Babylon was one of the most famous and influential cities of ancient Mesopotamia dating back to the third millennia BCE. It was the capital of several empires and the center of culture, religion, and commerce for thousands of years. Today, its ruins are located in Iraq, near the modern town of Hilla and on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, about 85 km south of Baghdad, and it is open to visitors who want to explore its rich heritage and culture. The earliest known mention of Babylon as a small town appears on a clay tablet from the reign of Shar-Kali-Sharri (2217–2193 BCE) of the Akkadian Empire.
Babylon’s history spans nearly two millennia, from its founding in the third millennia BCE by the Akkadian-speaking people of southern Mesopotamia, to its fall to the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 539 BCE. During this time, Babylon rose and fell several times, experiencing periods of glory and decline under different rulers and dynasties.
One of the most notable rulers of Babylon was Hammurabi, who reigned from 1792 to 1750 BCE. He is famous for his code of laws, which is one of the oldest and most comprehensive legal codes in history. Hammurabi also expanded Babylon’s territory and made it the capital of a large empire that encompassed much of southern Mesopotamia and part of Assyria.
Another period of greatness for Babylon was under the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which lasted from 626 to 539 BCE. This empire was founded by Nabopolassar, who rebelled against the Assyrian domination and liberated Babylon. Babylon faced many invasions and conquests by foreign powers, such as the Hittites, the Kassites, the Assyrians, and the Persians. However, it also experienced periods of revival and prosperity, especially under the Neo-Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar II, who rebuilt the city and constructed its famous Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Babylon was also a center of learning and science, where astronomers, mathematicians, and scribes developed advanced knowledge and skills.
The name Babylon means “Gate of the Gods” in Akkadian, the language of the ancient Mesopotamians. The city was founded in the late 3rd millennium BC by the Amorites, a Semitic people who migrated from Arabia. Babylon reached its peak of glory under the rule of Hammurabi, who established a code of laws that influenced later civilizations. He also expanded his kingdom to include most of southern Mesopotamia and parts of Assyria.
Babylon was not only a political and military center, but also a cultural and religious one. It was home to many temples dedicated to various gods and goddesses, such as Marduk, Ninmakh, Ishtar, Ea, and Sin. The most important temple was the Esagila, which housed the ziggurat or tower called Etemenanki. This tower was believed to be the model for the biblical Tower of Babel, a symbol of human pride and ambition. Babylon was also known for its astronomy, mathematics, literature, art, and architecture.
Today, Babylon’s legacy lives on in its rich history and culture, which have inspired many works of art and literature. The city also has a symbolic meaning in various religions and traditions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Babylon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2019, and efforts are being made to preserve and restore its archaeological remains for future generations.
The World Heritage Committee inscribed 29 new sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List during its 43rd session (30 June 2019 – 10 July 2019) in Baku, Azerbaijan, which includes Babylon of Iraq. Iraq had been lobbying since 1983 for the 4,000-year-old site to be added to the United Nations’ prestigious list. Unesco previously declined to list Babylon as a World Heritage Site on the grounds that restoration and rebuilding work carried out there under the regime of the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had badly distorted the original ruins. (Source: BBC)
We decided to visit the ruins of Babylon after visiting Karbala. The summer is extremely hot in Iraq and the temperature was hovering around 50 degrees Celsius but still, we went ahead with our plan to visit the world heritage city of Babylon.
When we reached there, it was afternoon with the temperature at its peak. It was unbearable when we were walking among the stone structures. The temperature was a few degrees higher with the stones radiating the heat. Also, we were feeling the heat through the shoe-soles. At one point of time, even mobiles stopped to work as they were getting exposed to heat and direct sun while clicking photographs. I had two mobiles, so I started using them in alternate. The feeling of being at the place which was once the centre of one of the greatest civilisations enabled us to bear the intolerable heat.
One of my colleagues, Sarah asked me: “Did no one tell you that you’re crazy?” I replied to her: “There was nobody else to say that😁😁.”
