Mesopotamia—“the land between two rivers”—gave birth to many of the world’s first great cities. The splendid city of Babylon, located between the waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris some 60 miles south of Baghdad, was one of them. Unlike the many towns that fell and disappeared, Babylon was resilient, rising from its own ashes time and again, even as new conquerors invaded and took over. The pleasure its occupiers enjoyed came at a price, however, since the highly desired Babylon would always be seen as a prize for the taking.
Babylon has resonated in Judeo-Christian culture for centuries. The books of the Old Testament recount the exile of the Jews to Babylon following the sack of Jerusalem, by whose waters they “sat down and wept.” By the time of the New Testament, the city had become a potent symbol: the corrupt earthly twin city to the pure, heavenly New Jerusalem.
Outside the biblical tradition, Babylon intrigued Greek and Roman writers, who added to the rich store of legends that have come down to the present day. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote about Babylon in the fifth century B.C. A number of inconsistencies in his account have led many scholars to believe that he never traveled there and that his text may be closer to hearsay than historical fact. Popular tales of Babylon’s fantastic structures, like the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens, may also be products of legends and confusion. Yet to historians and archaeologists, Babylon is a real bricks-and-mortar place at the center of the vibrant Mesopotamian culture that it dominated for so many centuries.