By the 7th century BC, ancient Babylonia fell under the shadow of other powers in the region. But then a great king was born — it was time for Babylon to rise again.
Nebuchadnezzar II was Babylon’s great builder king, reigning from 605 until 562 BC. In his more than 40 years of rule, Nebuchadnezzar II extended the borders of his kingdom and undertook immense architectural efforts in his cities, most notably in the capital of Babylon.
For one, the iconic, glimmering-blue Ishtar Gate was commissioned under his command, the reconstruction of which can today be seen in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
If Nebuchadnezzar was loved for his great achievements by his own people, he was, of course, not so much admired by those whom he confronted. When the kingdom of Judah also fell under Babylonian dominion, and the Jewish elite were sent into exile to Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar ensured his name would enter the Holy Scriptures as the great enemy of the Jewish people. In the Book of Jeremiah and the Book of Daniel, he would be referred to as the “enemy of God.” This depiction of Nebuchadnezzar has endured throughout the ages, going so far as to associate him with the “Antichrist” in some circles. A famous example of this is William Blake’s famous painting of Nebuchadnezzar, showing him in a brute, almost demonic state.
Nebuchadnezzar II inherited the throne from his father, Nabopolassar, the first in the Chaldean lineage of kings to reign the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Nabopolassar, who claimed the throne around 625 BC, began Babylon’s decade-long confrontation with the neighboring Assyrians. The Assyrians lost the war, but their allies such as Egypt remained an open issue.
Nebuchadnezzar II inherited the throne from his father Nabopolassar in 604/605 BC. He had already demonstrated his prowess as Prince Consort, defeating the combined Egyptian and Assyrian armies in a battle near Carchemish. He was celebrated as a hero after the battle, as he appropriated new territories into the Neo-Babylonian empire.
Under Nebuchadnezzar II, Babylonia continued to grow in strength and power. The empire stretched from the Persian Gulf on the south, through the ancient rivers of Tigris and Euphrates in the middle, and ending to the west with Syria and Palestine. The territories included the historic Kingdom of Judea, which Nebuchadnezzar II claimed from Egypt, the most serious competitor to retain control of this territory.
What Nebuchadnezzar basically did was to drain each new territory he controlled of its gold and treasures, investing them for the prosperity and revival of Babylon.
In fact, this would be his life mission: to restore the former glory of the name of Babylon, lost in the previous century when much of the region was in the dominion of the Assyrians.
His own name must have served as a motivation as well. Nebuchadnezzar I was another great monarch, who had reigned Babylon from 1125 BC to 1104 BC and was the most distinguished ruler of that dynasty. Both of them share one other thing in common: they centered religion around the deity of Marduk, despite building their empires centuries apart.
As for building Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II stunningly improved the defensive structures by adding fortifications, walls, a great moat, and canals. Water, which was a precious resource for Babylon, was secured with a most sophisticated irrigation system, previously unseen in the known world.
This same advanced water system could have well nourished the enigmatic Hanging Gardens of Babylon — traces of which have never been found by archeologists, but we learn about their grandiose from ancient scriptures.
The Hanging Gardens could have been yet another of Nebuchadnezzar’s accomplishments, as some sources hint, perhaps a gift to his wife Amytis of Media.
Nebuchadnezzar II also paved the Processional Way which connected with the famous Ishtar Gate. It would be around the Ishtar Gate that Babylonians would gather to celebrate a new agricultural year and engage in related New Year religious processions.
The prosperity of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon had implications far greater than he could have possibly imagined.
After the death of Nebuchadnezzar, the exiled Judean populations were able to go back and rebuild their city of Jerusalem. But many of them also opted to stay in Babylon, which, in the meantime, had grown as their new, thriving religious center.
The Babylonian Talmud was produced in the city, today considered the principal source of Jewish religious law and theology.
National Geographic writes on the effect of the exile: “The pain of separation from home runs through the books of the Bible devoted to this time, resulting in some of its most beautiful passages. In his allegory of the Exile, Ezekiel casts Nebuchadnezzar as a ‘great eagle, with great wings and long pinions, rich in plumage of many colors.’”
“The eagle king is presented as an instrument of God, who carries away the Jews and plants them as a seedling in ‘fertile soil; a plant by abundant waters, he set it like a willow twig’ (Ezekiel 17:35). The experience profoundly shaped Jewish religious and national identity.”
When King Nebuchadnezzar II passed away in 562 BC, the glory and power of Babylon quickly plummeted. There was no succeeding ruler great enough to endure his legacy. Just two decades later, a new power rose to prominence in the region. Led by Cyrus the Great, the Persians seized Babylon and it was the beginning of a new era for this great ancient power center.