The Ancient Capital of the Mesopotamian World

Women standing in front of the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum.
The Ishtar Gate from Babylon. Sean Gallup / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Babylon was the name of the capital of Babylonia, one of several city-states in Mesopotamia. Our modern name for the city is a version of the ancient Akkadian name for it: Bab Ilani or "Gate of the Gods". Babylon's ruins are located in what is today Iraq, near the modern town of Hilla and on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river.

People first lived at Babylon at least as long ago as the late 3rd millennium BC, and it became the political center of southern Mesopotamia beginning in the 18th century, during the reign of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC). Babylon maintained its importance as a city for an astounding 1,500 years, until around 300 BC.

Hammurabi's City

A Babylonian description of the ancient city, or rather a list of the names of the city and its temples, is found in the cuneiform text called "Tintir = Babylon", so named because its first sentence translates to something like "Tintir is a name of Babylon, on which glory and jubilation are bestowed." This document is a compendium of Babylon's significant architecture, and it was probably compiled about 1225 BC, during the era of Nebuchadnezzar I. Tintir lists 43 temples, grouped by the quarter of the city in which they were located, as well as city-walls, waterways, and streets, and a definition of the ten city quarters.

What else we know of the ancient Babylonian city comes from archaeological excavations. German archaeologist Robert Koldewey dug a huge pit 21 meters [70 feet] deep into the tell discovering the Esagila temple in the early 20th century. It wasn't until the 1970s when a joint Iraqi-Italian team led by Giancarlo Bergamini revisited the deeply buried ruins. But, apart from that, we don't know a lot about Hammurabi's city, because it was destroyed in the ancient past.

Babylon Sacked

According to cuneiform writings, Babylon's rival Assyrian king Sennacherib sacked the city in 689 BC. Sennacherib bragged that he razed all the buildings and dumped the rubble into the Euphrates River. Over the next century, Babylon was reconstructed by its Chaldean rulers, who followed the old city plan. Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562) conducted a massive reconstruction project and left his signature on many of Babylon's buildings. It is Nebuchadnezzar's city that dazzled the world, beginning with the admiring reports of Mediterranean historians.

Nebuchadnezzar's City

Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon was enormous, covering an area of some 900 hectares (2,200 acres): it was the largest city in the Mediterranean region until imperial Rome. The city lay within a large triangle measuring 2.7x4x4.5 kilometers (1.7x2.5x2.8 miles), with one edge formed by the bank of the Euphrates and the other sides made up of walls and a moat. Crossing the Euphrates and intersecting the triangle was the walled rectangular (2.75x1.6 km or 1.7x1 mi) inner city, where most of the major monumental palaces and temples were located.

The major streets of Babylon all led to that central location. Two walls and a moat surrounded the inner city and one or more bridges connected the eastern and western parts. Magnificent gates allowed entry to the city: more of that later.

Temples and Palaces

At the center was the main sanctuary of Babylon: in Nebuchadnezzar's day, it contained 14 temples. The most impressive of these was the Marduk Temple Complex, including the Esagila ("The House Whose Top is High") and its massive ziggurat, the Etemenanki ("House/Foundation of Heaven and the Underworld"). The Marduk Temple was surrounded by a wall pierced with seven gates, protected by the statues of dragons made from copper. The ziggurat, located across an 80 m (260 ft) wide street from the Marduk Temple, was also surrounded by high walls, with nine gates also protected by copper dragons.

The main palace at Babylon, reserved for official business, was the Southern Palace, with an enormous throne room, decorated with lions and stylized trees. The Northern Palace, thought to have been the Chaldean rulers' residence, had lapis-lazuli glazed reliefs. Found within its ruins was a collection of much older artifacts, collected by the Chaldeans from various places around the Mediterranean. The Northern Palace was considered a possible candidate for the Hanging Gardens of Babylon; although evidence has not been found and a more likely location outside of Babylon has been identified (see Dalley).

Babylon's Reputation

In the Christian Bible's Book of Revelation (ch. 17), Babylon was described as "Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth's abominations", making it the epitome of evil and decadence everywhere. This was a bit of religious propaganda to which the preferred cities of Jerusalem and Rome were compared and warned against becoming. That notion dominated western thought until late 19th-century German excavators brought home parts of the ancient city and installed them in a museum in Berlin, including the marvelous dark-blue Ishtar gate with its bulls and dragons.

Other historians marvel at the city's amazing size. The Roman historian Herodotus [~484-425 BC] wrote about Babylon in the first book of his Histories (chapters 178-183), although scholars argue about whether Herodotus actually saw Babylon or just heard about it. He described it as a vast city, much much larger than the archaeological evidence shows, claiming that the city walls stretched a circumference of some 480 stadia (90 km). The 5th-century Greek historian Ctesias, who probably did actually visit in person, said the city walls stretched 66 km (360 stadia). Aristotle described it as "a city that has the size of a nation". He reports that when Cyrus the Great captured the outskirts of the city, it took three days for the news to reach the center.

The Tower of Babel

According to Genesis in the Judeo-Christian Bible, the Tower of Babel was built in an attempt to reach heaven. Scholars believe that the massive Etemenanki ziggurat was the inspiration for the legends. Herodotus reported that the ziggurat had a solid central tower with eight tiers. The towers could be climbed by way of an exterior spiral staircase, and about half-way up there was a place to rest.

On the 8th tier of the Etemenanki ziggurat was a great temple with a large, richly decorated couch and beside it stood a golden table. No one was allowed to spend the night there, said Herodotus, except one specially selected Assyrian woman. The ziggurat was dismantled by Alexander the Great when he conquered Babylon in the 4th century BC.

City Gates

The Tintir = Babylon tablets list the city gates, which all had evocative nicknames, such as the Urash gate, "The Enemy is Abhorrent to it", the Ishtar gate "Ishtar overthrows its Assailant" and the Adad gate "O Adad, Guard the Life of the Troops". Herodotus says there were 100 gates in Babylon: archaeologists have only found eight in the inner city, and the most impressive of those was the Ishtar gate, built and rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar II, and currently on display at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

To get to the Ishtar Gate, the visitor walked for some 200 m (650 ft) between two high walls decorated with bas-reliefs of 120 striding lions. The lions are brightly colored and the background is a striking glazed lapis lazuli dark blue. The tall gate itself, also dark blue, depicts 150 dragons and bulls, symbols of the protectors of the city, Marduk and Adad.

Babylon and Archaeology

The archaeological site of Babylon has been excavated by a number of people, most notably by Robert Koldewey beginning in 1899. Major excavations ended in 1990. Many cuneiform tablets were collected from the city in the 1870s and 1880s, by Hormuzd Rassam of the British Museum. The Iraqi Directorate of Antiquities conducted work at Babylon between 1958 and the onset of the Iraq war in the 1990s. Other recent work was conducted by a German team in the 1970s and an Italian one from the University of Turin in the 1970s and 1980s.

Heavily damaged by the Iraq/US war, Babylon has recently been investigated by researchers of the Centro Ricerche Archeologiche e Scavi di Torino at the University of Turin using QuickBird and satellite imagery to quantify and monitor the ongoing damage.


Much of the information about Babylon here is summarized from Marc Van de Mieroop's 2003 article in the American Journal of Archaeology for the later city; and George (1993) for the Babylon of Hammurabi.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Babylon." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hirst, K. Kris. (2023, April 5). Babylon. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Babylon." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).