Before reaching the site, we were stopped by Army people. They questioned our driver and checked our passports and recorded the details. Then we reached the gate of the site on the highway. We were stopped again and our passports were taken. That guard called someone. A gentleman arrived in his car. They discussed something and we were asked to follow the car from the gate. We stopped in front of a replica of the famous Ishtar Gate. Two more people walked out. The passports were handed over to another person. We were told to pay IQD 25,000 ($21) each for the entry fees. The person recorded the passport details and then returned our passports. We felt relieved. We were the only three visitors in this scorching Iraqi summer afternoon and may be the scrutiny was tightened as they found some crazy people! Maybe our zeal to visit the heritage site intrigued them or it could be a normal security procedure.
The other person was a guide. His name is Abu Zainab Maki. He took us inside through the gate and narrated the details with lots of history. Later, he told us that he is a History graduate and from discussions with him we found that he has a good knowledge of Mesopotamian history. It was nice talking to him.
The Ishtar Gate is named so, because it was dedicated to Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love, fertility, and war, although Nebuchadnezzar pays homage to other Babylonian deities through various animal representations.
The front of the gate is adorned with glazed bricks with alternating rows of dragons and bulls. The beasts are furnished in yellow and brown tiles, while the bricks surrounding them are blue.
The gate’s imposing effect was achieved not only by size but by bold color and fine craftsmanship: Its striking enamelled tiles bore reliefs of animals: lions, dragons, and bulls, arranged in tiers. Lions are often associated with Ishtar, bulls with Adad, and dragons with Marduk.
The gate and the Processional Way served mostly a religious purpose for the New Year procession, which marked the beginning of the agricultural year and featured religious festivals and rituals. The relief representations in the walls are lions were the symbol of the goddess Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. Other ancient Babylonian gods that appear in the bricks are Adud and Marduk, illustrated in the Bull and the Dragon, respectively.
The street is long and is divided into three parts. The first and the third parts are surrounded by fences to prevent people from entering. The original tiles are still in situ! Our guide had the keys and he opened the locks for us to go inside the fenced area. He said that he loves Indians!
In ancient Babylon, the new year started with the spring equinox and marked the beginning of the agricultural season (Akitu). The Gate of Ishtar and the Processional Way were built around 675 BCE and was commissioned by King Nebuchadnezzar II. The Processional Way was used for the New Year’s celebration, through which statues of the deities would parade down and the path paved with red and yellow stones. Each one of these stones has an inscription underneath: a small prayer from King Nebuchadnezzar to the chief god Marduk. It was this processional way that led to the temple of Marduk.
Ishtar Gate, in a depression a little short way off the Street of Processions, still has some of its old wall decorations of bulls, symbol of Adad, god of storms, and dragons, symbol of Marduk, the chief god. The dragon here is a composite animal with the physical attributes of snake, lion and eagle. These brick relieves are not glazed, as the beautiful glazed-brick panels figuring bulls, and dragons and lions (symbol of Ishtar) which decorated the Gate, the Palace and the Street of Processions were all taken, prior to World War I, to Berlin by the German expedition which excavated Babylon then.
Nebuchadnezzar II commissioned the construction of the gate in the late 6th century BCE as a symbol of his personal power and the power of the Babylonian empire, and the Processional Way is a tribute to the omnipotence of the gods to whom everything was subject.
The Babylonian king installed a plaque on the gate explaining its purpose and design: “I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendour so that people might gaze on them in wonder.”
Among the well-preserved status of the bricks during the initial excavation is perhaps the most valuable artefact, which are the brick fragments with inscriptions containing statements from Nebuchadnezzar II. The inscription provides the reason for the construction of such a magnificent gate and other works, which in his own words is so “Mankind might gaze upon them in wonder”.
The Processional Way and Ishtar Gate of the ancient city of Babylon functioned to glorify the city of Babylon and exemplified the inordinate cultural advancements under King Nebuchadnezzar II, and was directly commission as a means to make the city one of the wonders of the ancient world.
At the right side of the Processional Way lies the Ninmakh temple. Ninmakh was the mother goddess in ancient Mesopotamia. The temple was built by Nebuchadnezzar II circa 575 BCE. It is situated east of the Ishtar Gate and was called e-mah (great temple) of the mother goddess Ninmakh. Ninmakh means the Great Lady.
