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Babylon was the capital city of Babylonia in Mesopotamia (in contemporary Iraq). The name is the Greek form of Babel; Semitic form Babilu, meaning "The Gate of God".

The monumental list of its kings reaches back to circa 2300 BC, and includes Hammurabi (perhaps the Amraphel of Genesis, and, if so, hence the contemporary of Abraham). It stood on the Euphrates, about 322 km (approx. 200 miles) above its junction with the Tigris, which flowed through its midst and divided it into two almost equal parts.

The Elamites invaded Chaldea (i.e., Lower Mesopotamia, or Shinar, and Upper Mesopotamia, or Akkad, now combined into one) and held it in subjection. At length Hammurabi delivered it from the foreign yoke, and founded the new empire of Chaldea, making Babylon the capital of the united kingdom.

The city gradually grew in extent and grandeur, but in process of time it became subject to Assyria. It rebelled against the Assyrian rule under Mushezib-Marduk and again under Shamash-shum-ukin but was besieged and taken over by Sennacherib and Assurbanipal (Kandalanu) again. On the fall of Nineveh (612 BC) it threw off the Assyrian yoke, and became the capital of the growing Babylonian empire.

Under Nebuchadnezzar it became one of the most splendid cities of the ancient world. It was even the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

After passing through various vicissitudes the city was occupied by Cyrus the Great, "king of Persia", 538 BC, who issued a decree permitting the Jews to return to their own land (Ezra 1). It then ceased to be the capital of an empire. It was again and again visited by hostile armies, till its inhabitants were all driven from their homes, and the city became a complete desolation.

The Archaeology of Babylon

The town of Babylon

Babylon (mod. Hillah), an ancient city on the left bank of the Euphrates, about 113 km (approx. 70 miles) south of Baghdad. "Babylon" is the Greek form of Babel or Bab-ili, "the gate of the god" (sometimes incorrectly written "of the gods"), which again is the Semitic translation of the original Sumerian name Kadimirra.

The god was probably Merodach or Marduk, the divine patron of the city. In an inscription of the Kassite conqueror Gaddas the name appears as Ba-ba-lam, as if from the Assyrian babalu, "to bring"; another foreign folk etymology is found in Genesis 11:9, from balbal, "to confound". A second name of the city, which perhaps originally denoted a separate village or quarter, was Su-anna, and in later inscriptions it is often represented ideographically by E-ki, the pronunciation and meaning of which are uncertain.

One of its oldest names, however, was Din-tir, of which the poets were especially fond; Din-tir signifies in Sumerian "the life of the forest", though a native lexicon translates it "seat of life". Uru-azagga, "the holy city", was also a title sometimes applied to Babylon as to other cities in Babylonia. Ka-dimirra, the Semitic Bab-ili, probably denoted at first E-Saggila, "the house of the lofty head", the temple dedicated to Bel-Merodach, along with its immediate surroundings. Like the other great sanctuaries of Babylonia the temple had been founded in pre-Semitic times, and the future Babylon grew up around it. Since Merodach was the son of Ea, the culture god of Eridu near Ur on the Persian Gulf, it is possible that Babylon was a colony of Eridu. Adjoining Babylon was a town called Borsippa.

The earliest mention of Babylon is in a dated tablet of the reign of Sargon of Akkad (2800 BC), who is stated to have built sanctuaries there to Anunit and Ae (or Ea). H. Winckler may be right in restoring a mutilated passage in the annals of this king so as to make it mean that Babylon owed its name to Sargon, who made it the capital of his empire. If so, it fell back afterwards into the position of a mere provincial town and remained so for centuries, until it became the capital of "the first dynasty of Babylon" and then of Hammurabi's empire (2250 BC). From this time onward it continued to be the capital of Babylonia and the holy city of western Asia. The claim to supremacy in western Asia, however real in fact, was not admitted de jure until the claimant had "taken the hands" of Bel-Merodach at Babylon and thereby been accepted as his adopted son and the inheritor of the old Babylonian empire.

It was this which made Tiglath-Pileser III and other Assyrian kings so anxious to possess themselves of Babylon and so to legitimize their power.

