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Do you remember Bony M singing By the Rivers of Babylon? You can listen and watch the video online[1], featuring Bony M, a very popular reggae, Euro-Caribbean vocal group during the disco era of the late 1970s. The lyrics are adapted from the texts of Psalms 19 and 137 in the Hebrew Bible:

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion…

A person wearing a crown and holding a microphone

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Picture Credit: Screenshot from the video.

The 1978 Boney M cover version was awarded a platinum disc and is one of the top-ten all-time best-selling singles in the UK. The B-side of the single, “Brown Girl in the Ring”, also became a big hit.

But this paper is about Babylon – how it went from one of the most famous cities in antiquity, the largest city on Earth, to a crumbling ruin, most of which is now under the river.

Where was Babylon?[2] says Babylonia was a state in ancient Mesopotamia. The city of Babylon, whose ruins are located in present-day Iraq, was founded more than 4,000 years ago as a small port town on the Euphrates River. It grew into one of the largest cities of the ancient world under the rule of Hammurabi. Several centuries later, a new line of kings established a Neo-Babylonian Empire that spanned from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. During this period, Babylon became a city of beautiful and lavish buildings. Biblical and archaeological evidence point toward the forced exile of thousands of Jews to Babylon.

Babylon was the capital of southern Mesopotamia (Babylonia) from the early 2nd Millennium to the early 1st Millennium BC and the capital of the Neo-Babylonian (Chaldean) empire in the 7th and 6th centuries BC, when it was at the height of its splendour. Its extensive ruins, on the Euphrates River about 55 miles (88 km) south of Baghdad, lie near the modern town of Al-Ḥillah, Iraq.[3]

Religious Background
Psalm 137 is a lament of longing for a community torn from home. In 586 BC, the Babylonian empire conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the first Temple built by King Solomon, and uprooted many people, deporting them hundreds of miles to the east. This tragedy is mourned in the Psalm, which includes such famous lines as “By the rivers of Babylon” and “If I forget you, O Jerusalem.” This Psalm is well known from Jewish liturgy and from popular music (from Bach to the famous reggae song from the 1970s). The Psalm is recited on the eve of Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the Temples and this ancient Psalm, older than the kinot (a passionate expression of grief or sorrow), captures the pain of exile from the Land of Israel.

Babylon also appears prominently in the biblical books of Daniel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, among others, and, most notably, The Book of Revelation. It was these biblical references that sparked interest in Mesopotamian archaeology and the expedition by the German archaeologist Robert Koldewey who first excavated the ruins of Babylon in 1899 AD[4].

Babylon was a very large city in its heyday
A HowStuffWorks article[5] says that at the height of Babylon’s glory in the 7th and 6th centuries BC, the city was the largest and wealthiest in the ancient world. It was the capital city of the ancient Babylonian empire, which refers to either of two separate empires in the Mesopotamian area in antiquity. These two empires achieved regional dominance between the 19th and 15th centuries BC and between the 7th and 6th centuries BC. The city, built along both banks of the Euphrates river, had steep embankments to contain the river’s seasonal floods.

The earliest known mention of Babylon as a small town appears on a clay tablet from the reign of Sargon of Akkad (2334–2279 BC) of the Akkadian Empire. The site of the ancient city lies just south of present-day Baghdad.

King Hammurabi
The Amorite king Hammurabi founded the short-lived Old Babylonian Empire in the 18th century BC. He built Babylon into a powerful and influential city and declared himself its king. Southern Mesopotamia became known as Babylonia, and Babylon eclipsed Nippur as the region’s holy city. The empire waned under Hammurabi’s son Samsu-iluna, and Babylon spent long periods under Assyrian, Kassite and Elamite domination.

King Hammurabi created one of the world’s earliest and most complete written legal codes, much of which is still used today. Known as the Code of Hammurabi, it helped Babylon surpass other cities in the region.

Code of Hammurabi: Persia (approx. 1771 BC)
In late 1901 and early 1902, archaeologists found a 2.25-metre tall basalt or diorite stele in three pieces inscribed with 4,130 lines of cuneiform law dictated by Hammurabi (circa 1792–1750 BC) of the First Babylonian Empire in Persia. The Code of Hammurabi is a collection of 282 rules that established standards for commercial interactions and set fines and punishments to meet justice requirements.

The code includes many harsh penalties – sometimes demanding the removal of the guilty party’s tongue, hands, breasts, eye or ear. But it is also one of the earliest examples of an accused person being considered innocent until proven guilty. All 282 rules are written in the ‘if then’ format – such as, if a man steals an ox, then he must pay back 30 times its value.

After the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, the city came under the rule of the Achaemenid, Seleucid, Parthian, Roman and Sassanid empires. Babylon was the largest city in the world, c. 1770 – c. 1670 BC, and again c. 612 – c. 320 BC. It was perhaps the first city to reach a population above 200,000. And it was large – covering as much as 890 to 900 hectares (2,200 acres). After the Assyrians had destroyed and then rebuilt Babylon, it became the capital of the short-lived Neo-Babylonian Empire, a neo-Assyrian successor state, from 609 to 539 BC.