The central courtyard of the temple, characterised with the presence of the holy well. The inner sanctum of the temple of Ninmakh was restricted for women only, who would gather in the sacred precinct of the temple and pray for good marriages and married women would pray for offspring among other worship rituals. The women also used the water from this well for ritual bathing and for purification. It was one of the several sacred wells located in the sacred precincts around the city.
The walls elsewhere were made of square stones but the temple walls were built with burnt mud bricks because the temple is for the god or goddess and thus had to be purified.
The Lion of Babylon is a symbol of ancient and modern Iraq, representing its rich cultural heritage and national identity. The statue, made of black basalt and dating back to the sixth century BCE, depicts a lion crushing a human enemy under its paws.
This stone sculpture was built by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II. The lion was associated with Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love and war, and also symbolized the power and authority of the Babylonian kings.
In the sculpture, the lion’s back has marks indicating that it was meant for a precious saddle upon which the goddess Ishtar would stand.
The statue was rediscovered in the late eighteenth century and has since become one of the most celebrated archaeological artifacts in the region. The Lion of Babylon has also inspired various artistic and political expressions, such as the coat of arms of the Kingdom of Iraq and the name of an Iraqi tank brigade during the Gulf War.
The southern palace was 1,065 feet (325 m) by 720 feet (220 m) in size. It included a throne room with a glazed brick panel showing palmettes, floral reliefs and lions. The throne and room tiles are now on display at the Berlin museum.
The entry hall into the palace was acoustically constructed with walls at such a distance that sound echoes. This was done to alert the guards of intruders into the palace. Further claps were used to alert the guards. That’s an amazing architectural masterpiece at that time.
The king also had a northern palace (which hasn’t been fully excavated) and a summer palace, on the northern tip of the outer wall.
The palace was also protected by a maze to confuse the enemies intruding the palace while the palace guards could watch them and kill them from the top of the walls.
On the other side of the highway outside the entry gate to the Babylon site, is the Marduk temple. We were told that there is nothing there and due to hot sun, we also didn’t go inside and returned home. It was seeming that our faces were burning inside the skin. If possible, we may visit again on some cooler days.
It’s pathetic to see how such a heritage site has been destroyed over the period. German archaeologists excavated the remains of the gate in the early twentieth century and reconstructed it in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum using original bricks. The Iraqi government has put up a replica of the gate. Other artefacts are now on display in the Pergamon Museum. There are several museums in the world that have received portions of the Ishtar Gate: the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, the Detroit Institute of Art, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Louvre, Munich’s State Museum of Egyptian Art, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Oriental Institute of Chicago, and many others.
In the early 1980s, former Iraqi leader Saddam razed a large part of the ancient city in order to build a replica on top of some of the original ruins. After the Gulf War, he also built an extravagant modern palace for himself on another part of the ruins, overlooking the main site.
According to a UN report, American troops and contractors caused substantial damage to the archaeological site at Babylon in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The report says key structures were harmed and the site was subjected to “digging, cutting and levelling”.
There is a need to bring back the artefacts from the museums in the West to the original historical sites and recreate them in their original splendour to reconstruct the history. Will that be ever possible?
Visiting Babylon in Iraq was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I learned a lot about the ancient civilization that shaped human history and culture. I also felt a sense of awe and wonder at seeing the ruins of one of the greatest cities ever built. I highly recommend anyone who is interested in history and archaeology to visit Babylon in Iraq but do visit during winter.
15 thoughts on “Visit to Babylon, the Ancient Mesopotamian City”
Very well written. It seemed that I was walking along with you. 👍
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Thanks, Aro. Your comment is really a compliment.
Interesting site. Wish to visit some day.
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Iraq is full of ancient history, but unfortunately not properly maintained. But still it’s a treasure. Do visit one day.
Very nice pics. And 50C is really high. Should have kept chilled beer!
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Thanks, sir. It’s difficult to get other than in Baghdad. We had to manage with chilled water until we reached Baghdad.
Wow! Next time choose better weather
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Amazing! It’s a lifetime experience to visit the site which we read a lot in our schools.
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Yes Nilanjana, very true.
wow! Really interesting and beautiful pics. Cheers Stef
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