Nebuchadrezzar: the builder king of Babylon

The Bible depicts Nebuchadrezzar II and his city as doomed, but to his own people, he restored Babylon to glory.

Photograph by Franck Raux/RMN-Grand Palais
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A snarling lion from the sixth century B.C. once lined Babylon’s broad Processional Way that led from the Ishtar Gate, built by Nebuchadrezzar II. Louvre Museum, Paris.
Photograph by Franck Raux/RMN-Grand Palais

Nebuchadrezzar: A name rich with color, strength, and prestige belongs to one of the few Babylonian kings known by name today. Conqueror of kingdoms and restorer of Baby­lon, he left behind a legacy like no oth­er. Born in the seventh century B.C., he came to power as Babylonia was regaining its power in the region. He built on this momentum and took Babylonia to new heights, leav­ing behind Babylon’s beautiful Ishtar Gate and the grand Processional Way. His capture of Judah and exile of Jerusalem’s Hebrews would have a profound impact on Judaism’s sacred texts, many of which were composed in Baby­lon. Nebuchadrezzar’s empire would not long survive him. A short 22 years after his death, Babylonia fell to Cyrus the Great, king of Persia. (See also: Inside the 30-year quest for Babylon's Ishtar Gate.)

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The King's Dreams

In the Bible, Nebuchadrezzar is plagued by bad dreams, and the Jewish exile Daniel is able to interpret them for him. Mattia Preti's (Il Cavaliere Calabrese) 17th-century oil painting depicts the moment when Daniel explains their meaning to the king. Private collection.

Babylon rising

Nebuchadrezzar’s feats were built on those of his father, Nabopolassar, founder of the Chal­dean empire. Governor of the region of Chaldea, Nabopo­lassar seized the throne of Babylonia around 625 B.C., which until then had been controlled by the waning Assyrian Empire.

Nabopolassar forged a coalition with the Medes to the east and fought against the Assyr­ians for the next decade. In 612 B.C. they sacked Assyria’s then capital Nineveh and toppled their rule. Babylonia had long been in the shadow of Assyria, and now it was time for it to rise.

Dubbed the Neo­-Babylonian or Chaldean Empire by historians, Nabopolassar’s new king­dom faced strong threats, especially from Egypt, allies of the fading Assyrians. After the Battle of Megiddo in 609 B.C., Pharaoh Necho II took control of Judah, a small kingdom that would later play a large part in Nebuchadrezzar’s story.

For the first years of Nabopolassar’s reign, Egypt and Assyria continued to harass the new empire. His eldest son and crown prince Nebu­chadrezzar became involved in the military as a young man. Sources say he began his career in his late teens or early twenties and became amilitary administrator around 610 B.C.

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In several years, Nebuchadrezzar rose to com­mander. At first he led armies with his father, but took on sole com­mand when Nabo­polassar returned to Babylon. In 605 B.C. the crown prince soundly defeated Egypt and the remnants of the As­syrians at Carchemish in Syria. Returning to Babylon with Syria secured for the empire, Neb­uchadrezzar learned that his father had died. Within three weeks, Nebuchadrezzar was pro­claimed king of Babylonia. (See also: Beautiful Babylon: Jewel of the ancient world.)

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A map of Nebuchadrezzar II’s empire shows its extension from the Mediterranean, through the valleys between the Tigris and Euphrates, and down to the Persian Gulf.

Building up Babylon

In Akkadian, the new sovereign’s name, Nabu­kudurri­usur, means “Nabu [the Mesopotamian god of wisdom and writing], watch over my heir.” He was named after Nebuchadrezzar I, Babylon’s warrior king of the 12th century B.C., and pursued a path of expansionism. By the end of Nebu­chadrezzar II’s 44-­year reign, the empire had grown immensely. It stretched from Palestine and Syria, occupied the fertile valleys of the Euphrates and Tigris, and swept down to the Persian Gulf. Cities were sacked, nobles imprisoned, and peoples exiled to Babylon. The king, mindful of his legacy, recorded his achievements for posterity on fired-clay cylinders. The following inscription, taken from one now held by the British Museum, suggests that keeping the “peace” was a considerable burden on Nebuchadrezzar:

Far-off lands, distant mountains, from the Upper Sea to the Lower Sea, steep trails, unopened paths, where motion was impeded, where there was no foothold, difficult roads, journeys without water, I traversed, and the unruly I overthrew; I bound as captives my enemies; the land I set in order and the people I made to prosper.

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A cylindrical stela covered with close-written Akkadian inscriptions, details the three new palaces built by Nebuchadrezzar II. It was buried in the hopes that fure kings would discover it.

Vassal states would pay heavy annual tribute to Babylonia and feed its growing treasuries with: “silver, gold, costly precious stones, bronze, palm­wood, cedar­wood, all kinds of precious things, to my city Babylon I brought.”

Nebuchadrezzar II was a war­rior by necessity, but a builder by disposition.The funds collected from his states helped fi­nance his civic improvements. Nebu­chadrezzar focused much of his build­ing energies on restoring Babylon to its former glory. Years of war with the Assyrians the century before had led to the destruction of Babylon in 689 B.C. Neb­uchadrezzar II was following in the footsteps of his namesake, the first Nebu­chadrezzar, who, centuries before, had exalted Babylon over other cities, such as Nippur.

