Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rediscovering Ancient Babylon

Today, little remains of Babylon, the ancient capital of Mesopotamia. Its ruins cover about 30 square kilometers along the east bank of Euphrates, 90 kilometers southwest of Baghdad in modern-day Iraq. Though they have benefited from occasional scientific excavations (the most notable done by a German team in the early 1900s), efforts to construct a tourist attraction on top of the ruins were devastating and quite possibly covered or destroyed important artifacts and other valuable finds. War, terrorism, looting, and civil unrest have imposed their own damaging impact.

Basically, the site is a mess, with little hope of things improving in the near future.
Why should we care?

Around 3000 BC, the civilizing influences of agriculture and animal husbandry bred the first cities in the Land Between Two Rivers. It was the beginning of western civilization. These cities rose up around Uruk in the Sumer region of Lower Mesopotamia. Over the next several centuries, cities became empires, and empires fought, rose, and fell. In their wake came systems of writing and communication, medicine and magick, laws, systems for calculating time, water management, and so on.

So, where was Babylon in all of this?

In the twenty-fourth century, King Sargon I of Akkad (a region around modern Baghdad), rose to power. Known as Sargon the Great, he made Akkad an imperial force while enacting new and utterly ruthless policies of expansionist rule. Following his death, his empire did not survive for long, but his mark on Mesopotamian culture was indelible. It was during his reign that Babylon was founded.

As we fast-forward a few centuries, we encounter the most famous ruler of the Old Babylonian Empire—Hammurabi. Famed for his impressive and strikingly enlightened code of laws, Hammurabi’s reign lasted from about 1792 BC to 1750 BC. During that time, he pursued expansion of the empire through both military and diplomatic means. His reign marked a golden age in Babylon and Mesopotamia as a whole. However, once again, the empire would not long survive the death of its king. By the mid-sixteenth century, its power had crumbled.

Fast-forward again to the thirteenth century BC: The Assyrians were building and flexing their military muscles. By the time this mighty power went head-to-head with an also-resurgent Babylon, it was no contest. Babylon’s military strength was crushed, and Assyria became the dominant power in Mesopotamia. Then in 689 BC, Assyrian forces led by Sennacherib sacked Babylon thoroughly, leaving her a smoldering ruin. However, the decisive victory backfired. The burning and defilement of the city, especially the Esaglia, was viewed far and wide as an act of sacrilege.

It took awhile, but in 612 BC, Babylon rallied, smashed Assyria’s forces, and brought an end to the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Thus, Babylonian King Nabopolassar I (625 – 605 BC) restored The Queen of Cities to glory, and his son, Nebuchadnezzar II (605 – 562 BC) raised her to new heights of splendor.

It must have seemed, at this point, that Babylon and her empire would last forever. After centuries of struggle, she had, at last, assumed her rightful seat of power. Vast fortifications and splendid buildings rose. Paved streets, temples, palaces, and canals for life-giving water were built. The towering ziggurat was rebuilt. The temple of Marduk, the awesome Ishtar Gate, the wondrous Hanging Gardens all bore testament to Babylon's god-favored might.

 But it was not to last. What began in 612 BC ended by 539 BC when Cyrus the Great of Persia marched into Babylon.

Nevertheless, Babylon and the civilization it represented continued to exert a tremendously positive influence in the world. The Empire was built upon concepts of law and justice that strongly impacted future civilizations. Its cultural achievements in literature, science, and mathematics undeniably left their marks on both the ancient world and our world today.

How to rebuild Babylon, especially now, when she teeters on the brink of final oblivion?

That was my challenge, as a writer. This was the home of Samir, a wandering merchant; an adventurer. How would he see Babylon; feel about her; speak of her? What was it like to leave the protection of the civilized Queen of Cities and venture into the world as he might have perceived it—a world of barbarians, monsters, and alien gods?

Written descriptions of Babylon by classical historians like Herodotus were invaluable, as were drawings, maps, photographs, and relics, all within reach, of course, via Internet magic. Hats off to the many artists who have so beautifully visualized this lost city in their drawings and paintings. Some of these (all public domain, as far as I can determine) you see here.

Books such as Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia by Nemet-Nejat, Everyday Life in Babylonia & Assyria by H. W. F. Saggs, and The Harps That Once … by Jacobsen (Sumerian poetry) were a tremendous help, as well.

All of the above went into the mix. Imagination did the rest. With their help, I rebuilt Babylon’s indestructible battlements gleaming with one hundred brass gates. I restored the many-terraced gardens of Amytis reaching above the heights of her tawny walls and encircling towers—tier upon tier crowned with exotic verdure climbing up and up; a wondrous mountain of variant greens as dark and light as the banded whirls in polished malachite. And there! The soaring ziggurat, Etemenanki, gleamed once more, rare and blue as lapis lazuli, reaching higher still, to touch the sky. 

When the time comes and the book is launched, I hope you enjoy what you will see beyond the this once-great city’s Gate of the Gods.


P. A. Peirson

1 comment:

  1. Great piece, very interested in this topic. Thanks, looking forward to your book & future posts.