The Egyptians under Necho II had invaded the Near East in 609 B.C. in a belated attempt to help their former Assyrian rulers. Nabopolassar, with the help of his son and future successor Nebuchadnezzar II, spent the last years of his reign dislodging the Egyptians, who were supported by Greek mercenaries and the remnants of the Assyrian army. Nebuchadnezzar II proved to be a capable and energetic military leader, and the Egyptians, Assyrians, and there mercenary allies were finally defeated by the Babylonians, Medes, and Scythians at the Battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C. The Babylonians were now left in possession of much of Assyria, with the northern reaches being held by the Medes.
Shortly after the Battle of Carchemish, Nabopolassar died and Nebuchadnezzar II became king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. He immediately besieged Jerusalem. King Jehoiakim, who had supported the Egyptians, quickly changed sides to avoid the destruction of Jerusalem. He paid tribute from the Temple artifacts, and some of the royal family and nobility were traded as hostages. A subsequent failure of a Babylonian invasion into Egypt undermined Babylonian control in the area, and after three-years, Jehoiakim switched sides back to the Egyptians and quit paying the tribute to Babylon. In 599 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar II invaded Judah and again laid siege to Jerusalem. In 598 B.C., Jehoiakim died during the siege and was succeeded by his son, Jehoiachin. Jerusalem fell within three months. Jehoiachin was deposed by Nebuchadnezzar II, who installed Zedekiah, Jehoiachin's uncle, in his place.
For the next few years, his attention was devoted to subduing his eastern and northern borders, and in 595 B.C., there was a serious but brief rebellion in Babylon itself. In 594 B.C., the army was sent again to the west, possibly in reaction to the rise of Psammetichus II to the throne of Egypt. King Zedekiah of Judah attempted to organize opposition among the small states in the region and was soon invaded by Nebuchadnezzar II who began a siege of Jerusalem in December of 589 B.C.
Nebuchadnezzar II succeeded in capturing Jerusalem, 30 months later, and the city was plundered and razed to the ground. The Temple of Solomon was also plundered and destroyed. It is at this time that the Ark of the Covenant could have been carried off to Babylon, as it disappears from history. Most of the population was deported back to Babylon – during what is known as the Babylonian Captivity – leaving only a small number of farmers and sheep herders in the land. When the Canaanite city of Tyre finally fell after a siege in 585 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar II had consolidated his empire.
He then engaged in monumental building projects which renovated and refurbished thirteen of his cities completely, but he put the greatest effort into Babylon. By 600 B.C., Babylon was so impressive that it was considered the center of the World. The great temples and monuments were made accessible by new roads and special attention was given to the creation of the Processional Way for the Festival of Marduk during which the god's statue was taken from the temple and paraded through the city and beyond the gates. This road was 70 feet wide and traveled from the temple complex in the heart of the city out through the Ishtar Gate in the north, a distance of over ½ mile in length. The Ishtar Gate had walls rising over 50 feet on either side, which were decorated with over 120 images of lions, dragons, bulls, and flowers in yellow and black glazed bricks. The gate itself depicted only gods and goddesses. These included Ishtar, Adad, and Marduk. The walls of Babylon and the Ishtar Gate were considered so impressive that some ancient writers claimed they should have been included on the list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Babylon was included on that list, but for a different attraction: The Hanging Gardens.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon is the only one of the Ancient Wonders whose existence is disputed. No archaeological evidence has been found and the only known reports of them come from after Babylon's Fall. Nebuchadnezzar II is said to have created the Gardens for his Median wife who missed the landscape of her homeland. This was attested to by the Babylonian priest Berossus, writing in about 290 B.C., the oldest description of the Gardens that was later quoted by Josephus.
“In this place he erected very high walks, supported by stone pillars; and by
planting what was called a pensile paradise, and replenishing it with all sorts
of trees, he rendered the prospect an exact resemblance of a mountainous
country.” - Josephus quoting Berossus
The Gardens, as depicted in artworks, featured blossoming flowers, fruit trees, waterfalls, and high terraces with rich foliage; which included many imported plant varieties. Some of these plants were suspended over the terraces and dropped over its walls with arches underneath. The Gardens in Babylon would have been part of the central complex of the city. The Euphrates River divided the city in two between an 'old' and a 'new' city with the Temple of Marduk and the Great Towering Ziggurat in the center where, most likely, the Gardens were also located. There is some debate that the Hanging Gardens may have actually been in Nineveh and constructed by Sennacherib. But this may have been a precursor to those later created by Nebuchadnezzar II.
Nebuchadnezzar II envisioned a city that people would view in wonder and then made that a vision a reality. He died peacefully in the city he built after a reign of 43 years, but Babylon would not last even another 25 years after his death in 562 B.C.
After a series of weak rulers, the throne passed to Nabonidus, who was Assyrian and from the city of Haran. He writes in his inscriptions that he came from unimportant origins. His mother, who lived to a high age, was most likely a priestess for the Akkadian moon-god Sin. He quickly became very unpopular in Babylon after he began suppressing the Marduk priesthood in favor for his mother's cult. Nabonidus would leave Babylon for long periods of time while entrusting rule to his son, Belshazzar. This angered the Babylonians even more who began to look for an alternative ruler.
To the east, the Persians were rising and soon the Neo-Babylonian Empire would meet its greatest threat: The Persian King, Cyrus the Great.
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