Tag Archives: babylon

Nebuchadnezzar II, a king with issues.

With Halloween upon us, I thought I’d write about Nebuchadnezzar II, the great king of Babylon, the one known for building one of the most elusive wonders of the ancient world.

Now, unless you’ve read up on this famous king, or are familiar with the bible, you’re probably wondering what Nebuchadnezzar has to do with Halloween, so I’ll get right down to it…

King Nebuchadnezzar was a werewolf!

King Nebuchadnezzar at kind of a bad moment.

Well, he thought he was, anyway. We think. It is believed that King Nebuchadnezzar II suffered from lycanthropy, what Merriam-Webster defines as “a delusion that one has become or has assumed the characteristics of a wolf.”

Conversely, Melissa Barrett writes in her article, “Real Werewolves: Three Cases of Lycanthropy,” that “…clinical lycanthropy is often offered as a secular explanation for the biblical story of King Nebuchadnezzar.”

In my research to put this post together, I found all kinds of sources referring to Nebuchadnezzar as the first–and I assume only–biblical werewolf. It is through the bible that we are introduced to this part of Nebuchadnezzar’s eventful life and reign as the king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, also known as the Chaldean Empire.

Putting secular explanations aside, Nebuchadnezzar was a proud and boastful king, who had the bricks used to build the walls of Babylon inscribed with the statement, “I am Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon.” (Source)

Who’s he?

Born around 634 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II was the son of Nabopolassar, the liberator king of Babylonia after three centuries under Assyrian rule. King Nabopolassar left his son plenty to work with when he died around 605 BC, including political stability and wealth with which to expand and strengthen the empire he built, and Nebuchadnezzar’s ambition helped him build upon his father’s accomplishments.

Nebuchadnezzar began his journey to greatness by marrying Amytis, the daughter of the Median king Cyaxerxes, securing an alliance with his father’s allies against the Assyrians, the Medes. He then went on to defeat the Assyrians as well as the Egyptians, and became the first Babylonian king to rule Egypt. He also brought the regions of Palestine and Syria under his rule, and in turn controlled all trade routes stretching across Mesopotamia, from the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.

A panoramic view of the reconstructed city of Babylon. Note the thickness of the walls.

Nebuchadnezzar II is also credited with building what the Greek historian Herodotus (484 BC-425 BC) felt should have been included in the list of Seven Wonders–the walls of Babylon, which were 56 miles long according to the Ancient History Encyclopedia (another source says 10 miles), and so thick that chariot races were performed on top of them, along with the most famous entrance, the Ishtar Gate.

The original Ishtar Gate, which you can visit at the Berlin Museum. (Source)

Under Nebuchadnezzar’s rule, Babylon flourished as the center of art and literacy. Mathematics and craftsmanship also flourished then, along with religious tolerance and interest in other faiths and gods. Nebuchadnezzar built schools, and built and restored temples.

Nebuchadnezzar’s accomplishments are undeniably impressive, including being responsible for modern-day Judaism, and he might’ve been a hopeless romantic who built the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon to help his wife deal with her homesickness, for example, but the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament focuses on Nebuchadnezzar’s pride and narcissism (not to mention that pesky business of destroying the temple of Solomon and exiling the Jews), which brings us back to the Halloween aspect–to the werewolf.

A performance of Nabucco, Giuseppe Verdi’s most famous opera, about the biblical exile of the Jews to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, Nabucco in Italian. (Source)

Nebuchadnezzar is mentioned in several parts of the Bible, but it is in the Book of Daniel that a nightmare and a curse equal something supernatural.

The author of the RevDanTheMan blog writes in the post “A Werewolf in the Bible?”:

“Upon reading the Book of Daniel, we see that Nebuchadnezzar respected the God of Daniel[,] but he did not worship Him; he was a classic narcissist who believed in many gods[,] but who ultimately truly worshiped only the one [whose] image appeared every time he looked in a mirror.”

Well, pride and narcissism are never characteristics that bring good things to their bearers, especially in the Bible, so it is these flaws that bring on what is conjectured by some scholars to be lycanthropy.

According to the biblical account, Nebuchadnezzar’s troubles begin when he has a nightmare brought onto him by God as punishment for his pride and narcissism. The nightmare features a statue made of various materials; a head of gold, a chest of silver, a midriff of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with pottery (Source).

