Nebuchadnezzar II remains the most famous of all Mesopotamian rulers. In large part, the enduring stature of this Babylonian king rests on the book of a people whom Nebuchadnezzar held captive for many years, the Israelites. He is known primarily through the biblical books of Daniel and Jeremiah. Legend also assigns Nebuchadnezzar a role in the building of one of the ancient world's Seven Wonders, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
Under his reign, Babylon reached the height of its magnificence. His armies conquered many lands. Babylonian influence would recede quickly after Nebuchadnezzar's death, but the name of the king himself would long outlast the city and the empire he built.
Nabopolassar and the Chaldeans
For centuries, Babylonia and Assyria warred for control of Mesopotamia and surrounding areas. Some time after the Assyrians sacked Babylon in 689 B.C., the Babylonians revolted. Although the Assyrians put down this revolt, it was clear that Babylon was on the rise. The leaders of this resurgence were a group called the Chaldeans (kal-DEE-uhns) from southern Babylonia. Their leader was Nabopolassar (nab-ohpoe-LASS-uhr; ruled 625-605 B.C.).
Nabopolassar formed an alliance with the Medes (MEEDZ) in northern Iran. Together they attacked the Assyrian capital at Nineveh (NIN-uh-vuh) in 612 B.C. The Assyrian court retreated to the west, where Egyptian forces protected them.
This led to a showdown between the Babylonians and Medes on the one side and the Egyptians and Assyrians on the other. The two forces met at Carchemish (KAR-kuh-mish) on what is now the border of Turkey and Syria, in 605 B.C. The leader of the Babylonian forces at Carchemish was Nabopolassar's twenty-five-year-old son, Nebuchadnezzar II (neb-youkuh-D'NEZ-ur), who led his armies to victory. After this, Baby-lonia claimed most of the Assyrian Empire.
The new king
On August 15, 605 B.C., while he was near the city of Damascus in Syria, Nebuchadnezzar received word that his father had died. He rushed home, covering nearly 600 miles in just two weeks—an impressive speed in the age of horseback travel. On September 7, he was crowned King Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon.
Aside from Babylonian inscriptions and a document called the Chaldean Chronicles, translated in the twentieth century, the primary sources of information on Nebuchadnezzar's life come from the Babylonian priest Berossus (buh-RAH-suhs; c. 290B.C.), whose research and conclusions later reappeared in the work of Josephus (joh-SEE-fuhs; A.D. 37-95) and in the Old Testament. Berossus is the source of the story that Nebuchadnezzar married the Median princess Amyntis (ah-MINtis) in order to seal the alliance between the two nations.
The Bible paints a fascinating picture of a man who destroyed Israel, yet sought the wisdom of the Israelites' god, Yahweh; a man who worshiped the Babylonian god Marduk (MAHR-dook), whom Yahweh despised, but who eventually (according to the Book of Daniel) came to recognize the god of Israel as superior. Long before that time, however, Nebuchadnezzar became known as the conqueror of Judah (JOO-duh), the last holdout from the tribes of Israel, who had been overwhelmed earlier by the Assyrians.
Conquering rebellious peoples
Nebuchadnezzar's first foreign-policy task was to bring Judah under Babylonian rule. It was a truly international conflict: the Babylonians employed Greek mercenaries, while the Judean king, Jehoiakim (jeh-HOY-uhkim; ruled c. 609-598 B.C.) formed an alliance with Necho II of Egypt (NEHK-oh; ruled 610-595 B.C.).
The prophet Jeremiah [see side-bar] warned Jehoiakim against the alliance with Egypt. Later, when Nebuchadnezzar was temporarily stopped, the prophet told him not to take advantage of the moment to revolt. Jehoiakim ignored him.
By 598 B.C., all Jeremiah's warnings came true as Nebuchadnezzar—probably aided by other nations around Israel—marched into Judah. On March 16, 597 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem and appointed a new king, Zedekiah (zed-uh-KIE-uh). He looted treasures from Jerusalem, taking them back to Babylon.
