Adversaries & Babylon: Heart of an Empire

Is this house going to take seven years to build like it did with Solomon?

Cyrus (580-529 B.C.) was the first Achaemenid Emperor.

he founded Persia by uniting the two original Iranian Tribes – the Medes and the Persians.

Although he was known to be a great conqueror, who at one point controlled one of the greatest Empires ever seen, he is best remembered for his unprecedented tolerance and magnanimous attitude towards those he defeated.

“Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity builded the temple unto the Lord God of Israel;

Then they came to Zerubbabel, and to the chief of the fathers, and said unto them, Let us build with you: for we seek your God, as ye do; and we do sacrifice unto him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assur, which brought us up hither.

But Zerubbabel, and Jeshua, and the rest of the chief of the fathers of Israel, said unto them, Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto the Lord God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia hath commanded us.

Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building,

And hired counsellors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.

And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, wrote they unto him an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.

And in the days of Artaxerxes wrote Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel, and the rest of their companions, unto Artaxerxes king of Persia; and the writing of the letter was written in the Syrian tongue, and interpreted in the Syrian tongue” (Ezra 4:1-7). 

The chancellor Rehum, the scribe Shimshai, the Dinaites, the Apharsathchites, the Tarpelites, the Apharsites, the Archevites, the Babylonians, the Susanchites, the Dehavites, the Elamites, and the rest of the people under the rule of Asnappar wrote a letter to King Artaxeres against Jerusalem:

Darius the Great
Born in 550 B.C., Darius I (known as Darrioush in Persian, and Darayarahush) was the son of Hystapes, a satrap (governor) of Parthia, located in present-day Iran.

he was a member of the Achaemenid family.

Cyrus the Great and his son, Cambyses II, also belonged to the Achaemenid family, but to a different branch.

His administrative skill – and his intelligent and tolerant leadership – earned Darius I the title of Darius the Great.

He built the magnificent city of Persepolis and left behind inscriptions telling the story of his successes.

“Be it known unto the king, that the Jews which came up from thee to us are come unto Jerusalem, building the rebellious and the bad city, and have set up the walls thereof, and joined the foundations.

Be it known now unto the king, that, if this city be builded, and the walls set up again, then will they not pay toll, tribute, and custom, and so thou shalt endamage the revenue of the kings.

Now because we have maintenance from the king’s palace, and it was not meet for us to see the king’s dishonour, therefore have we sent and certified the king;

That search may be made in the book of the records of thy fathers: so shalt thou find in the book of the records, and know that this city is a rebellious city, and hurtful unto kings and provinces, and that they have moved sedition within the same of old time: for which cause was this city destroyed.

We certify the king that, if this city be builded again, and the walls thereof set up, by this means thou shalt have no portion on this side the river” (Ezra 4:12-16).

The king explained that the letter had been read to him and his response was:

“…I commanded, and search hath been made, and it is found that this city of old time hath made insurrection against kings, and that rebellion and sedition have been made therein.

There have been mighty kings also over Jerusalem, which have ruled over all countries beyond the river; and toll, tribute, and custom, was paid unto them.

Give ye now commandment to cause these men to cease, and that this city be not builded, until another commandment shall be given from me.

Take heed now that ye fail not to do this: why should damage grow to the hurt of the kings?” (Ezra 4:19-22).

Babylon: Heart of an Empire

The Neo-Babylonian Empire (also Second Babylonian Empire) was a period of Mesopotamian history which began in 626 BC and ended in 539 BC.] During the preceding three centuries, Babylonia had been ruled by their fellow Akkadian speakers and northern neighbors, Assyria.

A year after the death of the last strong Assyrian ruler, Ashurbanipal, in 627 BC, the Assyrian empire spiralled into a series of brutal civil wars. Babylonia rebelled under Nabopolassar.

In alliance with the Medes, Persians, Scythians and Cimmerians, they sacked the city of Nineveh in 612 BC, and the seat of empire was transferred to Babylonia for the first time since the death of Hammurabi in the mid-18th century BC. This period witnessed a general improvement in economic life and agricultural production, and a great flourishing of architectural projects, the arts and science.

The Neo-Babylonian period ended with the reign of Nabonidus in 539 BC. To the east, the Persians had been growing in strength, and eventually Cyrus the Great conquered the empire.

Mighty Babylon reached its zenith shortly after 600 B.C. under the generous patronage of the Neo-Babylonian kings.  Having suffered devastation in 689 B.C. at the hands of Sennacherib, Babylon began to rise again.

The Chaldean kings Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar endowed the city with monuments worthy of the capital of a glorious empire.  About 450 B.C. the Greek historian Herodotus wrote that Babylon “was adorned in a manner surpassing any city we are acquainted with.”

Babylon’s strategic location on the Euphrates River gave the city control of important converging caravan routes as well as the river traffic.  The river ran through Babylon, bisecting the city into two unequal parts.  

The heart of the ancient city lay on the eastern bank where the most important civic buildings were located. Nebuchadnezzar annexed the west bank, which was mostly residential.  

A massive bridge mounted on great boat-shaped piers spanned the Euphrates to connect the two sectors.A grid of streets and canals gave access to all parts of the city.  Herodotus was especially impressed with the fortifications of Babylon.

Excavations have generally confirmed the description of Herodotus.  A double wall composed of mud brick encircled the eastern and western sectors to form a rough rectangle enclosing approximately four square miles.  

The inner wall was 6.5 meters thick and stood higher than the outer wall, which was 3.7 meters thick.  A space between the two walls perhaps could have been used to move troops and chariots as implied in Herodotus’ description.  

