Babylon rose from Mesopotamia: the land between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, just southwest of modern-day Baghdad, around 2000 BC. At the time, the people weren’t known as Babylonians, but Amorites. A chieftain named Sumu-abum declared him and his people independent from the neighboring city-state, Kazallu, and founded the first Babylonian dynasty. But Babylon was a minor city-state until the rule of its most famous ruler, Hammurabi.
Hammurabi improved the infrastructure of Babylon and expanded its borders through a series of alliances, betrayals, and conquests. He ruled his empire with a set of laws collected in the Code of Hammurabi, laws that detailed how crime and punishment should be handled. They were incredibly specific and rational: most of us are familiar with the expression “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” from the code, but they also detail prices for theft (stealing an ox is punishable by paying thirty times the original price), medical malpractice, and other offenses. Significantly, the Code contains within it the assumption of innocence until proven guilty, an innovation at that time.
Even though Hammurabi was often away on military campaigns, he continued to rule from a distance, allowing him to maintain a personal touch with his rapidly expanding empire. By the end of his forty-two-year reign, he controlled all of southern Mesopotamia. The city of Babylon was established as the capital of this empire, and it became the heart of wealth and power in Mesopotamia.
Babylon declined after Hammurabi’s passing in 1750 BC. None of his successors had the same vision, alliances, or military prowess to hold together the massive empire (at least none of them were deified during their lifetimes like Hammurabi was—it was a lot to live up to). Hammurabi’s immediate successor, Samsu-iluna, saw the empire Hammurabi built begin to collapse. The Assyrians pushed back against Hammurabi’s expansions, and his successors failed to hold the borders, reducing Babylon to a smaller city-state once again.
For the next few hundred years, Babylon was overthrown, sacked, and conquered multiple times. Crop failures, a lack of a strong ruler, and outside conflicts hampered the city’s ability to regain a steady foothold even within their borders. The Hittites, Kassites, Chaldeans, Aramaeans, and finally, the Assyrians all claimed the land for a time. Under the Kassites, Babylon was able to find some prosperity again (under the name “Karanduniash”), particularly in the areas of math, medicine, and astrology. They held the city for over four hundred years, until it was taken over by yet another conqueror.
During the later part of Assyrian-ruled Babylon, amid Assyrian king Sennacherib’s reign, Babylonia was in perpetual state of unrest and rebellion, which Sennacherib reasoned could only be stopped by razing the city. The city burned. Sennacherib broke down the walls and ruined the city, destroying its religious temples and palaces. Sennacherib’s own sons were shocked by what he’d done and murdered their father in penance before helping to rebuild the city.
King Nabopolassar of Chaldea began building up the city once again in 612 BC. He started by making alliances, and then his son, King Nebuchadnezzar II, built Babylon to become one of the most beautiful wonders of the ancient world. In a flurry of architectural artistry, Nebuchadnezzar built the Etemenanki ziggurat and the Ishtar Gate. It’s said he also commissioned the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for his wife, although the location has never been confirmed.
Like many other regions around 500 BC, Babylon fell to Cyrus the Great of Persia. Under King Cyrus II and eventually King Darius I, Babylon was made the capital city of the 9th Satrapy, or province, as well as the administrative capital of the Persian Empire. It once again became a city that catered to scholars and artists alike. For two hundred years, the city prospered. However, over time, the city revolted, particularly after taxes were increased without significant structural improvements to show for the money.
Babylon saw the conquest of Alexander the Great, who once again brought wealth and knowledge to the city. For twelve years, the echo of past golden ages rippled through the region. Following Alexander’s passing and ill-advised division of his empire to multiple generals, combined with the “transfer” of part of the population, the city-state once more fell into commercial insignificance.
Despite the cycles of conquest, destruction, and later rebuilding, Babylon remained firmly rooted within our historical memory thanks to its periods of academic and architectural prominence. Regardless of whether the Hanging Gardens once resided in Babylon, the city still boasts other architectural marvels. Despite periods of conquest, Babylon was never wholly razed or sowed with salt. Instead, the conquerors, to a degree, allowed some aspects to remain. Pieces of the Ishtar gate, tablets, and even floor are still found at the ancient site, in present-day Iraq, waiting to be unearthed and, perhaps, built again.