Ancient Babylon

00.00.00 00.00.00 loading
lion of Babylon

Ancient Babylon.

Dedicated to Eleni and Alseia (Al see ah), whose family support us on Patreon.

Written & told by Bertie.
Proofed & audio edited by Jana Elizabeth.

Hello, this is Bertie, and I’m here with the latest story based on the Histories of Herodotus.

In a previous episode I told you how a young Persian called Cyrus rose to power in the part of the world we now call Iran. He led a hill tribe called the Persians in revolt against their masters, the Medes. When he made himself king of the Medes and the Persians, Cyrus inherited an empire, that already included a large part of the Middle East. Before long, he set his sights on the biggest prize of all - Babylon.

Babylon was probably the largest, wealthiest and most powerful city in the world at that time. Its name meant, “God’s Gate”.

It was based on a bend in the River Euphrates in what we now call Iraq, about 50 miles south of Bagdad. You will often hear the word Mesopotamia to describe that part of the world. It is Greek for Between the Rivers - referring to the Euphrates and the Tigris. The people who lived between the two great rivers dug water channels into the land so that they could easily farm crops and grow food.

This fertile part of the world was where writing first appeared around 3,100 years before the birth of Christ. And in many ways, it's where civilisation began.
Herodotus visited Babylon and has left us a detailed description. He said it surpassed any other city in its splendour and size. It was surrounded by a moat and two massive walls. The outer walls were wide enough for two chariots to pass each other along the top of them. The River Euphrates ran right through the centre and people crossed the river in little round boats to reach the other side of the city.

He does not mention the Hanging Gardens of Babylon that were one of the seven Wonders of the Ancient World. These were gardens that ran up the side of the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar like a slope on a side of the mountain covered in trees and plants. All day long men worked screw pumps to bring water up from the Euphrates and to sprinkle the gardens.

The widest and most beautiful of the eight gates of Babylon was the Ishtar Gate, which was covered in a blue lapis gaze and decorated with images of lions and bulls. This opened onto a broad central avenue along which great processions would pass during festivals.

Ancient Babylon features often in the Bible. It is first mentioned in the Book of Genesis under the name of Babel. According to the Bible story, there was a time when all people spoke one language. Humans tried to build a tower - the Tower of Babel - So tall that it would reach up to Heaven. God struck the tower down, and scattered people all over the world, making them babble in different languages so that they would no longer be united.

And Babylon plays a major part in the history of the Jews, as recorded in the Bible. Because Babylon’s greatest king Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in the year 587 BC. He led many of the surviving Jews back to Babylon as slaves. Psalm 137 in the Bible recalls the time of sadness.

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion”.
Those words were made into a disco song in the 1970s by the group, Boney-M.

The Book of Daniel in the Bible features a story called the Feast of Belshazzar. Belshazzar, crown prince of Babylon held a feast where he and his friends drank from goblets stolen from the temple of Jerusalem which they had ruined. While they were revelling, the hand of god appeared and wrote four mysterious words on the wall. Belshazzar was both terrified and baffled by the strange writing. His magicians could not solve the puzzle, and his queen advised him to call a Jew, Daniel who was known for his wisdom. Daniel explained the Writing on the Wall as meaning that the days were numbered for both Belshazzar and Babylon and they would both be destroyed. And soon they both were.

The Persian Cyrus led his army against Babylon in the year 539 BC. Herodotus tells us that he delayed his attack on the city for one year, in order to punish a river. Yes - you heard that right - a river. His favourite white horse had plunged into the river Gyndes and had been swept away by its currents. Cyrus was so furious with the river that he ordered his men to weaken it. They spent the whole summer digging trenches to take away its waters and after that they had to postpone the attack on Babylon until the following spring.

The Persian army met the Babylonians outside the city walls at the Battle of Opis. The Persians defeated the Babylonians who then retreated back into the city where they had stocked up enough food to hold out for years.

According to Herodotus, Cyrus ordered his men to dig channels into the River Euphrates at the point where it flowed into the city. These channels lowered the water of the river, so that his army could wade into Babylon. They sneaked into the city during a religious festival, when the Babylonians were too busy partying to notice that they were being attacked. The city fell easily.

That’s the version told by Herodotus. We have another story from an ancient document that is even more interesting. The document is written by somebody who was actually there at the time - although he may have been a bit biased because that person was Cyrus himself.

After taking Babylon, Cyrus wrote the story of his conquest on a roundish stone called a cylinder. The cylinder is now in the British museum in London.

He wrote:

I am Cyrus, king of the world, great king, mighty king, king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four quarters.

And he tells us that Marduk, the god of the Babylonians, was angry with the rulers of the city. King, Nabonidu had stopped worshipping him. Marduk searched the world for a good king and found Cyrus the Persian and ordered him to attack Babylon.

Cyrus marched with an army so vast that like the waters of a river, you could not even count the numbers of his men. He entered Babylon without a battle and the people rejoiced and bowed down and kissed his feet. He came in peace and did not permit his soldiers to frighten any of the people. Then he returned the images of the gods to their temples. And he let the people who lived in Babylon return to their homes.

Cyrus does not specifically mention the Jews, but many people think that last sentence is about them. We know that Cyrus did indeed allow the Jews to return home from Babylon. He also ordered the temple of Jerusalem to be rebuilt. Not surprisingly the Bible repeatedly praised Cyrus and calls him Anointed by the Lord.

And that’s the story of how Cyrus, king of the Persians, conquered the greatest city in the world. He did not use a full on attack, but what is called diplomacy. He seems to have persuaded the people of Babylon that he would look after them and their gods better than their own king. After he took the city, he did not destroy it, or murder its people and rulers, or turn anyone into slaves. Instead he set himself up as a wise and just ruler.

Other generals at the time, and in most other periods of history, were not nearly so wise. It’s more the norm for victers to kill and enslave their defeated enemies. Some people claim that Cyrus was the founder of human rights - but I think that’s going way too far. His mercy was conditional on people handing over their gold, bowing down before him, and even kissing his feet. He realised it was efficient to rule with people’s agreement, and to enroll them willingly into his army to make his forces even greater. Even so, it is the quality of mercy that made Cyrus one of the greatest military leaders of all time.

And I'm delighted to dedicate this story to Eleni and Alseia (Al see ah) who love to listen to Storynory in their home in New Zealand. They especially love the Lapis stories and The History of Herodotus.

Eleni is 7 1/2 and loves books and ballet, Alseia is 4 3/4 and loves gardening and singing.
Their parents, Phil and Susannah have signed up as monthly supporters on Patreon and we’re very grateful for their support.
For now, from me Bertie, goodbye!