The statue from Nebuchadnezar II’s nightmare with a head of gold, a chest of silver, midriff of bronze, legs of iron and feet of iron mixed with pottery. (Source)

Nebuchadnezzar is troubled enough by this dream that he consults with magicians, sorcerers and conjurers for an interpretation, all to no avail. And this is perhaps where religious tolerance and interest in other faiths is most apparent in Nebuchadnezzar’s world, because he (eventually) asks the prophet Daniel to interpret his dream.

Daniel interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. (Source)

“You shall be driven from men,” Daniel tells the troubled king, “and your dwelling will be with the beasts of the field, and you will eat grass as oxen, and will be wet with the dew of heaven, and seven years will pass over you, till you know that the most High rules the kingdom of men, and gives it to whoever He will.”

I feel it important to mention at this point that lycanthropy is not exclusive to the form of a wolf. Harvey Rosenstock, M.D. and Kenneth R. Vincent, Ed.D., write in their article in The American Journal of Psychiatry: “The animals in the delusioned transformation include leopards, lions, elephants, crocodiles, sharks, buffalo, eagles, and serpents.”

And so, after refusing to repent, Nebuchadnezzar is struck by the curse of what is believed to be lycanthropy for the next seven years, and it was like there was a werewolf in Babylon.

The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’, and his nails like birds’.”

And after seven long years of living like a beast, Nebuchadnezzar finally repents and recognizes Daniel’s God, after which he returns to his former greatness.

Nebuchadnezzar II’s Legacy

Nebuchadnezzar II might’ve suffered from lycanthropy, he might’ve suffered from syphilis, we don’t know. Without archaeological evidence, we cannot be sure that he even suffered from anything other than a common cold here and there. We do know that Nebuchadnezzar II, who the historian Sir Henry Rawlinson labeled “the greatest monarch that Babylon, or perhaps the East generally, ever produced,” died an old man in 605 BC, in the city he made it his life’s mission to make one of the greatest the world would know. We might not have archaeological evidence of a werewolf in Babylon, or the legendary token of love he built for his wife, but we do have archaeological evidence of Nebuchadnezzar’s greatest achievement…Babylon.

Sources and further reading:


Posted by on October 20, 2013 in Babylon, Holidays, Kings


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dissecting Mesopotamian Jewelry

A female attendant found in the Great Death Pit at the Royal Tombs at Ur. Often mistaken for Queen Pu-abi, this attendant is one of 26 others found wearing such adornments. (Source)

There is something about ancient Mesopotamian jewelry that sets it apart from any other in antiquity. That something is more than just a distinct style or taste. Mesopotamian jewelry was a large artery in the anatomy of each civilization that rose in the land between the two rivers, and its story is one worth reading.

Jewelry wasn’t a new concept when Sumerians got their innovating hands on it around 2750 BC, but their innovations made their jewelry, produced from that point to the Assyrian period, around 1200 BC, seem like it was an entirely new invention.

In fact, scholars and jewelry makers today look to Sumerian work as the progenitor of modern jewelry.

“Sumerian jewellery fulfilled practically all the functions which were to occur during the course of history. In fact, there were more different types of jewellery than there are today.” – Guido Gregorietti, jewelry historian (Source)

Of course, jewelry served as a status symbol in Mesopotamia as it always has everywhere else, but it also played a significant role in how the Mesopotamian civilization functioned. Let’s begin the journey to understand ancient Mesopotamian jewelry.

What it was for

It goes without saying that jewelry served as a status symbol for noblemen and noblewomen, and royals, in Mesopotamia. Royals were buried with theirs, like Queen Pu-abi at the royal cemetery at Ur.

The lavish royal tombs of Ur, along with those at Nimrud, are considered the most significant finds in the study of ancient Mesopotamian jewelry, because they held a lot of it and have helped explain the types and their uses. The three tombs at Nimrud alone held some 1500 pieces of jewelry, weighing a total of 100 lbs. At Ur, some 17 tombs were excavated, and they were simply loaded with jewelry.

Now, royals weren’t the only ones acquiring jewelry in ancient Mesopotamia. For example, we know of a jewelry-loving high priestess through her own letter of complaint to a jeweler, who she had paid in advance for a necklace she never received.(Source)

Jewelry was also a fail-safe wedding gift, as well as a commodity used in dowries and inheritances of the upper classes.

