Siege of Babylon
Having absorbed Lydia, it was natural that King Cyrus II (also known as Cyrus the Great) of Persia would eventually move against Lydia’s ally, Babylon. King Nabonidus’s authority in Babylon was weak because he had secured the throne as a successful general rather than by right of inheritance, and he had further alienated his people by advancing the worship of Sin, the moon goddess, over Marduk, the national deity. Nabonidus also spent years away from his capital campaigning in distant lands including Harran, where he established a temple to Sin. In Arabia Nabonidus secured a number of oases, and his journey reached as far as Medina.
Cyrus meanwhile seems to have established contact with Babylon’s alienated religious leaders, assuring them of his support for their traditional religious practices. Too late, Nabonidus embraced Marduk and ordered all statues of the god to be assembled at Babylon to fortify it spiritually.
There are two very different accounts of how Cyrus secured Babylon. One has him defeating the Babylonians at Opis, the former capital of Akkadia, and then destroying that city. Learning this, the city of Sippar surrendered to Cyrus, whereupon Nabonidus fled Babylon and Cyrus made a peaceful entry into the city in October.
The second account is put forward by the Greek historian Herodotus and is supported by the books of Daniel and Jeremiah in the Bible, although Daniel incorrectly identifies Darius as king of Persia and Belshazzar as king of Babylon. (The latter was the son of Nabonidus and ruled the city while his father was away on campaign.) This version tells of a great siege during 539–538 BCE. In it, Cyrus arrived and quickly encircled the city with his army under the walls, cutting off Babylon from assistance. Riding on horseback, he personally inspected the troop dispositions and concluded that the city could not be taken by direct assault. He then ordered his troops to set up for a siege.
Cyrus was either advised to take the city or came up on his own with a stratagem to do so. He ordered the construction of a circular system of trenches around the city and ditches to be dug to a sufficient depth to accommodate the water of the Euphrates River, which bisected Babylon through a break in the city walls. This work, supervised by Persian engineers, went forward into the winter. The Euphrates was separated from the ditches by only a simple dam that could be easily opened. The Persians also constructed towers made of palm trees, which led the Babylonians to believe that their enemies intended to starve them out. The authorities in the city were not worried though, as they had gathered sufficient food stocks to last for many years.
Early in 538 Cyrus was ready to unleash his attack, which he timed to coincide with the beginning of an important Babylonian festival. That evening, with the Babylonian rituals under way and the inhabitants distracted, Cyrus ordered the dam broken and the Euphrates diverted. Normally the river was so deep that the breaks in the walls where it flowed through Babylon did not represent a serious threat from outside enemies. When the river was diverted, however, the flow was so low that it was possible for Persian infantry and even cavalry to traverse the newly formed riverbanks into Babylon itself.
The Persian attack caught the Babylonians by surprise, and the city was soon taken. Cyrus was known for sparing the lives of kings he had defeated, and this may have been the case with Nabonidus. Cyrus, however, ordered that Babylon be destroyed. As the prophet Jeremiah notes in the Bible: “And the land shall tremble and sorrow: for every purpose of the Lord shall be performed against Babylon to make the land of Babylon a desolation without an inhabitant. . . . And Babylon shall become heaps, a dwelling place for dragons, an astonishment, and an hissing, without an inhabitant” (Jeremiah 51:29 and 51:37).
Following the reduction of Babylon, Cyrus took Jerusalem. He allowed those Jews of Babylon who wished to do so to return home to Jerusalem, ending the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.
Cook, J. M. The Persian Empire. New York: Schocken Books, 1983.
Herodotus. The History of Herodotus. Edited by Manuel Komroff. Translated by George Rawlinson. New York: Tudor Publishing, 1956.
Lamb, Harold. Cyrus the Great. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960.
Melegari, Vezio. The Great Military Sieges. New York: Crowell, 1972.
Xenophon. Cyropaedia. Translated by Walter Miller. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.