Numerous towers protruded from the wall at regular intervals of sixty-five feet.  Twenty meters beyond the outer wall stood a moat drawing water from the Euphrates. Nebuchadnezzar erected another fortification on the eastern bank to give additional protection to his capital.

The wall began in the north near the “Summer Palace” and extended east and south of the inner city, where it met the Euphrates.  Nine gates pierced the double wall, giving access to the inner city.

The gates were named after various gods and goddesses sacred to Babylon (Ishtar, Marduk, Sin, Enlil, Urash, Shamash, Adad, Zababa, and Lugalgirra).

The ancient city center lay on the east bank in an area covering slightly less than a square mile.  Here the venerable temples of ancient Babylon and the great palaces of her kings all were located.

The famous Ishtar Gate, now reconstructed in the Berlin Museum, allowed entrace to the city from the north along the royal “Processional Street.” Over sixty feet in width in some places, this street was used during the all-important New Year’s festival and passed by the major civic building of the inner city.

The Ishtar Gate consisted of two pairs of flanking towers covered with deep-blue glazed bricks.   Brightly colored brick reliefs depicting dragons and bulls decorated the façade of the gate.  In addition, the facades of the buildings fronting the “Processional Street” were similarly decorated with great lions.

Hecate or Hekate is a goddess in ancient Greek religion and mythology, most often shown holding a pair of torches or a key and in later periods depicted in triple form. She was variously associated with crossroads, entrance-ways, light, magic, witchcraft, knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants, ghosts, necromancy, and sorcery.

She appears in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and in Hesiod’s Theogony, where she is promoted strongly as a great goddess. The place of origin of her following is uncertain, but it is thought that she had popular followings in Thrace.

Hecate was one of the main deities worshiped in Athenian households as a protective goddess and one who bestowed prosperity and daily blessings on the family. In the post-Christian writings of the Chaldean Oracles (2nd–3rd century CE) she was regarded with (some) rulership over earth, sea, and sky, as well as a more universal role as Saviour (Soteira), Mother of Angels and the Cosmic World Soul.

Regarding the nature of her cult, it has been remarked, “she is more at home on the fringes than in the center of Greek polytheism. Intrinsically ambivalent and polymorphous, she straddles conventional boundaries and eludes definition.”

The main palace of the Neo-Babylonian kings stood just inside the Ishtar Gate on the west. This sprawling complex (approximately thirteen acres) begun by Nebuchadnezzar included state rooms, royal quarters, garrisons  for the royal bodyguard,  storage rooms, and administrative workplaces. 

The palace consisted of five sections, with each section grouped around a courtyard.  The third courtyard was the largest (218 x 180 feet) and stood in the center of the complex.  South of this court, the excavators discovered an adjoining throne room (170 x 56 feet) entered through three portals.

Fragmentary walls and columns along with a multitude of broken tiles give glimpses of royal splendor. Glazed bricks of blues, browns, yellows, and black adorned the great hall.

The architects used many motifs – serpents, scorpions, rosettes, and lions – for decoration. This room, or possibly one of the other state rooms, perhaps was the scene where Belshazzar witnessed the mysterious writing on the wall that announced the fate of the Babylonian Empire (Dan. 5).

Ruins of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

The Babylonians built many temples to their gods and goddesses; over 40y are known from Babylonian texts, but only a few have been excavated.  A temple to Ninmah, the goddess of the underworld, stood inside the Ishtar Gate across from the palace.  

The temple of Ishtar of Agade and a shrine to Ninurta also have been recovered.  The most important temple in Babylon was the temple of Marduk, known as Esagila (“House of the Uplifted Head”).  

Excavations have reached only portions of the temple, whose ruins lie buried deep within one of the mounds of the ancient city.  A double wall surrounded the temple, marking off the sacred territory of the god.

Ancilliary buildings for the priests and functionaries as well as smaller shrines to other deities were found within the enclosure.  Nebuchadnezzar boasted that he covered the walls of Marduk’s shrine with gold, inset with precious stones.

Herodotus states that two golden statues of Marduk – one seated and another standing – were kept in this temple, though he did not see them.

Undoubtedly the most imposing structure in Babylon was the ziggurat known as Etemenanki – “Building of the foundation of Heaven and Earth.”

Ziggurats or “temple-towers” were a feature of Mesopotamian cities as far back as the third millennium. The ziggurat stood within its own large sacred enclosure north of Esagila.  

Virtually nothing survives of the structure made of sun-dried and baked bricks, and scholars must depend primarily on ancient descriptions to reconstruct this famous landmark.  The ziggurat consisted of a square base (three hundred feet to each side) supporting a series of six levels, each level an increasingly smaller square.  Each level may have been a different color.

A temple to Marduk crowned the top of the ziggurat, with at least one Flight of stairs giving access to the sanctuary.  The total height was slightly less than three hundred feet.  Ancilliary buildings around the ziggurat provided living quarters, storage rooms, and administrative space necessary for the cult. Nothing survives of the famous “Hanging Gardens” of Babylon, one of the wonders of the ancient world.

The impressive remains excavated thus far reveal evidence of the power and opulence of Nabopolassar and his successors.  The capture of Babylon by Cyrus in 539 B.C., however, began a long period of decline.

Xerxes destroyed the ziggurat and removed the great statue of Marduk in response to rebellion in 482 B.C. Alexander the Great tried to restore the Esagila, but his death cut short other projects.  

Under the Ptolemies, Babylon’s economic fortunes declined, though the city remained important as a religious center.  New Testament writers use the name Babylon as a symbol for forces opposed to God’s kingdom (Rev 14:8).

By the early Christian era the site of Babylon lay deserted.