It was used as a tool in diplomacy, but was also the subject of war under the heading of wealth. Some of the jewelry unearthed in Mesopotamia is loot from military campaigns, mostly during the Assyrian period.

A relief depicting the destruction of Susa. Assyrian soldiers can be seen carrying away the loot, which included silver and gold jewelry. (Source)

The most significant incident of jewelry looting was documented by the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, who wrote of the state in which he left the Elamite city of Susa, including what booty he took home:

Susa, the great holy city, abode of their gods, seat of their mysteries, I conquered. I entered its palaces, I opened their treasuries where silver and gold, goods and wealth were amassed… I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt. (Source)

Jewelry was also offered to the gods at temples, and the practice of being buried with jewelry was a person’s attempt to go to the afterlife bearing gifts to the gods.

Mesopotamians adorned their statues and idols with jewelry to further clarify it as a spiritual and/or magical tool.

Bloodstone was worn by Babylonians for protection against their enemies and was also used in divination.

Mesopotamians pioneered astrology and astronomy, and they worshiped the planets, which they believed controlled their fates as individuals, as well as groups. They paired each planet with its own unique gemstone, therefore inspiring the idea of birthstone jewelry.(Source)

Wedding bands, as we know them today, in precious metal form, also got their start in Mesopotamia. They were only worn by women, and they communicated what is considered to be, well, a little less romantic message than ours, that tells of a woman’s status as someone’s property.

The specifics of who wore what

A close-up of a relief detailing Ashurbanipal, wearing hoop earrings and a royal headdress. Notice that he is wearing earrings, but the man next to him, who is wearing simple headbands, is not. Jewelry was definitely a recognizable and notable status symbol. (Source)

Mesopotamian men wore earrings, necklaces, armlets, bracelets, pectoral ornaments and headbands, while women wore the same and more, including headdresses with foliage and flowers made from sheet gold, large crescent shaped earrings, chokers, large necklaces, belts, dress pins and rings on their fingers.(Source)

Two of Queen Pu-abi’s gold rings. She was wearing ten rings when found. Her attendants also wore similar rings. (Source)

The jewelry of an attendant from the Royal Tombs of Ur. Notice the three rosettes at the top of her headdress with gold leaves at the bottom, large hoop earrings and various bead necklaces, all signature Sumerian designs. Carnelian, lapis lazuli and gold are dominant. (Source)

An illustration that clearly shows Sargon II wearing earrings, arm bands and bracelets. The woman behind him is  wearing the same. (Source)

Beaded headbands found at the Royal Tombs at Ur, the lower one was found in a male’s grave. (Source)

From Akkadian times of the early third millennium BC, men wore bead necklaces and bracelets. In the first millennium BC, Assyrian men and women wore earrings, bracelets, and amulets. Earrings, for example, were mostly designed into hoops, crescents, grape clusters, cones, and animal and human heads.(Source)

“Sumerian work is flavoured with amazing sophistication … delicacy of touch, fluency of line, a general elegance of conception,” wrote jewelry expert Graham Hughes. “All suggest that the goldsmiths’ craft emerged almost fully fledged in early Mesopotamia.” (Source)

What it was

The materials used in Mesopotamian jewelry were the basic copper, gold, silver, and electrum, along with the not-so-basic gemstones like agate, carnelian, chalcedony, crystal, jasper, lapis lazuli (which was valued higher than any other material, even gold), onyx and sardonyx. Also used were shells and pearls.

“Queen Pu-abi’s beaded cape, belt, and jewelry. The circle on the lower left is her garter; on the lower right is her wrist cuff (bracelet).” (Source)

These materials were used to make jewelry designs featuring stars, rosettes, leaves, grapes, cones, spirals and ribbons. Cylinder seals were also used, but were made by seal makers, separate from jewelers.

How it was made

Modern jewelry experts have dubbed Sumeria the cradle of the goldsmith’s art.

