NEBUCHADNEZZAR'S BABYLON

Saturday, May 26, 2012


THE time of Babylon's greatest material wealth and splendour, and the period which is reflected in much of the later tradition about Babylon, was the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 B.C.). We are fortunate in having a fair amount of information about the city at this period, not only from Biblical and Greek tradition, but also from Nebuchadnezzar's own building inscriptions, and from the business, legal and administrative records of his reign. Important information has also been obtained from the excavation of the city itself, notably in the dig directed by the German, Robert Koldewey, between 1899 and 1917. Taken together, these strands of evidence give us a fairly clear outline of life in the Babylonian capital under Nebuchadnezzar II, though of course there are many details which we do not yet know and some which we may never know.

At the time of Nebuchadnezzar the city of Babylon spread out on both sides of the Euphrates. What we may call the 'old city' was the part on the east bank, and this was somewhat larger than the 'new city' opposite. Close by the east bank and in the centre of the city as a whole stood Etemenanki, 'House of the platform of Heaven and Earth', the great seven-storeyed ziggurrat or temple tower, already very old but splendidly rebuilt at this time. This was possibly the original behind the 'tower of Babel' story of the Bible (Genesis xi 1-9), though of course the Biblical tradition relates to a period over 2000 years before Nebuchadnezzar. This great tower, with a small temple on its summit, rose to a height of almost 300 feet and dominated the view across the plain for many miles around. The dimensions varied at different rebuildings, but excavations show its base at its maximum extent to have formed a square with sides of about 300 feet. This ziggurrat's main mass was of trodden clay, though there was a casing of burnt brick nearly 50 feet thick. A staircase about 30 feet wide led up to the first and second stages; how the higher stages were reached is not certain, but presumably there were further staircases or ramps.

Etemenanki stood in an enclosure surrounded by a continuous line of brick-built chambers or double walls. Some of these chambers were certainly store-rooms. Others were probably houses for priests and other persons engaged in the service of religion, or perhaps (some people have suggested) lodgings for pilgrims.

Just to the south of the Etemenanki enclosure, and intimately associated with it, was the great temple-complex of Esagila, 'House of the Raised Head'. This contained not only the principal shrine sacred to the city-god Marduk (otherwise called Bel, 'The Lord'), but also others sacred to Marduk's son Nabu and a number of other deities. We have accounts of Esagila and Etemenanki both from Greek writers and from cuneiform tablets, one of the latter giving a detailed account of the measurements of both structures.

Inside Esagila the main chapel of Marduk was a chamber measuring some 66 feet by 132. This must have presented a scene of dazzling splendour, for, to quote simply one detail, Nebuchadnezzar himself records that he overlaid the whole of its interior, including the rafters, with gold. On a pedestal inside the chapel stood golden images of Marduk and his consort Sarpanitum, whilst images of divine attendants stood on either side of the supreme pair. These attendants included hairdressers for Sarpanitum, a butler and a baker, a door-keeper, and dogs. Statues of winged creatures called Kurub (whence our word 'Cherub') guarded the entrance. All these images were heavily decorated with gold and precious stones and dressed in rich raiment, but except for glimpses from the courtyard the ordinary Babylonian had to take this on hearsay, for it is unlikely that at the period of Nebuchadnezzar anyone other than the King, the Crown Prince and certain priests ever entered the inner shrine.

There were other temples in the city quite distinct from Esagila. Within the temples the usual (though not the invariable) layout was as follows. The god's statue stood in the middle of one long wall of an oblong chapel, and in the wall opposite was a doorway into an ante-chamber. The ante-chamber was very similar in shape to the main chapel and ran parallel to it. In the wall of the antechamber farthest from the chapel was another doorway giving access from the main courtyard, so that when both the antechamber door and the chapel door were open the populace could see through to the statue of the god himself. In the case of Marduk's shrine the doors opened towards a point a little to the north of east, as befitted a sun-god, though some other temples had quite different orientations. At the sides and back of the antechamber and chapel and around the courtyard there was a series of other chambers, used no doubt as storerooms for the equipment used in the cult.

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