Continuing the work begun by Nabopolassar, the king built a great moat, defensive walls, and canals. He refurbished temples and sanctuaries, paved the Processional Way, and embellished his own legendary palace. Toward the end of his reign, around 575 B.C., he built what is probably Babylon’s iconic ancient landmark: the Ishtar Gate, decorated with cobalt glazed brick reliefs.

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The splendid Ishtar Gate, as it may have looked in Nebuchadrezzar's time, welcomed people to Babylon with its cobalt blue splendor.

In so doing, both Nebuchadrezzars exalted the god Marduk, Babylon’s patron deity, over other gods in the Mesopotamian pantheon. Inscrip­tions exalt Nebuchadrezzar II as the "favorite of the god Marduk," the king of the universe, who has “no enemy from the horizon to the sky,” creating a bond of greatness linking, god, king, and the city of Babylon.

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Glory to Marduk and Nabu A sixth-century B.C. seal shows a priest praying before symbols of Marduk, patron of Babylon, and Nabu, god of writing and learning. Nebuchadrezzar’s name invokes the latter.

If the favor of the god was regarded as crucial to the city, a more mundane resource—water—was also central to Babylon’s preeminence. The biblical Psalm 137, in which the Hebrew captives sit and weep “by the waters of Babylon,” may be a refer­ence to Babylon’s irrigation canals, the lifeblood of its economy and strength. Inscriptions pre­sent Nebuchadrezzar’s canal system as a labor of Herculean proportions: “Alongside Babylon, great banks of earth I heaped up. Great floods of destroying water like the great waves of the sea I made flow around it.”

This irrigation system may have fed one of Nebuchadrezzar’s most famous and mys­terious accomplishments: the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a wonder of the ancient world. De­scriptions of this palatial complex say it had five courtyards, residences for the king and his con­sorts, and an ornate throne room. The gardens allegedly held species of every tree and plant from the empire. Ancient Greek historian Herodotus described it as the “most magnificent building ever erect­ed on earth.” Ancient sources do not provide an exact location for the gar­dens, nor have archaeologists found remains, leading some to wonder if they ever existed at all.

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Life in exile

Nebuchadrezzar’s name echoes down through time not only due to his restoration of Babylon but also for his place in Judeo­ Christian Scripture. He plays a major role in several important episodes in the Old Testament, including the sacking of Jerusalem and the 70-year exile of the Jewish people to the city of Babylon.

After the defeat of the Egyptians and Assyr­ians at Carchemish in 605, the kingdom of Ju­dah and the city of Jerusalem fell under Baby­lonian control. Like other vassal states, Judah had to pay tribute to Babylonia. Unhappy with this arrangement, Judean kings rebelled several times, but Nebuchadrezzar’s retribution was swift and brutal. Babylonian forces razed Jeru­salem and destroyed the Tem­ple. Powerful Judeans were also captured and forcibly deported to Babylon three times: in 597, 587, and 582 B.C.

In the Bible, the Prophet Jeremiah warns these Judean kings that God is unhappy because they have permitted the return of pagan worship. They must return to the ways of God, or risk his vengeance: God will use “Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, [God’s] servant,” to “bring [the Babylo­nians] against this land and its inhabitants, and ... will utterly destroy them” (Jeremiah 25:9). The Judeans, however, fail to heed Jeremiah’s warnings, and the Babylonians descend.

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People of the Book Jewish communities in Babylonia and Palestine each created their own Talmud, a book of Jewish law, history, and scholarship. In its pages, shown in a 17th-century edition below, Jews would find an indispensable guide to their heritage no matter where they lived.

Jeremiah was spared, but most of Judah’s sur­vivors went into exile in Babylonia. The pain of separation from home runs through the books of the Bible devoted to this time, resulting in some of its most beautiful passages. In his al­legory of the Exile, Ezekiel casts Nebuchadrez­zar as a “great eagle, with great wings and long pinions, rich in plumage of many colors.” The eagle­ king is presented as an instrument of God, who carries away the Jews and plants them as a seedling in “fertile soil; a plant by abundant wa­ters, he set it like a willow twig” (Ezekiel 17:3­5). The experience profoundly shaped Jewish reli­gious and national identity.

Hebrew culture took root and flowered in Bab­ylon as the exiles built a community centered on religious life. Despite later being allowed to return to rebuild Jerusalem, many Jews stayed in Babylon. For centuries, the Babylonian com­munity was a strong center of the Jewish faith. The Babylonian Talmud, one of the central texts of Jewish religious law and theology, was pro­duced there.

Nebuchadrezzar died in 561 B.C. He was suc­ceeded by three, short­-lived weak rulers, the last of which, a child king, was murdered by Nabonidus, the last of the Chaldean rulers. Despite this violent power grab, Nabonidus was a scholarly man uninterested in politics, which cost him his throne. In 539 B.C. Cyrus the Great of Persia used Babylon’s canals to breach the city and seize it. The long reign of the Persians began, the Jew­ish exile was ended, and Babylon began a new chapter under new rulers, still regarded as the greatest city in the ancient world.