Over the next few years, Nebuchadnezzar dealt first with the people of Elam (EE-luhm), a region in southern Persia (596 B.C.); crushed a rebellion at home (595); and marched against Syria in 594 B.C. It appears that he conducted a long siege against the Phoenician city of Tyre, which ended in about 587 B.C..
The capture of Jerusalem
In 589 B.C., Zedekiah, perhaps thinking Nebuchadnezzar was distracted and that his allies in Egypt would come to his aid, led a revolt against Babylonian rule. This proved a great mistake.
In the summer of 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem, killing thousands of people and taking many more as prisoners back to Babylon. The prisoners included Zedekiah, whom they transported in chains. Many of these people would become servants of the Babylonians, though not slaves in the strictest sense of the word.
Nebuchadnezzar also seized treasures from Solomon's temple and transported them to the temple of Marduk. This was the height of humiliation to the Israelites, who dated the beginning of the Captivity from the Babylonians' capture of Jerusalem.
The glory of Babylon
Under the forty-three-year reign of Nebuchadnezzar, the city of Babylon flourished. It covered about 4 square miles (10.4 square kilometers), surrounded by a set of double walls, an outer wall 12 feet (3.7 meters) thick and an inner one 21 feet (6.4 meters) thick. Around the outside were a hundred towers, many of them 60 feet (18.3 meters) high, and beyond those a series of moats to further protect the city.
There were nine major gates to Babylon, the most famous of which was the Ishtar Gate (ISH-tahr) in the north. Covered in decorative figures and colored bricks, it was partially reconstructed in the 1920s and placed on display in Berlin's Pergamum Museum (PUHR-guh-muhm). Through the city ran the Euphrates River (yoo-FRAY-teez), across which Nebuchadnezzar erected a bridge some 400 feet (121.9 meters) long.
There was also a great ziggurat (ZIG-uh-raht), or temple tower, which stood about 300 feet (91.4 meters) high, as well as a huge temple to Marduk built by Nebuchadnezzar. In addition, some fifty temples (of which Nebuchadnezzar claimed to have built, or partially built, sixteen) dotted the city.
Then there were the fabulous Hanging Gardens, lush terraces covered with all manner of plant life, which Nebuchadnezzar supposedly built in order to satisfy Amyntis's longing for her mountain home. Whether or not this is true, the gardens certainly existed. If there were ever a Babylonian ruler with the power to command such a building project, it was Nebuchadnezzar.
The Greek historian Herodotus (see entry) visited Babylon years later, when it lay in ruins, but he still marveled at its glory. Perhaps he was the first to identify the Hanging Gardens as one of the ancient world's Seven Wonders.
The end of Nebuchadnezzar
Little is known about the last three decades of Nebuchadnezzar's life. Presumably, when he had finished conquering most of southwest Asia—he also apparently subdued Egypt in about 568 B.C.—he devoted himself to building projects in his home city.
The prophet Daniel offered some insight into Nebuchadnezzar's later years. Chapter 4 of the Book of Daniel reports that the king temporarily went insane as a lesson from Yahweh, but it is possible that the ruler who actually suffered this attack of mental illness was Nabonidus (nab-oh-NIE-duhs; r. 555-539 B.C.).
Nebuchadnezzar died in October of 562 B.C. Daniel had prophesied that his kingdom would not long outlast him. In 539 B.C., as Daniel 5 so chillingly recounts, the Babylonian king Belshazzar (bel-SHAZZ-uhr) lost his kingdom and his life to the Persians.
Despite this inglorious end to his empire, Nebuchadnezzar would be remembered as perhaps the greatest of all Babylonian kings. The names of powerful Assyrian monarchs such as Tiglath-pileser, Sennacherib, and Ashurbanipal are chiefly of interest to historians, whereas Nebuchadnezzar's name—thanks in large part to the holy book of the people he conquered—is a household word. Given the long-standing conflict between the two nations, not to mention his obvious interest in making a name for himself, it would probably thrill the Babylonian king to know this fact.
Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, glorious Prince, worshiper of Marduk ... firm, not to be destroyed ... King of Babylon am I. (from the Inscription of Nebuchadnezzar)