Babylon Rising: The Art of an Ancient Middle Eastern City

The Tower of Babel, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1563) / Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wikimedia Commons

In recent decades, the site of Babylon has suffered considerable damage from problematic reconstructions of ancient buildings.

By Dr. Michael Seymour
Assistant Curator
Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The city of Babylon lay on the River Euphrates in southern Mesopotamia, in what is today Iraq. Although it was not among the oldest cities in this part of the world (the earliest of which is normally considered to be Uruk), in ancient Mesopotamian mythology it came to be seen as the first city, made at the creation of the world by its patron god, Marduk. Today little is known of the city’s actual origins; it first appears in texts toward the end of the third millennium B.C.

Molded plaque: king or a god carrying a mace (c.2000–1700 BCE): Ceramic plaques of this sort were mass-produced from molds and represent a form of art available to a wide audience. They have been excavated in temples as well as household shrines in private homes. Their subject matter varies widely, including religious images, mythological and erotic scenes, and representations of rulers and gods. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain
Necklace pendants and beads (c.18th–17th century BCE): These gold pendants and beads exemplify the finest craftsmanship in gold from the ancient Near East, and each represents a deity or the symbol of a deity. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Babylon rose to prominence in the eighteenth century B.C. when, through a combination of political alliances and military campaigns, Hammurabi (r. 1792–1750 B.C.) was able to unite a large state under his rule. A terracotta plaque shows a Mesopotamian king of this period in heroic pose, while finely made gold jewelry incorporating divine symbols gives some sense of the luxury metalwork of the period.

Head of a male (c.2000–1600 BCE): This head, broken at the neck, depicts a beardless male figure. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Some larger examples of sculpture also survive. From this point on, Babylon would remain the most important city in southern Iraq (Babylonia) until the time of Alexander.

Babylon was ruled by Hammurabi’s successors until 1595 B.C., when a Hittite incursion into Mesopotamia reached as far as Babylon itself, bringing a dramatic end to what historians today call the Old Babylonian period. In time, a new dynasty emerged. The new rulers, non-Babylonians known as Kassites, adopted Babylonian conventions in their royal iconography and inscriptions.

Top fragment of a kudurru with a mushhushshu dragon and divine symbols (c.1156–1025 BCE): Known as kudurrus or narus, a distinctive group of Babylonian stone monuments were once thought to be boundary markers placed in fields. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

The art of the Kassite period is best known for a type of stone monument known as a kudurru. These monuments, which were once thought to be boundary stones erected in fields (more likely they were placed in temples), carry inscriptions detailing grants of land, often by the king to high officials, and a wealth of religious imagery. The images, which included astral symbols, animals, and other divine attributes associated with particular gods, served to sanctify and protect the commitment made in the text.

Cylinder seal and modern impression: male worshiper, dog surmounted by a standard (c.mid-2nd millennium BCE): Although engraved stones had been used as early as the seventh millennium B.C. to stamp impressions in clay, the invention in the fourth millennium B.C. of carved cylinders that could be rolled over clay allowed the development of more complex seal designs. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Kassite-period cylinder seals are also distinctive. The designs of many are composed of a long and pious dedicatory inscription and the image of a king or sometimes other figures in a position of prayer. Babylonian art of all periods places a heavy emphasis on the piety of the king, and similar images recur throughout Mesopotamian history.

Stele of the protective goddess Lama (c.1307–1282 BCE): This stele is carved with a goddess, identifiable by her horned headdress, facing to her left with arms upraised. She wears her hair pulled back with a lock over her shoulder, and her five-tiered skirt is decorated with 17 lines of cuneiform writing. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

In some seals, the king is replaced by a goddess, Lama, who in Mesopotamian art is often depicted interceding or praying for a human donor to a more powerful deity. The same goddess is represented in the pendants of the necklace, and a stone monument, also of the Kassite period depicts Lama at large scale.

