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On the Euphrates River (in the land that is now Iraq) ruins of the world's first
great city . The city bore the proud name Bab-Ilu, meaning "gate of the gods."
The Hebrews call it Babel.
During the first thousand years of its known history, Babylon was a village. It
became the capital of the kingdom of Babylon at about 1894 BC and reached its peak
of glory in the reign of Hammurabi. This king beautified the city with palaces,
temples, and towers and made it the religious and cultural center of western Asia.
In its temples scholarly priests copied and preserved the writings of the Sumerians,
from whom the Babylonians derived their civilization.
For centuries the city was controlled by various tribes, including the Kassites,
the Chaldeans, the Aramaeans, and the Assyrians. Throughout that period, Babylon
continued to be regarded as a center of learning and culture, even by its conquerors.
The last of the Assyrian rulers of Babylon, Ashurbanipal, died in 627 BC.
When Assyria declined, Babylon rose to wealth and imperial power under Nebuchadnezzar
II (604-561 BC). This king is remembered in the Old Testament of the christian Bible
for his destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity of the Jewish people.
In Babylonia he was celebrated as the builder who made Babylon the most splendid
city in the world.
The original city stood on the right (west) bank of the Euphrates. Nebuchadnezzar
extended it to the left bank as well and built a stone bridge across the river.
The city was in the shape of a square, surrounded by a massive towered wall. Palaces
and temples were of vast dimensions.
Nebuchadnezzar's own great palace achieved a touch of fairyland from its famous
Hanging Gardens, which the Greeks counted as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The beautiful Gate of Ishtar spanned Procession Street, which led to the Temple
of Marduk, chief god of Babylon. Near it stood a great terraced tower (ziggurat),
built in seven receding stories with a sloping ramp spiraling around it to the top.
This may have been the original Tower of Babel described in the Bible (Gen. xi);
but it was only one of many artificial "holy mountains" in and around Babylon.
Babylon lost its independence forever when it fell to Cyrus the Great of Persia
in 539 BC, but it continued to be a center of trade and culture. It was still fairly
prosperous when Alexander the Great took up his residence in Nebuchadnezzar's palace,
where he died in 323 BC. His successor, Seleucus, built a new city, Seleucia, nearby
on the Tigris, because it had a deeper channel for navigation. From this time Babylon
rapidly decayed. Its structures, which were faced with glazed brick, were torn down
to provide brick for building elsewhere, and the once proud capital was reduced
to a vast ruin. The ruins are near the town of al Hillah in Iraq.