For thousands of years, the myth of Babylon has haunted the European imagination. The Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens, Belshazzar’s Feast and the Fall of Babylon have inspired artists, writers, poets, philosophers and filmmakers.
By the end of this module you will be able to:
Identify and describe the form, content, and context of key Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian Art
Define critical terms related to Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian Art
Explain Hammurabi’s rule and it’s significance in early Babylon
Describe the artistic and architectural accomplishments of King Nebuchadnezzar II, including the city of Babylon
The city of Babylon lay on the River Euphrates in southern Mesopotamia, in what is today Iraq rose to prominence in the eighteenth century B.C. when, through a combination of political alliances and military campaigns, Hammurabi (c. 1792–1750 BCE) was able to unite a large state under his rule. The end of the second millennium BCE saw power over Babylon change hands several times, with Babylonia briefly falling under Assyrian domination. By the seventh century, BCE Nabopolassar and his son Nebuchadnezzar II (c. 604–562 BCE) came to rule most of its former empire. As king of the new Babylon,Nebuchadnezzar II rebuilt much of the city constructing an imperial capital with vast palaces and well-appointed temples, colossal city walls, and a great northern entry point, the Ishtar Gate, approached via a long Processional Way lined with colourful glazed-brick depicting roaring lions.
Old Babylonian Dynasty
Sin-muballit (1812–1793 BCE)
Hammurabi (1792–1750 BCE)
Kassite Dynasty (1750-1373 BCE)
Kadashman-Enlil I (1374–1360 BCE)
Burnaburiash II (1359–1333 BCE)
Kurigalzu II (1332–1308 BCE)
Nabu-mukin-zeri (731–729 BCE)
Marduk-apla-iddina II (721–710 BCE)
Shamash-shum-ukin (667–648 BCE)
Nabopolassar (625–605 BCE)
Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 BCE)
Amel-Marduk (561–560 BCE)
Neriglissar (559–556 BCE)
Labashi-Marduk (556 BCE)
Nabonidus (555–539 BCE)
The city of Babylon on the River Euphrates in southern Iraq is mentioned in documents of the late third millennium BCE and first came to prominence as the royal city of King Hammurabi (about 1790-1750 BCE). He established control over many other kingdoms stretching from the Persian Gulf to Syria. The British Museum holds one of the iconic artworks of this period, the so-called “Queen of the Night.”
From around 1500 BCE, a dynasty of Kassite kings took control in Babylon and unified southern Iraq into the kingdom of Babylonia. The Babylonian cities were the centers of great scribal learning and produced writings on divination, astrology, medicine and mathematics. The Kassite kings corresponded with the Egyptian Pharaohs as revealed by cuneiform letters found at Amarna in Egypt, now in the British Museum.
Babylonia had an uneasy relationship with its northern neighbour Assyria and opposed its military expansion. In 689 BCE, Babylon was sacked by the Assyrians but as the city was highly regarded it was restored to its former status soon after. Other Babylonian cities also flourished; scribes in the city of Sippar probably produced the famous “Map of the World” (see image below).
The pottery produced during the “Old” Babylonian period shows a return to painted abstract designs and increased variety in forms. In this photograph, a bowl, a jar, and a goblet show remnants of paint on their exteriors.
Stele of Hammurabi
The Stele of Hammurabi, c. 1792-1750 BCE, is approximately 7 feet tall. King Hammurabi established a centralized government under the Babylonians and ruled southern Mesopotamia in the early second millennium. He is known for his conquests and also for his law code. This is the first systematic codification of his people’s rights, duties, penalties for infringements. There are three hundred or so entries, some dealing with commercial and property matters, others with domestic problems and physical assault.
The Neo-Babylonian Empire, also known as the Chaldean Empire, was a civilization in Mesopotamia that began in 626 BCE and ended in 539 BCE. The Neo-Babylonian Empire developed an artistic style motivated by their ancient Mesopotamian heritage.
During the preceding three centuries, Babylonia had been ruled by the Akkadians and Assyrians, but threw off the yoke of external domination after the death of Assurbanipal, the last strong Assyrian ruler. The Neo-Babylonian period was a renaissance that witnessed a great flourishing of art, architecture, and science.
The Neo-Babylonian rulers were motivated by the antiquity of their heritage and followed a traditionalist cultural policy, based on the ancient Sumero-Akkadian culture. Ancient artworks from the Old-Babylonian period were painstakingly restored and preserved, and treated with a respect verging on religious reverence. Neo-Babylonian art and architecture reached its zenith under King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled from 604–562 BCE and was a great patron of urban development, bent on rebuilding all of Babylonia’s cities to reflect their former glory.
It was Nebuchadnezzar II’s vision and sponsorship that turned Babylon into the immense and beautiful city of legend. The city spread over three square miles, surrounded by moats and ringed by a double circuit of walls. The river Euphrates, which flowed through the city, was spanned by a beautiful stone bridge. At the heart of the city lay the ZigguratEtemenanki, literally “temple of the foundation of heaven and earth.” Originally seven stories high, it is believed to have provided the inspiration for the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.
It was also during this period that Nebuchadnezzar supposedly built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, although there is no definitive archeological evidence to establish their precise location. Ancient Greek and Roman writers describe the gardens in vivid detail. However, the lack of physical ruins have led many experts to speculate whether the Hanging Gardens existed at all. If this is the case, writers might have been describing ideal mythologized Eastern gardens or a famous garden built by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (704–681 BCE) at Nineveh roughly a century earlier. If the Hanging Gardens did exist, they were likely destroyed around the first century CE.
Most of the evidence for Neo-Babylonian art and architecture is literary. The material evidence itself is mostly fragmentary. Some of the most important fragments that survive are from the Ishtar Gate, the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon. It was constructed in 575 BCE by order of Nebuchadnezzar II, using glazed brick with alternating rows of bas-relief dragons and aurochs. Dedicated to the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, it was a double gate, and its roofs and doors were made of cedar, according to the dedication plaque. Babylon’s Processional Way, which was lined with brilliantly colourful glazed brick walls decorated with lions, ran through the middle of the gate. Statues of the Babylonian gods were paraded through the gate and down the Processional Way during New Year’s celebrations.
The reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way, built at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin in 1930, features material excavated from the original site. To compensate for missing pieces, museum staff created new bricks in a specially designed kiln that was able to match the original colour and finish. Other parts of the gate, which include glazed brick lions and dragons, are housed in different museums around the world.
The city of Babylon on the River Euphrates in southern Iraq is mentioned in documents of the late third millennium BCE and first came to prominence as the royal city of King Hammurabi (about 1790-1750 BCE).
The Neo-Babylonian Empire was a civilization in Mesopotamia between 626 BCE and 539 BCE. During the preceding three centuries, Babylonia had been ruled by the Akkadians and Assyrians, but threw off the yoke of external domination after the death of the last strong Assyrian ruler.
Neo-Babylonian art and architecture reached its zenith under King Nebuchadnezzar II, who ruled from 604–562 BCE. He was a great patron of art and urban development and rebuilt the city of Babylon to reflect its ancient glory.
Most of the evidence for Neo-Babylonian art and architecture is literary. Of the material evidence that survives, the most important fragments are from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon.
Neo-Babylonians were known for their colorful glazed bricks, which they shaped into bas-reliefs of dragons, lions, and aurochs to decorate the Ishtar Gate.