The end of the second millennium B.C. saw power over Babylon change hands several times, with Babylonia briefly falling under Assyrian domination. More traumatizing was the sack of the city by an army from Elam, in southwestern Iran, in ca. 1159 B.C. Treasures including the cult statue of Marduk, Babylon’s patron deity, were carried away to the Elamite capital at Susa. The statue was later recovered by Nebuchadnezzar I (r. 1125–1104 B.C.), but the period of Babylonian self-rule that followed was ended by the eighth century B.C., as the region was incorporated into the expanding Neo-Assyrian empire.

Cuneiform prism describing the restoration of Babylon by Esarhaddon, stamped with Assyrian hieroglyphic inscription (c.676-672 BCE): Following a series of revolts against Assyrian rule, the city of Babylon was sacked by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 689 B.C. In his inscriptions, Sennacherib claims to have destroyed the city entirely, but his successors concentrated on restoring Babylon—and with it their claim to legitimate rule of Babylonia. In this prism, Sennacherib’s son and successor Esarhaddon describes his efforts to rebuild the city. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Assyrian rule in Babylonia faced frequent and violent opposition, yet Assyrian kings revered the great temples of southern Mesopotamia, and sought to be recognized as legitimate kings of Babylon. When the Assyrian king Sennacherib (r. 704–681 B.C.) sacked the city in 689 B.C. in the course of crushing a rebellion, the act was considered so sacrilegious that his successors avoid mentioning it in inscriptions, alluding instead to a natural disaster. A cylinder (86.11.283) describes restoration work at Babylon by Sennacherib’s son and successor Esarhaddon (r. 680–669 B.C.). Esarhaddon in turn attempted to solve the problem by making one son, Ashurbanipal (r. 668–627 B.C.), king of Assyria and the empire, and another, Shamash-shum-ukin (r. 667–648 B.C.), king of Babylon. The two brothers ruled in this way for sixteen years, but finally Shamash-shum-ukin himself rebelled, leading to four years of war and a devastating siege of Babylon. Ashurbanipal emerged victorious and installed a puppet king, Kandalanu (r. 647–627 B.C.), on the Babylonian throne. Within a generation, however, the Assyrian empire was itself collapsing, and under threat from a resurgent Babylonia.

Cuneiform tablet: letter of Sin-sharra-ishkun to Nabopolassar (c.2nd century BCE): This tablet is a later copy of a letter from the last days of the Assyrian empire. In it, the last Assyrian king, Sin-sharra-ishkun, appears to reach out to the Babylonian king Nabopolassar, recognizing the latter’s rule and pleading to retain his own kingdom. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

A later copy of a letter (86.11.370a,c–e) preserves an appeal from one of the last kings of Assyria, Sin-shar-ishkun (r. 622–612 B.C.), apparently pleading to retain his throne by making an alliance with the Babylonian king Nabopolassar (r. 625–605 B.C.). By this stage, however, the Assyrian state was doomed: Nabopolassar and his son Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 604–562 B.C.) came to rule most of its former empire, a swathe of territory reaching from the shores of the Persian Gulf to those of the Mediterranean Sea.

Cuneiform cylinder: inscription of Nebuchadnezzar II describing the construction of the outer city wall of Babylon (c.604–562 BCE): This cylinder is one of many commemorating the extensive building program carried out by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 B.C.), which transformed the city of Babylon into a grand imperial capital. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

Nebuchadnezzar II took his name from the king who had recovered the statue of Marduk from Susa. The later king was ultimately to become far more famous than his predecessor, however: it is Nebuchadnezzar II who appears in the Bible.

Panel with striding lion (c. 604–562 BCE): The Assyrian Empire fell before the combined onslaughts of Babylonians and Medes in 614 and 612 B.C. In the empire’s final days, Nabopolassar (r. 625–605 B.C.), who had been in Assyrian service, established a new dynasty with its capital in Babylon. During the reign of his son, Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 604–562 B.C.), the Neo-Babylonian empire reached its peak. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

As king of Babylon, he rebuilt much of the city, constructing an imperial capital with vast palaces and well-appointed temples, colossal city walls, and a great northern entry point, the Ishtar Gate, approached via a long Processional Way lined with colorful glazed-brick reliefs depicting roaring lions.