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A hand-coloured engraving, probably made in the 19th century after the first excavations in the Assyrian capitals, depicts the fabled Hanging Gardens, with the Tower of Babel in the background
Attribution: Unknown author, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon[6]
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon is ranked as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, listed by the culture of Ancient Greece. They were described as a remarkable feat of engineering with an ascending series of tiered gardens containing a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and vines, resembling a large green mountain constructed of mud bricks. It was said to have been built in the ancient city of Babylon, near present-day Hillah, Babil province, in Iraq. The Hanging Gardens’ name is derived from the Greek word kremastós, meaning ‘overhanging’), which has a broader meaning than the modern English word “hanging” and refers to trees being planted on a raised structure such as a terrace.[7]

According to one legend, the Hanging Gardens were built alongside a grand palace known as The Marvel of Mankind, by the Neo-Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II (who ruled between 605 and 562 BC), for his wife Queen Amytis (from Medes[8]) because she missed the green hills and valleys of her homeland. This was attested to by the Babylonian priest Berossus, writing in about 290 BC, a description that was later quoted by Josephus. The construction of the Hanging Gardens has also been attributed to the legendary queen Semiramis, and they have been called the Hanging Gardens of Semiramis as an alternative name[9].

The only one of the Seven Wonders for which the location has not been definitively established is Babylon’s Hanging Gardens. No remaining Babylonian texts mention the gardens, and no definitive archaeological evidence has been found in Babylon itself[10]. Three theories have been suggested to account for this:

  • first, that they were purely mythical, and the descriptions found in ancient Greek and Roman writings (including those of Diodorus Siculus, Strabo and Quintus Curtius Rufus) represented a romantic ideal of an eastern garden;
  • secondly, although they existed in Babylon, they were destroyed sometime around the 1st century AD; and
  • thirdly, the legend refers not to one in Babylon but a well-documented garden that the Assyrian King Sennacherib (704–681 BC) built in his capital city of Nineveh on the River Tigris, near the modern city of Mosul[11].

The Tower of Babel[12]
The Tower of Babel narrative in the Old Testament (Genesis 11:1–9) is an origin myth that is meant to explain why the world’s peoples speak different languages.

According to the story, a united human race in the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating eastward, comes to the land of Shinar[13]. There they agree to build a city and a tower tall enough to reach heaven. God, observing their city and tower, confounds their speech so that they can no longer understand each other and scatters them around the world.

Tower of Babel
Picture Credit: “Tower of Babel” by ThomasThomas is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The phrase “Tower of Babel” does not appear in the Bible; it is always “the city and the tower” or just “the city”. The original derivation of the name Babel (also the Hebrew name for Babylon) is uncertain. The native, Akkadian name of the city was Bāb-ilim, meaning “gate of God”. However, that form and the interpretation itself are now usually thought to be the result of an Akkadian folk etymology applied to an earlier form of the name, Babilla, of unknown meaning and probably non-Semitic origin.[14] According to the Bible, the city received the name “Babel” from a Hebrew verb (bālal), meaning to jumble or to confuse.[15]

Dating the Tower of Babel
Some scholars use internal and external evidence to suggest 3500–3000 BC as a likely range for the date of the tower, based on five details included in the narrative:

  1. the event took place in Shinar, at Babylon in particular (vv. 2, 9).
  2. the event involved building a city with a tower (vv. 4, 5).
  3. the tower was constructed of baked brick (v. 3).
  4. the mortar used was asphalt (v. 3).
  5. Five, the tower was very probably a ziggurat[16].

The Fall of Babylon[17]
“The Fall of Babylon” denotes the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire after the Achaemenid Empire conquered it in 539 BC. Nabonidus (556–539 BC), son of the Assyrian priestess Adda-Guppi, came to the throne in 556 BC after overthrowing the young king Labashi-Marduk. For long periods he entrusted rule to his son, prince and coregent Belshazzar who, although a capable soldier, was a poor politician – leaving him unpopular with many of his subjects, particularly the priesthood and the military class. To the east, the Achaemenid Empire had been growing in strength. In 539 BC, Cyrus the Great invaded Babylonia, turning it into a satrapy[18] of the Achaemenid Empire. Cyrus then claimed to be the legitimate successor of the ancient Babylonian kings and became popular in Babylon itself, in contrast to Nabonidus.

Several factors arose, ultimately leading to the fall of Babylon. The population of Babylonia became restive and increasingly disaffected under Nabonidus. The Marduk priesthood hated Nabonidus because he suppressed Marduk’s cult and his elevation of the cult of the moon-god Sin. He engendered a strong feeling against himself by attempting to centralise the religion of Babylonia in the Temple of Marduk at Babylon and thus alienated the local priesthoods. The military party also despised him on account of his antiquarian tastes. He seemed to have left the defence of his kingdom to Belshazzar while occupying himself with the more congenial work, like excavating foundation records of the temples and determining the dates of their builders. He also spent time outside Babylonia, rebuilding temples in the Assyrian city of Harran, and also among his Arab subjects in the deserts to the south of Mesopotamia. Nabonidus and Belshazzar’s Assyrian heritage is also likely to have added to this resentment. In addition, Mesopotamian military might had usually been concentrated in the martial state of Assyria. Babylonia had always been more vulnerable to conquest and invasion than its northern neighbour, and without the might of Assyria to keep foreign powers in check, Babylonia was ultimately exposed[19].

