The ancient metropolis of Babylon is one of the most famous cities of the ancient world and today can be found near the town of Al-Hillah in modern-day Iraq, about 53 miles south of Baghdad. Founded almost 5,000 years ago, the city on the Euphrates has seen empires rise and fall and has been the centre of the highest forms of culture as well as the most brutal wars and devastation.
It is estimated that Babylon was the largest city in the world between 1770 and 1670 BC, with a population of over 200,000. In 2019, UNESCO included Babylon as a World Heritage Site.
It is likely that Babylon was founded in the 3rd millennium BC and rose to prominence over the next 1000 years. By the 18th century BC, the city was the centre of the empire of Hammurabi and Babylon had become the religious centre of southern Mesopotamia.
However, after Hammurabi’s death the changing political and military nature of the region saw Babylon fought over countless times over the following centuries, with one empire or dynasty after another securing Babylon as their home. One such ruler was the Assyrian Shammuramat or Semiramis, whose ambitious building programme saw the mighty walls and gates encircle Babylon.
A resurgence of an independent Babylonian empire briefly flourished towards the end of the 7th century BC under king Nebuchadnezzar II – also famous for building great wonders within the city, including the renowned Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Ishtar Gate. Yet even his dynasty failed to last, with Babylon falling to Cyrus the Great, king of the Persian Empire, under whom Babylon became a great centre of learning and science.
In 331 BC, Alexander the Great captured Babylon and it was here that he died in 323 BC. After the fall of Alexander’s fledgling empire, Babylon was fought over by his surviving generals and was slowly abandoned over the following centuries.
Babylon saw increased tourism in the early 19th century, which drew the British East India Company from Baghdad. Disaster struck in 1855 when artefacts being transported along the Tigris river were sunk by pirates – not even half of the sunken artefacts have since been recovered.
The ruins of Babylon have suffered greatly due to looting and destructive policies, leaving little behind that captures the glory of the once-great city. In 1978, Saddam Hussein also built a ‘new’ version of ancient Babylon over the site.
Of Babylon’s ancient ruins, it is still possible to see parts of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace and some of the old city walls. You can also see a reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.
Although the site of Babylon is open to visitors, it is advisable to check with you government’s official travel advice policy before undertaking any trips to Babylon.
Getting to Babylon
From Baghdad, driving to Babylon’s ancient ruins will take an hour and a half along Route 1, and there is car parking shortly after you leave Route 8.
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