Sennacherib alone seems to have failed in securing the support of the Babylonian priesthood; at all events he never underwent the ceremony, and Babylonia throughout his reign was in a constant state of revolt which was finally suppressed only by the complete destruction of the capital.

In 689 BC its walls, temples and palaces were razed to the ground and the rubbish thrown into the Arakhtu, the canal which bordered the earlier Babylon on the south. This act shocked the religious conscience of Mesopotamia; the subsequent murder of Sennacherib was held to be an expiation of it, and his successor Esarhaddon hastened to rebuild the old city, to receive there his crown, and make it his residence during part of the year. On his death Babylonia was left to his elder son Shamash-shum-ukin, who eventually headed a revolt against his brother Assur-bani-pal of Assyria.

Once more Babylon was besieged by the Assyrians and starved into surrender. Assur-bani-pal (or Assurbanipal) purified the city and celebrated a "service of reconciliation", but did not venture to "take the hands" of Bel. In the subsequent overthrow of the Assyrian empire the Babylonians saw another example of divine vengeance.

With the recovery of Babylonian independence under Nabopolassar a new era of architectural activity set in, and his son Nebuchadnezzar made Babylon one of the wonders of the ancient world. It surrendered without a struggle to Cyrus, but two sieges in the reign of Darius Hystaspis, and one in the reign of Xerxes, brought about the destruction of the defences, while the monotheistic rule of Persia allowed the temples to fall into decay.

Indeed part of the temple of E-Saggila, which like other ancient temples served as a fortress, was intentionally pulled down by Xerxes after his capture of the city.

Alexander was murdered in the palace of Nebuchadrezzar, which must therefore have been still standing, and cuneiform texts show that, even under the Seleucids, E-Saggila was not wholly a ruin.

The foundation of Seleucia in its neighbourhood, however, drew away the population of the old city and hastened its material decay.

A tablet dated 275 BC states that on the 12th of Nisan the inhabitants of Babylon were transported to the new town, where a palace was built as well as a temple to which the ancient name of E-Saggila was given. With this event the history of Babylon comes practically to an end, though more than a century later we find sacrifices being still performed in its old sanctuary.

Our knowledge of its topography is derived from the classical writers, the inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar, and the excavations of the Deutsche Orientgesellschaft, which were begun in 1899. The topography is necessarily that of the Babylon of Nebuchadrezzar; the older Babylon which was destroyed by Sennacherib having left few, if any, traces behind.

Most of the existing remains lie on the east bank of the Euphrates, the principal being three vast mounds, the Babil to the north, the Qasr or "Palace" (also known as the Mujelliba) in the centre, and the Ishgn "Amran ibn" All, with the outlying spur of the Jumjuma, to the south. Eastward of these come the Ishgn el-Aswad or "Black Mound" and three lines of rampart, one of which encloses the Babil mound on the N. and E. sides, while a third forms a triangle with the S.E. angle of the other two. W. of the Euphrates are other ramparts and the remains of the ancient Borsippa.

We learn from Herodotus and Ctesias that the city was built on both sides of the river in the form of a square, and enclosed within a double row of lofty walls to which Ctesias adds a third. Ctesias makes the outermost wall 360 stades (42 miles/68 km) in circumference, while according to Herodotus it measured 480 stades (56 miles/90 km), which would include an area of about 520 km² (approx. 200 square miles).

The estimate of Ctesias is essentially the same as that of Q. Curtius (v. I. 26), 368 stades, and Clitarchus (ap. Diod. Sic. ii. 7), 365 stades; Strabo (xvi. 1. 5) makes it 385 stades. But even the estimate of Ctesias, assuming the stade to be its usual length, would imply an area of about 260 km² (100 square miles). According to Herodotus the width of the walls was 24 m (80 ft).

See also: Etemenanki, Kings of Babylon, Babel, Tower of Babel

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Original text from 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. Please update as needed.

Several references to Babylon occur in the Bible, but it is not clear that they refer to the city. See Babylon (New Testament). Babylon is also the name of several towns in the United States, most notably Babylon, New York.

In the Rastafarian religion, Babylon refers to the oppressive power structure that adherents believe has been responsible for keeping their people poor and oppressed for generations. Use of the term carries the connotation of white people being the oppressor, though this is not necessarily the meaning in any specific instance.