A headband with detailed gold foil leaves. Sumerian goldsmiths used the lost-wax technique to draw the veins on each gold foil leaf. (Source)

These craftsmen made most gold and silver items by cutting the precious metals into thin sheets, which they shaped with hammers and other tools.(Source) They also made gold chains with the basic loop-in-loop method, which is a testament to the firm grip Sumerian goldsmiths had on working with gold wire. They also engraved, and used techniques like cloisonne, filigree, and granulation.(Source)

A Sumerian gold bead with a filigree design. (Source)

Hair ornaments with granulation and cloisonne techniques.(Source)

Also, to make solid and hollow ornaments they used the cast cold technique. To trace details like veins on gold foil leaves, and grooves on beads, the lost-wax technique was employed.(Source)

An amulet like this one, found at the Royal Tombs at Ur, is an example of what was made using the cast cold technique. (Source)

No actual jewelry shops have been unearthed in Mesopotamia, but the tools of jeweler Ilsu-Ibnisu, one of two Sumerian jewelers whose names we know from the city of Larsa, put into perspective what Sumerian jewelry makers used. His tools were found inside a jar, and included a small anvil, and bronze tweezers.(Source)

The economics

It is important to understand that although the Mesopotamian civilization was beyond rich in food production, thanks to its location on the Fertile Crescent, it was still a land of few resources. Metals and stones to make precious jewelry were especially scarce, necessitating what eventually shaped up to be an entire economy, based on the import of raw precious materials and the export of finished jewelry pieces. This would help Mesopotamians keep up with the growing exotic tastes of the upper crust of society.

A typical Mesopotamian combination was of lapis lazuli, gold and carnelian.(Source)

Early Sumerian sources tell us that gold and silver were imported from Anatolia and northern Iran, while the highly-prized lapis lazuli came from Afghanistan (Source). Carnelian came all the way from India.(Source)

Now, because most jewelry craftsmen were of the lower classes in ancient Mesopotamia, and made very little money, they did not have the means to obtain the materials they needed from as far as 1,500 miles away. Such craftsmen belonged to government-controlled guilds that acted as liaisons between them and their local royal palace.

It is clear that after the rapid growth and development of cities like Ur of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, and the Assyrian Assur and Nineveh, the wealth of aristocrats there and their demand for luxury goods increased, turning the business of jewelry into an entire trade network, a commercial enterprise that required the teaming up of the lower classes with the greatest powers in the land-the government.

Mark Schwartz, an expert featured on an Ancient Warfare Magazine podcast, “The Assyrians at War,” gives an example of how trade worked. He points to the old Assyrians living under the merchant system obtaining gold from Anatolia through the export of textiles (scrub to the 11:25 point in the podcast to hear this).

The Sumerians’ Legacy

Although when we talk about ancient Mesopotamian jewelry we are referring to jewelry produced by Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians and Assyrians alike, it was really the achievements of the Sumerians in jewelry making that we marvel at the most. It was they who who wrote the opening chapter for jewelry making, not only for other Mesopotamian civilizations, but also the ancient and modern worlds.

Sources and Further Reading:


Posted by on July 24, 2012 in Artifacts, Assyrian, Jewelry, Nimrud, Sumerian


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Part II: Hammurabi!

As part of “The Mesopotamians” band he is the lead singer with sharply side-swept hair, one visible eye, and a ring in his lower lip. They Might Be Giants (TMBG) made him out to look part hipster, part emo, and at least to me, made his personality reminiscent of that of Ralph from The Lord of the Flies (LOF).

He is Hammurabi.

Clearly the picture above shows that Hammurabi was nothing like the lead singer of The Mesopotamians, but perhaps if Hammurabi lived today, he might just be a guy named Ralph who’s a natural leader, maybe a lawyer or a judge or a law professor, maybe even the president of a very wise nation, who leads by doing right even in the face of a not-so-right society, with hipster hair and the face of an emo accented with a lip ring. Who knows?

(I mean, I don’t even know if Hammurabi’s hairstyle in the video was just a way to camouflage his other eye, which he might have had to give for an eye? Are TMBG trying to tell us that Hammurabi was so just that he did not exempt even himself from the Lex Talionis?)

What we do know is that there’s only one Hammurabi, and he was like the new sheriff in town, or Ralph in LOF. He was really into keeping everyone civilized and under control.

He was a great military leader who transformed a small city-state into one of the greatest empires the world has ever known. He was also one heck of an administrator. It is even said that he personally oversaw navigation, irrigation, agriculture, tax collection, and the erection of many temples and other buildings in Mesopotamia, which left him super busy, I’m sure.

He even wrote about all the stuff he did in some 55 letters that were discovered, and the letters give a glimpse into what he had to deal with as the king of an eventual empire; on the side, Hammurabi had to deal with floods, making changes to the Babylonian Calendar and taking care of livestock.

