Fall of Babylon

Nabonidus’s unpopular religious reforms in favor of the moon god Sin led his people to favor rule by the Persian Cyrus the Great. Although the fall of Babylon ended one of the largest empires of the ancient Near East, the city itself lived on as an important cultural center.

Summary of Event

Babylon, centrally located in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, had been the capital city of Semitic kings who ruled most of the Fertile Crescent from 1900 to 1600 b.c.e. Best known of these rulers was Hammurabi. During the following millennium Babylon remained a vital economic and cultural center, acknowledged as a sacred city by the Assyrians and others. After the fall of Nineveh in 612, Babylon became the capital of a new dynasty of Chaldean rulers, beginning with Nabopolassar, who had shared with the Medes in the overthrow of Assyria. Nebuchadnezzar II
Cyrus the Great

The next Chaldean king, Nebuchadnezzar II, known in the Hebrew Bible as the conqueror of Jerusalem, controlled the entire Fertile Crescent and Phoenicia, even going so far as to invade Egypt. He enlarged and beautified many cities as his part in a religious revival. Even by modern standards, Babylon became a huge city, covering 500 acres (202 hectares) with paved streets, more than a thousand temples, elaborate gateways, and sumptuous palaces. For a Median princess whom he married, the king created the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon. He designed formidable defenses, including a triple circle of walls around Babylon itself and earthworks connecting the two rivers in a wider fortification that enclosed many other cities.

Babylon, after the fall.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

After Nebuchadnezzar, a short period of disorder ended in 556 b.c.e. when an official not directly of royal descent was crowned king. Nabonidus was more than sixty years old at the time, a pious man from a priestly family who devoted much energy to religious affairs. In an attempt to make the moon god, Sin, the supreme deity over his kingdom, he had huge temples erected for him as well as for other gods. Fascination with the past led him to dig for ancient foundation stones and to collect historical records. During much of his reign, he was absent from Babylon on expeditions to Arabia and Syria, leaving affairs at home in charge of his son Belshazzar.

When Nabonidus sought to rebuild a temple of Sin in Harran, the strategic center of northern Mesopotamia then held by the Medes, he sought military aid from Cyrus the Great, the ruler of Persia. Cyrus used Babylonian support to overcome the Medes, and then he marched westward to capture large areas of territory formerly subject to Nebuchadnezzar. By 546 b.c.e., his Persian troops dominated western Asia Minor and Greek cities along the eastern Mediterranean coast. Cyrus then marched eastward into India. Only Babylon remained unconquered.

In 540 b.c.e., the elderly Nabonidus returned to Babylon to defend his kingdom. Lacking soldiers to maintain all the fortifications developed by Nebuchadnezzar, he concentrated on a smaller area. Belshazzar was put in charge of troops guarding a defensive rectangle including the cities of Opis, Sippar, Cutha, and Borsippa, which were considered essential to the defense of Babylon. Inscriptions record efforts during a four-month period to bring into Babylon the gods of other, more distant cities, making these unprotected cities dependent.

Through propaganda, Cyrus had gained the admiration or respect of certain residents in Babylonia. His later reputation for religious tolerance and mercy is known through the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 484-c. 424 b.c.e.) and through Hebrew prophets who saw Cyrus as a savior of the oppressed. Some historians believe there was resentment in Babylonian cities against Nabonidus’s religious programs or as a result of economic difficulties. Perhaps it was a desire to reconcile native Babylonians that led Nabonidus, at the beginning of 539, to participate in the New Year festival at Babylon, for the first time in eleven years. This was an ancient rite invoking the triumph of Marduk over forces of evil; it also purified and reinstated the king.

Also in 539 b.c.e., Cyrus the Great came. With overwhelming numerical superiority and with the support of a “fifth column” within some Babylonian cities, the Persian army quickly breached the Chaldean defenses. Early in October, Cyrus attacked the city of Opis, aided by a turncoat Babylonian governor. There was rioting within the defensive perimeter, and a battle was fought in which Belshazzar was killed. Within a few more days, remaining key cities were seized or surrendered without siege, and Nabonidus fled from Babylon.

Herodotus enlivens his account of Babylon’s capture with a story that Cyrus diverted the Euphrates River into an old floodway, allowing his army to enter the city through a nearly dry riverbed. The older cuneiform record simply states that “the army of Cyrus entered Babylon without a battle” to receive the acclaim of many citizens.


Although the fall of the Chaldean Dynasty ended Babylon’s political supremacy, it did not cause the decline of the city as an economic and cultural center. Cyrus granted the area considerable autonomy and made Babylon his winter headquarters. A century later Herodotus described it as still “surpassing in splendor any city in the known world.” Indeed, one result of Cyrus’s victory was the economic unification of Mesopotamia with the Iranian plateau, a move that was important for later Parthian and Muslim cultures.

Further Reading

  • Beaulieu, Paul-Alain. The Reign of Nabonidus, King of Babylon, 556-539 b.c.
    New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. This study of Nabonidus’s reign draws chiefly on archaeological evidence.
  • Dougherty, Raymond P. Nabonidus and Belshazzar. 1929. Reprint. Brooklyn, N.Y.: AMS Press, 1978. Translations of the cuneiform sources on the last Chaldean ruler of Babylon, with commentaries.
  • Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. New York: Penguin, 2003. One of the primary sources on the fall of Babylon, although Herodotus’s account is biased, or at least sensationalized.
  • Pritchard, James B. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. 3d ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969. A scholarly work including Babylonian texts.
  • Roux, Georges. Ancient Iraq. 3d ed. New York: Penguin, 1993. A popular survey of Mesopotamian empires, with a brief account of Cyrus’s conquests.
  • Skaggs, Henry W. F. Babylonians. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. An archaeologically based history. The final chapter focuses on the Neo-Babylonian Empire and its downfall.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i><br />

Darius the Great; Cyrus the Great; Nebuchadnezzar II. Babylon;fall of (539 b.c.e.)