The Whore of Babylon, from The Apocalypse (1498): By 1498, Albrecht Dürer had published more than two dozen prints, which brought him to the attention of artists and connoisseurs not only in his native Nuremberg and other German-speaking areas but also across the Alps in Italy. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

At this time, Babylon is thought to have been the largest city in the world. Its population was surely very cosmopolitan: Nebuchadnezzar continued the Assyrian practice of moving large groups of people across the empire, in order to break up potential centers of opposition, to provide labor, or both. In the case of the state of Judah and the city of Jerusalem, such acts earned him biblical infamy. The powerful language used against Babylon by the biblical prophets would eventually be incorporated into Christian visions of the Apocalypse.

Stamp seal (octagonal pyramid) with cultic scene (Late 8th – 7th century BCE): This stamp seal depicts a kneeling figure before divine symbols. The figure, bearded and wearing a diadem, raises his hands in a gesture of prayer and supplication. Before him can be seen a couchant mushhushshu, the composite dragon associated particularly with Babylon’s chief deity Marduk, whose spade “standard” rises from its back. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

By contrast, Babylonian kings saw and presented themselves as pious figures, as can be seen in the emphasis on temple restoration in Nebuchadnezzar’s own inscriptions, or in the many fine stamp seals of the period, usually showing a single figure before altars and divine symbols, often including those of Marduk and his son Nabu.

The Neo-Babylonian empire was short-lived: in 539 B.C., Cyrus II of Persia conquered the city, building a vast new empire centered on Iran. This was by no means the end of Babylon itself: the city retained its importance and would continue as one of several Achaemenid Persian royal capitals. Two hundred years later, when this empire fell in its turn, Alexander intended Babylon to be the capital of his new Asian empire. He died in the city in 323 B.C., before such dreams could be realized. From the wars of succession that followed, Seleucus I Nicator emerged as the dominant force in the Asian part of Alexander’s empire. He founded a new city, Seleucia on the Tigris, which would gradually supplant Babylon. The older city survived, and the presence of a Greek-style theater and other discoveries at the site show how Hellenistic culture influenced the ancient capital during the Seleucid and Parthian periods, but from this time on Babylon began to shrink.

Cuneiform tablet: a-she-er gi-ta, balag to Innin/Ishtar (c.2nd–1st century BCE): This cuneiform tablet records part of a balag, a song of lament that accompanied a stringed instrument. The text is typical of the Seleucid period, where the words are written in Sumerian but with a large number of lines accompanied by an Akkadian translation. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain

It was sacked by a Parthian army in the second century B.C. and did not recover, although a wealth of tablets show that the city’s temple institutions continued as one of the last centers of cuneiform scholarship: the last dated cuneiform texts were made in the first century A.D. Villages remained around the edges of the vast site, as indeed they do today, and the medieval traveler Benjamin of Tudela described a substantial Jewish community there. The last reference to a living village actually called Babil on the site comes from the tenth century, in the Abbasid period. Also in the tenth century, a new city, Hillah (originally called al-Jami‘ayn), was founded nearby. The inscribed baked bricks of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon were a major building material for the new settlement, and continued to be recycled for use in new buildings into the early twentieth century, when Babylon’s excavators reported frequently seeing them incorporated into houses in the town.

In recent decades, the site of Babylon has suffered considerable damage from problematic reconstructions of ancient buildings, several large-scale modern building and earth-moving works, the interruption of regular conservation work, and in 2003–4 from the presence of a military base in the center of the ancient city. Today Iraqi archaeologists are working to conserve and manage the site, which remains among the most important in the entire ancient world.

Originally published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, June 2016, under the terms of a Creative Commons 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication license.



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