By Morris Jastrow, Jr.
During the past three years a party of German explorers has been busy excavating the series of mounds that extends from two to five miles north of the village of Hillah, about forty miles to the south of Bagdad. These mounds cover the remains of the famous city of Babylon, so familiar to us all from its associations with Nebuchadnezzar, the destroyer of Jerusalem. While the work of the explorers is far from complete, they have already been fortunate enough to discover the exact site of the great palace begun by Nabapolassar, the father of Nebuchadnezzar, and completed by the latter. This edifice was famous throughout the ancient world. It is this palace to which the author of the Book of Daniel refers in his story of the mystical handwriting on the wall that foretold the downfall of the great city. In it Cyrus, on his conquest of Babylon, in the year 538 B.C., took up his official residence, and the same building two centuries later witnessed the pathetic death scene of Alexander the Great.
Besides the palace the explorers have also discovered the exact site of one of the most important edifices in the entire history of Babylonia, the great temple of Marduk, or Bel, the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Although the beginning of this structure goes back to a very ancient period, it was Nebuchadnezzar who restored and enlarged it beyond its former proportions, and within the sacred precinct in which the temple stood he erected numerous shrines to various gods and goddesses, who constituted, as it were, the court of the chief god. A feature of the precinct was a huge tower eight stories in height, formed by a series of stages, one above the other, with a balustrade running round the tower to the top. It is probably this tower that the biblical writer in Genesis had in mind in narrating the curious tale of the dispersion of mankind.
The city that is thus being brought to light through the pick and spade is essentially the creation of Nebuchadnezzar, so that the words which the author of Daniel puts into the mouth of the King, "Is not this great Babylon, which I have built for the royal dwelling place, by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?" (chap. iv., 30), receive a significance through the excavations of the twentieth century far greater and more realistic than was ever dreamed of.
There is a special reason why Babylon is so largely the creation of Nebuchadnezzar. In the year 689 B.C. the town with its great edifices was burnt to the ground by Sennacherib, the Assyrian King, who claimed sovereignty over Babylon, and whose patience was exhausted by the rebellious spirit manifested by his subjects in the south. Babylon was the centre of this spirit, and Sennacherib hoped to crush it by the awful example that he gave of his own power. But Assyria with its capital, Nineveh, fell in the year 606 B.C., while Babylon rose to new glory under the dynasty founded by Nebuchadnezzar's father.
Despite, however, this steady spoliation, which has continued up to the present time, huge walls and piers still peeped out of the mounds, and by means of these remains the site of the ancient city has been identified. The German party chose as the site for its first work the mound whose name, Kasr (that is, "palace"), still preserves the tradition of the site of Nebuchadnezzar's official residence. The dimensions of this mound are about 2100 feet square, and remaining walls and piers rise in parts to a height of about 75 feet. Toward the end of March, 1899, the German explorers, under the leadership of Dr. Robert Koldewey, began to remove the debris from the various sides of the mound as a means of reaching the actual remains of the building, and before long their efforts were crowned with success. From inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar on clay cylinders and on large blocks of stone found by natives at various times while rummaging through the ruins, we knew that his palace was surrounded by a strong wall. Koldewey discovered indisputable traces of this wall, and by following its course obtained a clear view of the extent of the edifice in the centre of the mound.
The palace covered an immense area, surrounded on all sides by a wall. Within this area it is now possible to distinguish several distinct divisions; for besides the official residence of Nebuchadnezzar, there was a group of smaller edifices which served. the various needs of the Babylonian court. Unfortunately, however, as Koldewey's workmen dug deeper into the mound they found the interior of the main building in a hopeless state of ruin, so that up to the present the detailed arrangement of the rooms of the palace has not been ascertained. Presumably, the Assyrian palaces were modeled upon those of the south, and the better preserved edifices found by Layard and Botta in the city of Nineveh about the middle of the last century may serve as a general guide. Under the circumstances it is fortunate that numerous fragments of inscriptions which contain the name of Nebuchadnezzar leave no doubt as to the builder of the edifice in the Kasr mound.
The most remarkable monument that has as yet been brought to light in the palace area is a large stela of dolerite, over three feet high, with a picture of the Hittite storm-god sculptured on it, accompanied by one of the best preserved, as well as one of the longest inscriptions in the strange Hittite characters. Hither to Hittite monuments have been found only in northern Syria and in various parts of Asia Minor, where the Hittites held sway. The discovery, therefore, of such a monument in the city of Babylon occasioned no little surprise, and it is a reasonable supposition that the stone was brought as a trophy to Babylon by some conqueror - possibly by Nebuchadnezzar himself. The Hittite hieroglyphics still constitute a great puzzle, for although a number of important points have been determined, and the general votive character of the inscriptions recognized, a satisfactory key is as yet lacking. Meanwhile the addition of fresh material represented by the newly found monument from Nebuchadnezzar's palace is of great value to scholars now engaged in the task of deciphering the mysterious writing.
