The Writing On The Wall: The Fall Of Babylon

The writing on the wall or the fall of Babylon was not a sudden thing. Babylonia zigzagged between power and failure for centuries before it was lost. Here is the history of those ups and downs, and a look at the mystery behind them.

Few mysteries of the Near East have endured as long as that of Babylon. History is replete with the descriptions of the times Babylonia and its capitol, Babylon, changed hands among the various Near Eastern leaders. However, no history can pinpoint the exact reason Babylon, in particular, suffered so many invasions, nor how its declining and rising power would eventually lead to its sudden and complete destruction.

For centuries after its fall, the capitol of Babylonia lay shrouded from human eyes by thick layers of desert sand, and many believed the ancient city forever lost. But, beyond all odds, Babylon has risen to the highest of heights, and fallen to the depths of obscurity, over the millennia. Yet, the strange polarity of its power has remained one of history's greatest mysteries.

The story of the city of Babylon actually begins centuries before it ever became the capitol of Babylon, or a world power. The area that was to become one of the pearls of the Near East was once the site of the Biblical structure known as the Tower of Babel. Babel, the Hebrew word which would eventually become Babylon, was a tower originally mean to connect Heaven and Earth. After building was halted on the tower, those who remained in the area began building up a city which would rise to glory.

By the time Babylon reached its height of power, several centuries later, it was the mightiest city in the ancient world, and capitol of the greatest nation on Earth. Located just south of Assyria, Babylonia was one of the wealthiest, not to mention strongest, nations, and Babylon was the commercial centre of the ancient Near East.

However, Babylon's greatness wasn't to last. Shortly after Babylonia conquered Judaea, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, went mad, and Babylon began the first decline of what was to become a successive line of triumphs and failures. Nebuchadnezzar's son, Nabonidus, who had overthrown his insane father in a court conspiracy, proved himself to be even less competent a ruler than his father. After a mere seventeen years of rule, Nabonidus had lost the loyalty of his people through religious scandal, persecutions, and his own general inability as King.

When Nabonidus abandoned Babylon entirely for eleven years in an egotistically cruel military expedition to gain control of the caravan and sea-borne trade routes, he left his capitol under the regency of his son, Belshazzar, whose control of the city would bring it to an even lower level. According to Biblical accounts, Belshazzar, while retaining his family's pride and ego, found himself troubled by a sense of unease. And then, at a feast for his nobles, the Prince and his guests witnessed a disembodied hand scribing the words "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Peres" on the palace wall. Frightened, he sought out anyone who could read the words upon his wall. That man was a Hebrew prophet named Daniel. According to the Bible, Belshazzar promised Daniel the riches of Babylon to interpret the message. Although Daniel refused the proffered wealth, he read the message of Yahweh for the regent:

"God has numbered your kingdom and finished it; you have been judged and found wanting; your kingdom shall be divided between the Persians and the Medes."

And so begins the centuries of conquest which would lead Babylon to even more greatness, and also to total destruction. On the night of the feast when the writing appeared on the wall, Belshazzar was killed and Darius of the Medes and Cyrus of the Persians took over the kingdom of Babylonia.

Although Babylonia's conquest appeared sudden to her people, it was actually far from unplanned. Cyrus of Persia, known in history as Cyrus the Great, had been slowly conquering portions of the Near East and adding them to his growing empire for decades before Babylonia fell to him. By the time Cyrus was ready to take on Babylonia, in early October 539 BC, the once-powerful nation was already in dire straits, and not prepared to repel a force the size of the Persian army. Under Nabonidus, the Babylonian army had become soft and weak, and under Belshazzar, they were only just beginning to regain their edge. They were far from ready to face hardened soldiers, fresh from the victories of conquest.

According to the histories of the day, just after the incident involving the palace wall, Belshazzar gathered his troops and rode to defend the city of Opis, near the Babylonian-Persian border. It appears probable that Belshazzar was killed that same night or shortly thereafter, attempting to defend Opis against Persian attack. This series of events would certainly explain why the Persians were able to conquer the city of Babylon without a single instance of violence. Of course, the bloodless conquest could also have been due to the dissatisfaction of the Babylonian people with their own rulers, and their desire to sample life under the rule of the powerful and advanced Persians. Historians believe that, had Belshazzar simply fled or been assassinated, Persia would have conquered all of Babylonia without spilling a single drop of blood. As it was, the Babylonian capitol was taken by Cyrus and his Persians on October 12, 539 BC.

While Cyrus, and his heir, Darius I, reigned in Babylonia, the city of Babylon rose once again to greatness, thrust into the forefront of scientific advancement. In Babylon, priestly scholars contemplated the heavens, drew maps of the constellations, and laid the foundations of modern astronomy and mathematics. By 332 BC, however, Babylonia had begun to stagnate yet again, with learning reserved for a very few privileged people. So, when Alexander the Great conquered Persia in 331 BC, Babylon once again gratefully opened its gates to an invader.

Under Alexander, Babylon flourished once more, as a centre of learning and commerce. But, after Alexander's death in 323 BC, Babylon could once again see that fateful writing on the wall. Alexander's empire was divided amongst his generals, and decades of fighting soon began, with Babylon caught in the middle of it all. By 130 BC, when the Parthian Empire took over Most of the Near East, Babylon was only a faded shadow of all it had once been. After succumbing to yet one more invader, Babylonia faded into obscurity, and Babylon, to dust.

The once-glorious city of Babylon, centre of learning and home to one of the ancient world's wonders, would lay covered in the sands of time, believed forever lost for the next two millennia. Then, in the mid-1800s, archaeologists stumbled across the ruins of Babylon quite by mistake. Many archaeologists have dug in the ruins of Babylon since then, but few have made any significant finds since 1913. In 1899, an archaeologist by the name of Robert Kaldewey began excavation of the site said to be the burial ground of Babylon. By 1913, he and his team had made some of the most amazing discoveries of archaeological history. Among those discoveries were the stunning Palace of Nebuchadnezzar, the breathtaking Gate of Ishtar, through which a long succession of invaders had entered the city, and even the foundation of the legendary Tower of Babel. Then, in 1913, he made his most spectacular discovery of all - a large plot of land and terraces believed to have been the lost Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world!

However, no matter the buildings uncovered or artefacts found, there is likely to never be a conclusion to the strange mystery that was Babylon. Speculation has run the gamut from Divine Will to curses, to runs of simple bad luck, when trying to explain Babylon's continuous rise and fall in world power. But, whatever the reason for its ascents and declines, Babylon will always capture the imagination of humanity, and thus it lives on in the pages of history.

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