Babylon The Great

Modern man likes to view civilization as progressing, that each year, each decade, each century and each millennium we make huge strides over what has gone before. The Bible, of course, is opposed to that view. Whilst it acknowledges that we make some technological advances, civilization is generally seen as in decline. Interestingly, as our knowledge of ancient history improves, we find that there is hard scientific evidence to show that ancient civilizations were far less primitive than we may have liked to believe. One striking example of this is Babylon.

Referred to in Is 13:19 as the 'glory of kingdoms', one of the most obvious features of this city is its huge size. The historians disagree on the precise details; Herodotus and Pliny suggest the circumference was about 53 miles[1]: others suggest a number nearer forty. Even with the conservative number we are talking about a hundred square miles, a city 5 times the size of London.

This number is further emphasized when we realize that this was not the extent of some rural sprawl, it was the area enclosed by the city walls. And it is the city walls that would next draw a traveler's attention. There are at least three sets of walls and some of the accounts are a little confused[2] but if we assume a development similar to that found it English 'castle towns' the layout would have been roughly as follows:

The main city defense consisted of two concentric walls separated by a distance of 23 feet, this space being used as a road for military purposes. The inner (and probably older) wall was 21 feet thick and higher than the outer wall. It would also have been the one most designed to facilitate a sustained defense. The outer wall was thinner (12 feet) and slightly lower but would have been adequate (at least they thought!) to prevent a surprise attack. Outside of the outer wall was a moat some 300 feet wide; this was fed with water from the Euphrates River. Both walls had buttress towers stationed at 65-foot intervals throughout their length.[3]

During the reign of Nebuchadnezzar another wall was constructed to the south and north east of the older part of the city. This probably corresponded to the 'inner bailey' of English castles. These walls were 80 feet thick and 300 feet high and were buttressed by towers at 135-foot intervals. We can see why the Bible says[4]: "Though Babylon should mount up to heaven, and though she should fortify the height of her strength"

Whilst huge and constructed along extremely strong military lines the city was also notably for its opulence. The most famous feature is of course the hanging gardens[5].

These are ascribed to Nebuchadnezzar, it is said they were erected to gratify the wish of his queen Amytis for elevated groves such as she was accustomed to in her native Media. The base of these gardens is four hundred feet square and over three hundred feet high. The successive terraces were supported on ranges of regular piers, covered by large stones, on which were placed thick layers of matting and of bitumen and two courses of stones, which were again covered, with a solid coating of lead. On such a platform another similar, but smaller, was built, etc. The various terraces were then covered with earth, and furnished with trees, shrubbery, and flowers. The whole was watered from the Euphrates, which flowed at its base, by machinery within the mound. This was really the centerpiece of the palace gardens that were some 6 miles in circumference.

The terrace motive was again repeated in another mound some about eight miles southwest of the above structure. Nebuchadnezzar[6] built this on the platform of a ruinous edifice of more ancient days. It consisted of six distinct terraces, each twenty feet high, and forty-two feet less horizontally than the one below it. On the top was the sanctum and observatory of the temple, now a vitrified mass. Each story was dedicated to a different planet, and stained with the color appropriated to that planet in their astrological system. The lowest, in honor of Saturn, was black; that of Jupiter was orange; that of Mars red, that of the sun yellow, that of Venus green, and that of Mercury blue. The temple was white, probably for the moon. In the corners of this long-ruined edifice, recently explored were found cylinders with arrowhead inscriptions, in the name of Nebuchadnezzar, which inform us that the building was named "The Stages of the Seven Spheres of Borsippa;" that it had been in a dilapidated condition; and that, moved by Merodach his god, he had reconstructed it with bricks enriched with lapis lazuli, "without changing its site or destroying its foundation platform.[7]"

Whilst these were fine monuments the king also had his palace, or actually two. As Babylon was situated upon both sides of the Euphrates the king actually had a palace upon both sides. A bridge some 1000 yards long and 30 feet across joined the palaces[8] as did a tunnel that ran under the great river. The base of one of these palaces was over 2000 feet square and seventy feet high.

The splendor was not simply confined to the king either; many of the ruins found have been of houses three or four stories high. Truly Babylon was "the lady of kingdoms"[9]

The question arises, how did Babylon become so great? The clue is given in Ezekiel 17:4 where Babylon is described as a 'city of merchants'. Being upon the Euphrates and being upon the route between Central Asia, Arabia and Egypt she was a natural hub for much commercial traffic and she catered for this. She had a reputation for skill in many crafts and also in science. Her physical splendor would no doubt have added to her charm. The Bible further describes her[10] as tender and delicate, which suggests she would have been deemed a cultural haven. Is 47:8 also says that she was 'given to pleasures' which tells us that she would have been extremely popular as a place to have a good time.

And in the source of her strength lay the seed of her downfall. In her opulence, and in common with many other trading ports, Babylon was a scene of extreme immorality. Much of the so-called entertainment and even religion was simply debauchery. For all their science and strength they had forgotten God. I quoted early from Jer 51:53 describing the greatness of Babylon rising to heaven, but here is the full quote:

"Though Babylon should mount up to heaven, and though she should fortify the height of her strength, yet from me shall spoilers come unto her, saith the LORD."

In fact the biblical quote concerning the "lady of kingdoms" is actually negative when taken in context:

"Sit thou silent, and get thee into darkness, O daughter of the Chaldeans: for thou shalt no more be called, The lady of kingdoms."

Not only had they forgotten God, they had become complacent, they had a huge moat and vast walls and as we shall see in the next chapter Cyrus got past them both in one night when the city was given over to debauchery.

Babylon was probably built on or near the cite of Babel, the tower described in Gen 11 where man tried to build to the heavens and build himself an immovable base. God had other ideas. A couple of thousand years later we find man in the same place, still building towers, still thinking of himself as immovable, and still being thwarted by God.

I wonder how many of us are still building towers, accumulating wealth, trying to leave a mark, becoming complacent and thinking of ourselves as immovable?

And still forgetting God.


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