Directly to the east of the palace Koldewey laid bare one of the most famous streets in the ancient city of Babylon, and on the construction of which Nebuchadnezzar prided himself greatly. In his inscriptions he frequently speaks of a road which he made leading from the temple of Marduk through the city past the palace wan, and thence across the Euphrates to Borsippa, a kind of suburb to Babylon, though probably older than Babylon itself. Borsippa contained a temple sacred to one of the most important Babylonian gods, Nebo, who became to the Babylonians the symbol of "wisdom." To Nebo the origin of an arts and sciences was ascribed, and every New Year's day - celebrated in the fall of the year - the god Marduk was carried in solemn procession from his temple on a visit to Nebo at Borsippa, and in return Nebo accompanied Marduk part of the way back. The custom appears to have been an ancient one, dating from a period when Nebo was regarded as the superior god. But the later Babylonian kings, while preserving the ancient ceremonial, were anxious to give it the character of a homage to Marduk, and hence Nebuchadnezzar endeavored to outstrip his predecessors in the elegance with which he laid out the sacred street. Building on the old foundation, he raised the level of the street above the ordinary houses of the city, and gave the street the name Aibur-shabu, which signifies "May the enemy not prevail." He enclosed it within two walls, the inner one forming the eastern limit of the palace, while the outer was separated from the inner by sixty feet. The two walls were known as Imgur-Bel, meaning "The mercy of Bel," and Nimitti-Bel, "Foundation of Bel." The street between the walls was handsomely paved along its entire route, and the King specifically mentions two kinds of stone that he used for the purpose. In confirmation of this statement, Koldewey in laying bare the street for a distance of 1500 feet found a large number of fragments of limestone blocks inscribed as follows:
Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon
The son of Nabopolassar the King of Babylon
The street of Babylon for the procession of
the great lord Marduk with paving of
mountain stone I built as a highway
Oh, lord Marduk, grant eternal life!
The discovery of this wall decoration is important also from an archaeological point of view, for it finally settles the question as to the source whence the Persians, who had hitherto been regarded as masters of the art of glazed tiles, obtained their knowledge. The workmanship of the Eons of Babylon is precisely the same as that found on the friezes of the palace of Susa, unearthed some years ago by M. Dieulafoy, and which were so well described by the talented wife of the distinguished explorer in an article that appeared in Harper's Magazine for June, 1887.
The remarkable regularity of the limbs and the features of the lions on all the fragments makes it probable that the design was placed on a clay mass by means of a mould, and after the colors were put on, the clay was cut up into tiles of equal size, which, upon being baked at a high temperature until the glaze appeared, were then pieced together and placed in position. This procession street, as Nebuchadnezzar likewise tells us in one of his inscriptions, led to the most sacred portion of Marduk's temple, to the room in which Marduk sat on New Year's day, surrounded by gods and goddesses, to determine the fate of mankind for the year to come. The exact site of this temple has also been determined by the German explorers.
Directly to the south of the mound Kasr is another mound of large proportions, known as Amran - ibn - ali, from a chapel erected there in memory of a grandson of Mohammed. Continuing his excavations in this direction, Koldewey discovered within this mound unmistakable traces of the great sacred edifice, the centre of the Babylonian cult, known as E-sagila, "the lofty house." Like the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, so also the temple, which was largely his work, covered an extensive area and contained a large number of buildings subsidiary to the main edifice. The remains within the southern mound proved to be in a better state of preservation, so that there is every reason to hope that in time the detailed character and interior arrangements of E-sagila will be determined. The discovery of the site is in itself a great gain to science, and settles another question that has been subject to much controversy ever since Herodotus's account of the city of Babylon began to be studied in connection with the data furnished by the cuneiform inscriptions. Herodotus speaks of a temple and of an eight storied tower sacred to Bel, and many scholars suggested that the tower referred to was not in the city of Babylon, but on the western side of the Euphrates.
Nebuchadnezzar, however, in his inscriptions expressly refers to a great tower which he built in Babylon within the sacred area of E-sagila, and now that the latter has been found there is no longer any occasion to doubt that the tower likewise stood to the south of the palace. Of the temple itself, a portion of a large court with five adjoining rooms has been laid bare, and the positions of various gates and entrances determined. A large quantity of small objects has also been found in the temple proper, consisting of varieties of seal cylinders, Egyptian scarabs, weights in the shape of small ducks, clay cylinders with inscriptions, fragments of statues, and other ornaments.
Of objects of special interest, there are two oblong pieces of lapis lazuli, on which are carved with great skill the pictures of two gods who are of vast importance in the Babylonian pantheon. One of these is Adad, the god of thunder and storm, who is represented with the lightning in both hands, while an inscription of a few lines accompanying the design reveals the name of the god, and also tells us that the object itself was presented as a homage to Marduk by Esarhaddon (680-668 B.C.), the King of Assyria and son of Sennacherib, who destroyed Babylon. To atone for what his father did, Esarhaddon began to reconstruct the city, and this little monument is an interesting testimony to his devotion to both Adad and Marduk. The other object shows a magnificent figure of none other than Marduk himself, in all his dignity, clothed in handsome brocaded garments, and holding in his left hand a ring and staff, which were his symbols as the sun-god. He stands over the waters which represent the great deep, while at his side is the dragon - the symbol of chaos - whose conquest by Marduk is the chief theme in the Babylonian creation story. The inscription accompanying the design te1ls us that this image of Marduk was presented to the temple by King Marduknadin-shum, a King of Babylonia who reigned about the middle of the ninth century B.C.
Another curious discovery made in the temple was an impression on the asphalt paving of a magnificent throne, which may well have marked the King's seat in the temple, and was decorated with elaborate designs representing men and animals.
Such, in brief, is the work done by the German explorers during the past three years. While much remains to be done, the excavations, so far as they have gone, are fraught with most important results. With two such important sites as the palace of Nebuchadnezzar and the temple determined, we are in a far better position than before to obtain a view of the topography of the city which played so great a role in the ancient world. At present, work is being continued on both the Kasr and the Amran mounds, and is being extended to a third mound still farther south, known as Djumdjuma (" skull "), and which formed the lower limit of the city. Before long we may expect to receive reports from Koldewey regarding excavations in a portion of the Kasr mound where he places the site of the famous "hanging gardens" of Babylon, associated in legend with the semimythical Semiramis, but in reality the work of Nebuchadnezzar.
Originally published in Harper's Monthly Magazine. April 1902.