What’s left today?
The site at Babylon consists of several mounds covering an area of about two by one kilometres (1.24 miles × 0.62 miles), oriented north to south, along the Euphrates to the west. Originally, the river roughly bisected the city, but the course of the river has since shifted so that most of the remains of the former western part of the city are now inundated. Some portions of the city wall to the west of the river also remain.

Only a tiny portion of the ancient city (3% of the area within the inner walls; 1.5% of the area within the outer walls; 0.1% at a depth of Middle and Old Babylon) has been excavated. Archaeologists have recovered a few artefacts predating the Neo-Babylonian period. The water table in the region has significantly risen over the centuries, and artefacts from the time before the Neo-Babylonian Empire are unavailable to current standard archaeological methods. Additionally, the Neo-Babylonians conducted significant rebuilding projects in the city, which destroyed or obscured much of the earlier record. Sadly, Babylon was pillaged numerous times after revolting against foreign rule, most notably by the Hittites and Elamites in the 2nd Millennium, then by the Neo-Assyrian Empire and the Achaemenid Empire in the 1st Millennium. Much of the western half of the city is now beneath the river, and other parts of the site have been mined for commercial building materials.

Babylon is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site[20]
Babylon was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019. Babylon is situated 85 km south of Baghdad. The property includes the ruins of the city, which, between 626 and 539 BC, was the capital of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. It includes villages and agricultural areas surrounding the ancient city. Its remains, outer and inner-city walls, gates, palaces and temples, are a unique testimony to one of the most influential empires of the ancient world. The seat of successive empires, under rulers such as Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon represents the expression of the creativity of the Neo-Babylonian Empire at its height. The city’s association with one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—the Hanging Gardens—has also inspired artistic, popular and religious culture on a global scale.

Sources and Further Reading

Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon, Basalt, 1792-1750 BC
Picture Credit: “Code of Hammurabi, King of Babylon, Basalt, 1792-1750 BC” by Gary Lee Todd, Ph.D. is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

  1. At:
  2. At
  3. Source:
  4. Source:
  5. Source:
  6. See:
  7. Sources – (1) Stephanie Dalley (1993). “Ancient Mesopotamian Gardens and the Identification of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon Resolved”. Garden History. 21 (1): 7. JSTOR 1587050. (2) Reade, Julian (2000). “Alexander the Great and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon”. Iraq. 62: 195 217. doi 10.2307/4200490  ISSN 0021-0889JSTOR 4200490S2CID 194130782. (3) Foster, Karen Polinger (2004). “The Hanging Gardens of Nineveh”. Iraq. 66: 207–220. doi:10.2307/4200575ISSN 0021-0889JSTOR 4200575
  8. See:
  9. See: Cartwright M (July 2018). “Hanging Gardens of Babylon”. World History Encyclopedia.
  10. See: Finkel, Irving; Seymour, Michael (2008). Babylon: City of Wonders. London: British Museum Press. p. 52. ISBN 978-0-7141-1171-1.
  11. See: Dalley, Stephanie (2013). The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: an elusive World Wonder traced. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-966226-5.
  12. Source:
  13.  Shinar is the southern region of Mesopotamia in the Hebrew Bible.
  14. Sources: (1) Day, John (2014). From Creation to Babel: Studies in Genesis 1-11. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 179–180. ISBN 978-0-567-37030-3. (2) Dietz Otto Edzard: Geschichte Mesopotamiens. Von den Sumerern bis zu Alexander dem Großen, Beck, München 2004, p. 121.
  15. Source: John L. Mckenzie (1995). The Dictionary of the Bible. Simon and Schuster. p. 73. ISBN 978-0-684-81913-6.
  16. A Ziggurat (from Akkadian: ziqqurratum, meaning ‘to protrude, to build high’, is a type of massive structure built in ancient Mesopotamia. It has the form of a terraced compound of successively receding stories or levels. Notable ziggurats include the Great Ziggurat of Ur near Nasiriyah, the Ziggurat of Aqar Quf near Baghdad, the now destroyed Etemenanki in Babylon, Chogha Zanbil in Khūzestān and Sialk. The Sumerians believed that the Gods lived in the temple at the top of the Ziggurats, so only priests and other highly respected individuals could enter. Society offered them many things such as music, harvest, and creating devotional statues to leave in the temple. Source:
  17. Source:
  18. Satraps were the governors of the provinces of the ancient Median and Achaemenid Empires and in several of their successors, such as in the Sasanian Empire and the Hellenistic empires. The satrap served as viceroy to the king, though with considerable autonomy. Source:
  19. See:
  20. Description available under license CC-BY-SA IGO 3.0


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