Hammurabi built only the second extensive empire in Mesopotamia, and ruled it justly by first allowing the leaders of the city-states he’d conquered to continue to rule over their city-states. He in turn ruled over them with laws that were fair enough to keep his reign as the first king of the Babylonian Empire relatively peaceful.

Hammurabi was a generally peaceful guy. No blood was shed for his acquirement of the throne. Hammurabi succeeded his father to the throne of Babylon when it was still just a city-state around what scholars believe to be 1792 BC. This made him the sixth king of the city-state of Babylon, and nothing too special.

But then, around 1786 BC, Hammurabi began working, or dictating to scribes scribing over tablets that measured eight feet in height and seven feet in width, rather, on what we know today as the Code of Hammurabi. Most people have heard of this big deal thing for humanity, or know of Hammurabi through it, and it is what made Hammurabi one of the most recognized leaders of the ancient world, and the lead singer of The Mesopotamians. Not to mention pretty special.

Hammurabi’s Code

The most recognizable ancient artifact the world over has got to be the Code of Hammurabi stele on which 282 laws, or judgments, are written in Akkadian Cuneiform script. The stele has a bas relief at the top that depicts Hammurabi standing before the throne on which it is believed the sun-god Shamash (also the god of justice), or as some have speculated, even Marduk, the patron deity of the city of Babylon, sits. It is this illustration that tells the story of how Hammurabi came to be the authority on what were dubbed the dinat mesarim or “just verdicts”.

Hammurabi’s Code dealt with every aspect of Mesopotamian life, from trade to incest, and it is where the Lex Talionis or “Law of Retaliation,” or the “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” deal first appeared. The Code of Hammurabi also introduced the idea of the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven, which gave the accused and accuser the opportunity to present evidence.

Hammurabi introduces the purpose of his laws, which are really more like judgements, in this way:

“To promote the welfare of the people, I, Hammurabi, the devout, god-fearing prince, cause justice to prevail in the land by destroying the wicked and the evil, that the strong might not oppress the weak.”

No doubt when we look at certain offenses and the corresponding punishments, Hammurabi’s judgments may seem severe by our standards, seeing as how the punishments varied from disfigurement (he really meant eye for an eye, guys!) to just plain old death:

“If anyone steals the minor son of another, he shall be put to death.”

And although Hammurabi introduces his Code as a tool that stops the strong from oppressing the weak, it still maintained the social classes:

“If a man strikes the cheek of a freeman who is superior in rank to himself, he shall be beaten with 60 stripes with a whip of ox-hide in the assembly.”

(A side note) My favorite lyric in the song “The Mesopotamians” that drives home further the brand of justice, or logic, Hammurabi implemented throughout his Code is this:

This is my last stick of gum/

I’m going to cut it up so everybody else gets some/

Except for Ashurbanipal, who says my haircut makes me look like a Mohenjo-Daroan.

On the Job

Over a span of some 42 years after he took the job of king, Hammurabi did his daddy proud, as he went from being the sixth king of a mere city-state, to the king of an empire he himself established by conquering other Mesopotamian warring city-states, including Sumer, Akkad and others to the south of Babylon around 1760 BC. He did this by knowing when to move in on his opponent, and when to stand back and strengthen not only his offense, but also his defense; he spent a lot of time heightening walls and improving fortifications of his cities, and continued to do so until the very end of his reign.

As a result of his smart strategies, Hammurabi was even bring Assyria under his empire, a strong opponent he had to wait and build strength to acquire, and even northern Syria. He built and kept his empire with his military prowess first, and diplomatic justice wielding persona second.

Although his reign was relatively peaceful, Hammurabi still had to fight wars, particularly in the last 14 years of his rule. The wars ranged from acquiring more city-states to his empire, including the city of Larsa, which helped him acquire older Sumerian cities in the south. In 1763 he fought to protect his empire’s access to metal-producing areas in Iran.

An Innovator and Humanitarian

Hammurabi was also an innovator and all-around improver. He built temples, dug canals and improved the irrigation process by implementing perhaps the world’s first use of windmills.

“King Hammurabi of Babylon used wind powered scoops to irrigate Mesopotamia.” (Source)

No doubt the improvement in irrigation kept city-states happy, and mostly peaceful, considering they were fighting each other for fertile agricultural land to begin with.

