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 dictionary.com, 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.
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.
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)
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.
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.