What remains today of Old Babylon are the ruins of an ancient city under the water level of the Euphrates River, although some later city ruins still exist. However, archeology tells us much about the 4,000-year history of this storied city that passed through many hands and empires during its long existence.
Babylon began as a small, administrative center during the reign of Sargon the Great. Babylon’s history truly begins with Hammurabi, an Amorite prince, who began his reign over the city in 1792 B.C. Through war and diplomacy, Hammurabi subdued all of Mesopotamia under Babylonian rule by 1755 B.C. His empire stretched from Syria to the Persian Gulf. Hammurabi called his empire Babylonia.
Besides Hammurabi’s famous law code, he focused on improving irrigation and control of water resources, building massive temples and engaging in public works such as enlarging the double walls of the city. We discuss his life and law code a separate article.
Hammurabi’s empire lasted only his lifetime. The control he had established over Mesopotamia dwindled away until the city itself was sacked in 1595 B.C. by the Hittites. Kassites, a mountain people from Iran, later took the city and conquered the rest of Mesopotamia as well. Under the Kassite dynasty, Babylon became a great cultural center of learning, producing texts on mathematics, medicine and astrology. The Kassites called Babylon by the name Karanduniash. Kassite control of the city lasted 435 years, with periodic episodes of Assyrian or Elamite conquests.
Assyrians controlled Babylon from 911 to 608 B.C. Under the Assyian king, Sennacherib, Babylon rebelled. Sennacherib destroyed the city, razing its walls, temples and palaces to the ground. This act shocked the religious peoples of Mesopotamia, and his sons murdered Sennacherib to atone for his sin. They then proceeded to rebuild Babylon.
A Chaldean king took control of Babylon after the fall of the Assyrian Empire circa 612 B.C. King Nabopolassar used diplomacy and alliances to build the Neo-Babylonian Empire out of the remains of the fallen Assyrian empire. King Nebuchadnezzar II, his son, began renovating and building on a grand scale in Babylon until it covered 2,200 acres with a population perhaps reaching 200,000.
Under Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon became one of the wonders of the world. He rebuilt the Etemenanki ziggurat (also known as the Tower of Bable), the magnificent Ishtar Gate and is credited with creating the famed Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Scholars, however, dispute whether the Hanging Gardens existed in Babylon or in the Assyrian city of Ninevah.
Babylonian rule of Babylon ended in 539 B.C. when the Persian army under Cyrus the Great conquered the city in the Battle of Opis. Babylon retained its glory as a center of learning and culture as a province of the Persian Empire.
Alexander the Great conquered the city in 331 B.C., dying there in Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in 323 B.C. The city was taken by the Parthians in 141 B.C., then back to the Persians and finally became part of the Muslim world in the mid-7th century A.D.
This article is part of our larger resource on Mesopotamian culture, society, economics, and warfare. Click here for our comprehensive article on ancient Mesopotamia.