Hammurabi also promoted astronomy, mathematics and literature. I’m guessing he probably also promoted literacy, and I surmise this from the fact that his code of laws was put on public display for everyone to read.

He was really a humanitarian

The Legacy of Hammurabi

When Hammurabi died an old and sick man around 1750 BC, he left his empire to his son, and for humanity an eternal legacy.

Although the dates of his reign are questioned, they do seem to coincide with biblical accounts that give him a possible place in the Bible as Nimrod, the great grandson of Noah. The Ten Commandments and the justice system as a whole are also linked to Hammurabi and his Code.

Under Hammurabi’s rule, Mesopotamians enjoyed a time during which all sorts of amenities flourished, marking the Babylonian Empire as one with strong influences still seen today. When he died, no one was able to do what he did as well as he did, but it was going to be okay, because we’re still talking about him today and living by many laws he set in stone that continue to define our humanity.

Hammurabi on Supreme Court Frieze. (Source)


That’s a pretty great king, and a pretty great lead singer of a band like The Mesopotamians.

Sources and Further Reading:


Posted by on February 28, 2012 in Babylon, Kings


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Mesopotamia’s gooey symbol of progress

Asphalt is not a very exciting subject. Between you and me, about the only fun I’ve ever had with asphalt before today was when I briefly thought The Clash were singing “Rock the Asphalt,” instead of “Rock the Casbah,” in their song of that title.

And yet here I am, writing about bitumen, better known to us modern people as asphalt, and let me tell you, the stuff is quite fascinating.

Though it’s a thick black substance that you could do anything with but see through, the bitumen and the role it played in Mesopotamia provides a window through which we can see how this gooey stuff helped the Mesopotamian civilization thrive.

Although Mesopotamians were not the first to use bitumen as an adhesive, it seems they had a monopoly on the substance as more than an adhesive for putting tools and weapons together. Sumerians called it esir, and Akkadians called it iddu.

Bitumen oozed out of the ground at various locations in the ancient Middle East, but it did not flow quite like it did in the land between the two rivers, and the needs of the Mesopotamian civilization were such that bitumen played a much bigger role in Mesopotamia than anywhere else in the ancient world.

The city of Hit in central Iraq was, and remains a hub of bitumen deposits, which have been utilized for thousands of years. The Akkadian name for bitumen, iddu, is synonymous with the ancient Mesopotamian name of the city, Id, and iddu translates into “the product from Id.” Though excavations have found that bitumen from Hit was only used in Babylon, Mesopotamians all across the land between the two rivers used bitumen from a number of different places. (Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and Industries: Archaeological Evidence By Peter Roger Stuart Moorey)

Mutterings of the underworld gods

The Mesopotamians not only valued bitumen for its practical uses, but also because they thought the muffled noise they heard coming from around its source, the sound of gas escaping from crevices, was the muttering underworld gods.

In the article titled “Bitumen – A History,” published in Saudi Aramco World Magazine, Zayn Bilkadi wrote:

So important were the bitumen deposits of Hit to the Babylonian and Assyrian kingdoms that the city itself acquired a sacred character. A passage in the annals of King Tukulti Ninurta II (890-884 B.C.) reads: “In front of Hit, by the bitumen springs, the place of the Usmeta stones, in which the gods speak, I spent the night.”

Bilkadi also writes that although bitumen was in use even in prehistoric times, the first people to use it on a large and dependent scale were the settlers of the marshy land in southern Mesopotamia, who occupied the region as early as 4500 BC.

Known as the Ubaids, the settlers of the marshy lands lived in houses made of marsh reeds, which they would bundle together with bulrush fiber. Before bitumen, the Ubaids only coated their walls with mud, leaving them vulnerable to frequent flooding and other elements. Once they discovered bitumen deposits and observed the substance’s behavior as an adhesive and sealant, however, they ditched mud and began coating their homes with bitumen.

A Sumerian reed house impression.

A floating village in Iraq's marsh lands, which features the same type of homes the Ubaids built. (

The Ubaids didn’t stop with their homes. They also used bitumen to seal their paddle boats, also made of marsh reeds. The Ubaids became the first seafarers to be documented in history, thanks to waterproofed boats allowing them to venture further out to sea.

