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Volume 12, Number 4April 1961

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Proud Master of Ancient Asia

Many a conqueror cast envious eyes on Babylon, whose lofty walls encompassed a hundred square miles of gold and grandeur.

The things Murashu the merchant saw as his caravan moved northward toward Babylon, early in the year 480 B.C., made him glad he'd left his loved ones safely behind in a strange land. Thin lines of ragged refugees plodded wearily along the trail, going nowhere at all. The earth was barren; food was scarce and expensive. Small bands of grim-faced men occasionally appeared on the slopes of the distant hills—bandits, waiting to pounce on the smaller and less-guarded caravans. This was a trip Murashu had made many times before—the return from a year of trading in the cities that bordered on the Southern Mediterranean and in Egypt. Except that when he had left Babylon almost a year before, he had somehow felt strongly inclined to take along his family.

It was a wise move. Shortly after his departure, Xerxes, leading a Persian army, had laid seige to the city, and rumors had it that Babylon was destroyed.

In the past he had always experienced a feeling of enchantment as the ancient walled city rose before him like a wonderful mirage on the banks of the River Euphrates: the golden temple of Baal, glistening in the sun; the many-storied tower of Babel, a sacred edifice built to symbolize Baal's mountain. This massive construction spread wherever the eye fell. Abundant supplies of clay and the absence of stone made brick evident everywhere.

In the background rose the grandeur of King Nebuchadnezzar's palace, built centuries before, and the tropical hanging gardens that stood in striking contrast to the bleak monotony of the surrounding plains. Nebuchadnezzar had erected these four acres of cultivated jungle terraces, rising 250 feet above the level plain, to please his favorite wife, Amuhia, homesick for the wooded mountains of her Median land. Animals roamed freely and tamely among the flowing fountains. In this delightful setting, successive Babylonian queens had wandered with their handmaidens, collecting fragrance and enjoying their flowered mountain.

From a distance the trees and shrubs towered over the city walls—walls so immense that the Greek historian Herodotus described the roadway on top of them as broad enough to permit a four-horse chariot to turn around with ease. Murashu never ceased to wonder at the sight of Babylon. He had seen most of the civilized world, and like the well-traveled historian, he firmly believed about Babylon that: "In magnificence there is no other city that even approaches it."

But on this trip it was different. Terrible damage was visible. The temple and the tower were battered. The gardens were brown and dead. The walls were crumbling. Mighty brass gates hung askew on a number of towers. The golden city no longer glowed—24 tons of the precious metal had been stripped from the temple alone.

The interior of the city, whose area has been estimated at about 100 square miles, was devastated. Merchants, shoppers and peddlers still went about their business, but their mood was somber—barely half alive. The magnificent Procession Street, leading from the Main Gate to the temple and paved with stone, was littered with crushed masonry. The 60 mosaic lions which lined the walls on both sides of the street were badly damaged. Murashu had watched the King's artisans painstakingly create them from hundreds of thousands of tiny red, yellow and white enameled tiles. They would never be repaired.

The merchant wandered about the city in silence, observing the feeble remains of a civilization that had been the mightiest of nations in his world. More than two thousand years before it had been born by chance when the waters of the Euphrates had changed course and transferred prosperity from the ancient city of Kish to Babylon.

Over the ages the place called Babylon, which meant "the gate of the god," was the site of many cities, the capital of many half-remembered kingdoms. Its earliest inhabitants were the Sumerians and the Akkadians who built the first walls and held them for centuries before both men and their monuments surrendered to time and passed away.

In 2057 B.C., the Amorite king, Sumu-Abum, established a new city, and his fifth successor, Hammurabi, brought it to a peak of glory it would not see again for a thousand years. In the period following the decline of the Amorites, the city rose and fell numerous times as various races struggled back and forth for domination of the Kingdom of Babylonia. A Hittite raid destroyed the city about 1530 B.C. It was rebuilt and occupied at various times by Kassites, Chaldeans, and Aramaens until the Assyrians leveled the city again in 689 B.C.

Esarhaddon, the Assyrian, restored the city, but civil war destroyed it once more in 648 B.C. Following the collapse of the Assyrian Empire about 626 B.C., a Chaldean prince, Nabopalassar, ascended the throne of Babylonia. He and his son, Nebuchadnezzar, created the neo-Babylonian Empire and raised Babylon to its final heights of glory.

