The Neo-Babylonian Empire

The Neo-Babylonian Empire (625–539 B.C.E.)

After several centuries of eclipse, the Babylonian dynasty rose again. Under the Chaldean Nabu-apla-usur (Nabopolassar, r. ca. 625–605 B.C.E.), Babylonia invaded and conquered the provinces of the Assyrian Empire from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arabian Gulf.

The three main Assyrian cities, Ashur, Nineveh, and Nimrud, were devastated by fi re and were left in ruins. Assyria was obliterated from the map. After the decline of Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt were the only large empires facing each other in Syria-Palestine.

The Babylonian troops were commanded by Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 604–562 B.C.E.), who was married to Amyitis, the daughter of the king of the powerful Medes, located in what is now northern Iraq, and thus Babylonia was protected by its alliance with the Medes against the forces beyond the kingdom.

After the death of his father, Nabu-apla-usur, Nebuchadnezzar became king and began a long war to conquer the kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem.

In 586 B.C.E., the city fell. When Nebuchadnezzar’s appointee in Jerusalem, Zedekiah, tried to turn the tables on his master and make himself the actual ruler of the province, the Babylonian king used the time-honored tactic of deporting approximately 3,000 of Judah’s Jews as punishment. Zedekiah attempted a revolt but was defeated; he was brought before Nebuchadnezzar and, after witnessing the execution of his sons, had his eyes gouged out.

After Nebuchadnezzar’s death, Babylonia experienced a period of misrule and assassination. Three kings ruled during the next six years (one for only nine months) until a commoner named Nabonidus (r. ca. 556–539 B.C.E.) became king. He is reported to have angered the Babylonian priestly hierarchy by demoting their supreme god, Marduk, and replacing him with a non-Babylonian moon god, Sin.

Furthermore, Nabonidus sojourned for 10 years at the oasis of Teima (in present-day Saudi Arabia), this forcing the cancellation of the new year’s festival of Akitu, during which the king and the high priest played important roles. Eventually, his reconsolidated state, resting on the laurels of Old Babylonia, came to an end when another king, Cyrus of Persia, moved into the capital without encountering resistance.


This chapter has traced the history of ancient Iraq over a course of some 30 centuries, and what scintillating centuries they were. Even though archaeologists, historians, and philologists are still far from knowing the details of each and every century, let alone decade (and there are huge stretches of time for which there are no records at all), the overriding theme that emerges when studying those 30 centuries is cultural unity despite constantly shifting borders.

Permanent features of this period are, fi rst, a lack of fi xed borders and the constant spread of peoples and cultures throughout the region and, second, the assimilation and integration of languages, cultures, and civilizations in an unending search for new technologies and methodologies, commercial exchange, and, not least of all, meanings in this life and the next.

The permeability of borders and the diffusion and absorption of languages and cultures reinforced one another; as mutually supporting trends of state and society, they gave impetus to the spread of novel ways of understanding the world, worshipping the gods, the growing of new crops, and the organization of fi scal, legal, and educational regimes.

Let us conclude with a description of the broad reception accorded to Sargon’s rule in Sumer-Akkad. His impact was felt in regions far and wide, not simply because of Sargon’s many conquests and achievements but also perhaps because he was adopting modes of thought and organization long current in the region that made appeal to all cultures and traditions. Oppenheim states:

Sargon remained a semi-mythical king throughout much of the second millennium. The story of his birth and exposure, his rescue from a basket floating down the Euphrates, his rise to power, and last but not least, his campaigns, adventures, victories, and reverses and his conquest of the West was read in Amarna in Egypt, in Hattusa in Anatolia and even translated into Hurrian and Hittite (Oppenheim 1977, 151).