Moving away from the marsh lands, Mesopotamians were building structures with bricks made out of clay up north, which were not much better than marsh reeds when faced with flooding. With the discovery of bitumen came the ability to build more durable bricks and structures, including the Ziggurat, and the Tower of Babel.

Bitumen in art

According to an entry on the website,, an “online community for all things pavement,” asphalt was also used by the Sumerians to inlay shell, precious stone and pearls on statues and other decorative art, including the sound box of the Golden Lyre of Ur, which featured bitumen as back fill for shell art.

Bitumen acts as back fill and adhesive for shell art on the sound box of the Golden Lyre of Ur.

Finally, we get to a more familiar use for such a substance: the paving of roads.

The first recording of roads being paved with iddu was not until 625 BC, during the 20-year reign of King Naboppolassar (625 BC – 605 BC). The Babylonian king had the road that leads from his palace all the way to the north wall of the city of Babylon paved with asphalt (Source here). His son, Nebuchadnezzar (605 BC-562 BC) also followed suit, and had roads leading from his palace paved in honor of Babylonian gods, driving further the idea that the resource was highly valued. (Source here.)

Procession Street is a wide, walled roadway through the ancient city of Babylon. It is quite fascinating to see the patches of asphalt left over after the wear and tear of centuries. (

Bitumen is Mesopotamia’s symbol of progress

Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II was especially fond of bitumen and is credited with the construction of many amenities throughout the ancient city of Babylon, including a bridge over the Euphrates River held up by piers featuring bitumen, a large sewer system lined with bitumen, and he also laid down the first paved streets with bitumen-mortar.

Bilkadi writes:

To Nebuchadnezzar, bitumen was a daily symbol of progress and prosperity, visible not only in the tower that he cherished, but in every paved street, wall, bath, bridge and drain pipe his workers touched.

I guess King Nebuchadnezzar knew what I might deduce thousands of years later, when I read about how bitumen helped the Mesopotamian civilization thrive.

I will never look at asphalt the same way ever again, and hope you won’t either.


Leave a comment

Posted by on January 6, 2012 in Babylon, Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

A Case for Babylon

Walls of Babylon. (Source)

Babylon is a name we hear often, in everything from biblical discussions to reggae song lyrics. Although it is the name of the ancient city on the Euphrates, according to, it is also “any rich and magnificent city believed to be a place of excessive luxury and wickedness.”

Most people know about Babylon being mentioned in the Bible as that place of “excessive luxury and wickedness,” but it’s not just the Bible that portrays the grand city as such. The Greek historian Herodotus does the same.

But why?

Let’s start with a tiny bit of etymology. The name Babylon is the Greek form and is derived from the Akkadian name, Babili, which translates to “Gate of God” or “Gateway of the God(s).”

Many temples were built in Babylon, including the great temple of Marduk with its associated ziggurat. The Tower of Babel, a great biblical icon, is a landmark of the ancient city, even though we only know it existed through written descriptions of it, thanks to the writings of Herodotus and its mention in the Bible.

“The Tower of Babel” by Peter Bruegel (Source)

Now, through this mental picture of a city filled with temples, a city whose name reiterates its homage to a god, I can’t help but deduce that although Babylon might have been a city of excess and luxury, it couldn’t have been all that arrogant. I will explain why I’ve come to this conclusion, and not the conclusion that the city’s inhabitants had such a good relationship with their gods, that they were convinced, to point of arrogance, that the gods would protect them and the walls that surrounded their city from any harm…

Although there was very little covered about Mesopotamia in all my history classes, there was one thing that was driven home by all my ancient history professors: the Mesopotamians feared their gods. Mesopotamians believed that their gods were vengeful beings just looking for ways to hurt their subjects. Mesopotamians believed that their gods were basically out to get them.

One professor went so far as to describe the Mesopotamian mindset as: “We’re all going to hell in a hand basket, might as well make the most of what we’ve got.”

Now, drawing from that, which might be an inaccurate historical assessment for all anyone knows, it’s hard to imagine a people so afraid, so careful to pay homage to their vengeful gods by building temples and making their city a gateway for the gods by naming it as such, that they would think a wall would make them all-around invincible.

The way I see it is if you believed your gods were that vengeful, you would see any force that poses a threat to you as a harbinger of a god’s wrath, that you would think it was all over and there was nothing to be done but sit around and wait for fate.

