from a priestly school in the city continued at least until a.d. 100. For this reason some see in 1 Peter 5:13 a reference to Babylon itself (see NT BABYLON).


R. Koldewey, The Excavations at Babylon (1914); E. Unger, Babylon, Die heilige Stadt (1931); O. E. Raven, Herodotus’ Description of Babylon (1932); D. J. Wiseman, Chronicles of Chaldean Kings (626-556 B.C.) in the British Museum (1956); A. Parrot, Babylon and the Old Testament (1958); H. W. F. Saggs, The Greatness that was Babylon (1962); “Babylon,” Archaeology and Old Testament Study (1967), 39-56.

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