In 539 B.C. the city fell without a struggle to the Persian, Cyrus the Great. It later revolted against his kinsman, Darius the Great. Refusal to accept the Persian overlords led to its final humiliation at the hands of his son, Xerxes.

Violent as its history had been, each race and each ruler, in turn, had made a contribution to the progress of mankind: cuneiform writing; the birth of the alphabet; a system of irrigation canals which had made fertile fields of desert wastes; the Code of Hammurabi, the first great body of law, not only a remarkable outline of human rights, but a precise set of rules for the conduct of family, government, commerce and art. Murashu recalled the many times he had appealed to the justice of the Code in his business dealings. Who would enforce it now?

Architecture, mathematics and astrology had had their beginnings in Babylon. The Chaldeans had divided the circle into 360 degrees, the hour into 60 minutes; and they knew at least five of the planets.

And now it was no more.

The holy city of Asia was dying. Murashu wondered at the divine wrath that must have embittered the patron god Marduk against his favorite city, anger great enough to sweep away the mercy and kindness with which the chief god was ordinarily connected. Perhaps even the sun-god Shamash with his justice and Ea, protector of mankind, were themselves killed in the holocaust, thought Murashu.

In his wanderings Murashu saw few familiar faces. Strangers were reluctant to engage in conversation. At last he came upon an old acquaintance, an ex-officer of the palace guard, who washed away the rumors and told in cautious tones the story of how the city fell.

Early in the siege the mighty defenses of Babylon withstood the fierce attacks of the Persians with ease. The defenders were confident that they could outlast the attackers. Then one day the guards on the wall spotted a lone rider urging his lathered horse at breakneck speed across the plain below. Guessing that he was a deserter from the camp of Xerxes, they opened the gates and let him in. The man was horribly mutilated. His head was shorn to the skull; His ears and nose were missing.

Brought before the Council, the stranger identified himself as Zopyrus, a Persian prince and a general in Xerxes' army. He claimed that he had been tortured for suggesting that the siege would not succeed. All he wanted was revenge. And it was understandable enough; the man's wounds proved his sincerity. The Babylonians, eager for an ally, placed a contingent of troops at his command.

Ten days later Zopyrus' force defeated 1,000 Persians at the Semiramis Gate. He was given a larger command by the delighted Babylonians and quickly won two more battles. Confidence in him became unbounded; in a short time he was put at the head of the entire Babylonian army.

In the meantime, the Persians had moved up outside the city walls in preparation for an all-out attack. The battle began with a massive assault and raged furiously, but the walls held firm. It looked as though the Persians would be beaten back. Suddenly, the streets were overrun with them. Xerxes' men were everywhere. Stunned, the Babylonians gave ground. Their lines broke, and the city fell.

No one could understand how it had happened. They were further bewildered when they saw cheering hordes of Persians surround the disfigured Zopyrus, lift him to their shoulders and carry him off in triumph. It was awhile before they realized that they had been tricked and betrayed. Their own leader had let the Persians in.

Murashu listened to the story with amazement. "But his wounds . . . his victories over the Persians . . .!"

"The wounds were self-inflicted," said his officer friend. The Persians he defeated were ill-equipped, second-rate soldiers sacrificed by Xerxes to give Zopyrus his mock victories. Zopyrus is now governor of Babylon, and when we talk of him we whisper."

"And the city . . .?"

"Oh, we are allowed to go our ways. We still trade, live our lives, pretend that things will once again be what they were. But the Persians are looting the city. The walls will never be rebuilt. Many do not realize it, but like the gardens without water, Babylon is dead."

Babylon was dead. In later years Alexander the Great made it his capital and attempted to rebuild the temple and the great walls, but he merely succeeded in postponing its inevitable fate. The laws pertaining to the upkeep of the canals were not enforced, and the cultivated land shrank. Well-to-do families moved away to Seleucia, Antioch and Susa. Merchants followed, for there was no more profit to be had in Babylon.

By the fifth century A.D. neighboring Parthian kings were using the area with the ruined walls as a game preserve. And as the years passed great mounds of sand, blown in from the desert wastes, buried all traces of its past magnificence. Unseen and almost forgotten, the city slept away the centuries until 1899 when Babylon was uncovered by a team of European archeologists and returned in ruins to the world it had helped to make.

This article appeared on pages 7-9 of the April 1961 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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