The way I see it is, complete and utter surrender to fate might have been what the Persian king Cyrus saw when he entered the city after laying siege to it in 539 BC, and not obliviousness to the calamity that has befallen the city and its inhabitants. Herodotus documents this siege of the city, and the Bible does the same, by saying that when the Persians entered the fallen city, they found its inhabitants going about their excessive, luxurious lives, oblivious to the magnitude of the threat of the Persian army right outside their walls.

Given that the only time my professors ever brought up Mesopotamia was when they wanted to compare and contrast other civilizations, particularly Egypt, and sometimes Greece, isn’t it possible that the Babylonians’ reaction to the fall of their city was simply misconstrued as obliviousness, when it was really just complete and utter surrender to something greater than all their grandeur and power?

Let’s think about this for a second: the Bible, though used as a wealthy source and reference for many historical accounts that are scant at best in written form anywhere else, is often questioned by scholars. Scholars believe the Bible is too steeped in moral purpose to report on things without at least some form of exaggeration in order to drive moral lessons home.

Herodotus’s writings give us less morally driven descriptions of the ancient city, mostly because along with the rituals and lifestyles of the Babylonians, he describes the city right down to the number of stories in a typical Babylonian house. Still, scholars believe that Herodotus’s writings are given to exaggeration.

J. Andrew McLaughlin writes in an essay, Herodotus and the City of Babylon, that as much as the Bible is responsible for the portrayal of Babylon as a wicked place of arrogance, Herodotus is just as responsible for Babylon’s reputation as a model of infamy. “Whether or not his accounts of some of Babylon’s morally questionable customs reflect historical reality, he is responsible (at least in part) for its reputation as a place of hubris, hedonism, and depravity,” McLaughlin writes.

McLaughlin also mentions the belief by many that Herodotus might not have even visited the ancient city in the mid 5th century BC or at all, and that his writings were all written down as they would’ve been told orally, a point which reinforces the idea that there is a degree of exaggeration to Herodotus’s description of Babylon and its inhabitants.

One example McLaughlin used in his essay to demonstrate this point is how Herodotus alludes to how fertile Mesopotamian soil is by stating that its wheat yields are in the three-hundredfold range, a number, which, according to a modern scholar referenced in the essay, Georges Roux, is higher than that of Canada’s most modern wheatfield today. (Source)

The Euphrates River bisects the city of Babylon. (Source)

As to the question of Herodotus’s credibility, some of his descriptions of the city, when cross referenced with archaeological evidence, as well as the Bible, have pointed to inaccuracies.

The discrepancies are nothing major, but as they are details that don’t make or break what we know about the city, they are definitely cause for questions that go beyond the element of exaggeration.

For instance, had Herodotus seen Babylon for himself, he might’ve noticed that the royal palace and the great ziggurat are not located on opposite sides of the Euphrates River like he says they were.

Another reason McLaughlin says Herodotus had a hand in giving Babylon such a bad rep is his description of a ritual he calls “sacred prostitution,” in which a man throws a silver coin of any value to a woman on display, forcing her to prostitute herself to him after he utters a phrase that is believed to invoke the gods, after which acts are performed in a room within the Tower of Babel for a night.

I’d like to think that much like we are given to misunderstand the rituals and views of cultures different from ours, perhaps Herodotus was just looking at the city and its people through the eyes of a Hellenistic Greek, from a place where women, at least, are held to different moral standards than those of Mesopotamia, which fueled an unintentionally harsh assessment of a different culture and painted it as an example of all that is bad.

The negative stigma surrounding Babylon may forever live in religious texts and Bob Marley’s songs, but I think that maybe we need to look beyond what we may never understand and focus on what this great ancient city held within its walls, which is mesmerizing…

Babylon is where the Code of Hammurabi came to be, where the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built by a rather romantic king for his homesick queen and still mesmerizes us simply through description, where powerful queens like Semiramis ruled, and innovation and civilization thrived for centuries.

Panoramic view of the rebuilt ruins of Babylon. (Source)

Should you ever happen to be walking along the fertile Mesopotamian plain of today, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, you just might stumble upon the ruins of Babylon, just 55 miles (89 km) south of Baghdad. And we should all be so lucky as to be in such an amazing spot, where humans were either at their worst or their best, nobody knows for sure.

Either way, they were people who obviously loved life, and there is no wickedness in that.



Posted by on December 12, 2011 in Uncategorized


Tags: , , , , , , , ,