Persia Conquers Babylon, October 539 b.c.e.

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Date: 2012
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 897 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1200L

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Capture of the Chaldean capital by the Persians

Key Figures

Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon from 605 to 561 b.c.e.

Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great), Achemenian king of Persia from 559 to 529 b.c.e.

Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, he reigned from 556 to 539 b.c.e.

Belshazzar, the son of Nabonidus and co-regent of Babylon.

Summary of Event

The Tigris-Euphrates Valley is located in the Middle East between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, which today forms a large portion of Iraq. The first settlers in the region were Sumerians drawn to settle there due to its location and fertility. They were followed by the Akkadians and then the Babylonians. Babylon was the centrally located capital city of the Semitic kings that ruled in the area from 1900 to 1600 b.c.e. Hammurabi was the sixth king of Babylon during the first Babylonian Dynasty and the best known of the Babylonian rulers.

In 612 b.c.e. the Assyrian capital Nineveh was besieged, conquered, and sacked by an alliance of military forces of Medes, Scythians, Babylonians, and Susianians. Babylon subsequently became the capital of a new Chaldean dynasty beginning with Nabopolassar, who ruled Babylon from 658 to 605 b.c.e., followed by Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar is noted in the Hebrew Bible for sending the Jews into exile after he conquered Jerusalem. He had a positive impact on Babylon and played a major role in a religious revival by enlarging and beautifying many cities. Babylon expanded until it covered 500 acres complete with paved streets, elaborate gateways, spectacular palaces, and more than 1,000 temples. Nebuchadnezzar created the famous hanging gardens to remind his wife Amyitis of her Persian homeland of Medis. He created formidable defenses including an unprecedented triple circle of walls around Babylon. He constructed underground passages and a stone bridge across the Euphrates River connecting the two halves of Babylon.

After Nebuchadnezzar died in 562 b.c.e. there was a period of disorder prior to the rise of Nabonidus in 556 b.c.e. Nabonidus was not of royal descent and was over sixty when he took the crown. A descendant from a line of priests, he devoted his attention to religious matters. He commissioned the construction of gigantic temples in an effort to make the moon-god, Sin, the supreme deity of his kingdom. He was fascinated with the past and spent significant time collecting history and leading digs in search of ancient foundation stones. He preferred leading expeditions to Arabia and Syria, leaving the governance of Babylonia to his son Belshazzar.

Nabonidus paid little heed to the Babylonian god Marduk, preferring to worship the moon-god Sin above all other gods. When he wanted to rebuild the temple of Sin in Harran (where his mother was a priestess) he had to seek military aid from Cyrus the ruler of Persia. Cyrus defeated the Medes and, encouraged by his recent victory, marched westward to capture significant portions of the territory formerly ruled by Nebuchadnezzar. By 546 b.c.e. his Persian troops dominated western Asia Minor and Greek cities located along the eastern Mediterranean coast before they marched eastward into India.

In 540 b.c.e., fearing a complete takeover by Cyrus, Nabonidus returned to Babylon to rally the defense of his kingdom. He lacked enough military might to defend all the fortifications built by Nebuchadnezzar. He put Belshazzar in charge of troops deployed to defend an area including the cities of Opis, Sippar, Cutha, and Borsippa, He believed that these cities were essential to a successful defense of Babylon.

Cyrus made use of propaganda to gain admiration and respect from the people of Babylonia. The works of Greek historian Herodotus reveal that he also gained a reputation for mercy and religious tolerance, a trait that Nabonidus lacked. For this reason, Hebrew prophets saw Cyrus as a savior of the oppressed. Some historians believe that economic difficulties and religious intolerance created significant resentment of Nabonidus by the Babylon people. In 539 b.c.e., for the first time in eleven years, Nabonidus participated in a New Year festival held in Babylon. The festival celebrated the triumph over forces of evil by the god Marduk. Many believe that this was an attempt by Nabonidus to reconcile his relationship with the Babylonians.

Late in 539 b.c.e. Cyrus brought in his large army and, with the help of a Babylonian underground working from the inside, he rapidly breached Chaldean defenses. Cyrus attacked the city of Opis in early October. Belshazzar was killed during the offensive amid rioting within the besieged city. In only a few days, other strategic cities fell to the invaders or surrendered without a confrontation. Facing certain defeat and probable death, Nabonidus fled from Babylon.

Herodotus relates a story that Cyrus diverted the Euphrates River into an old floodway thus allowing his army to enter the city via a dry riverbed. The Mesopotamian record written in a cuneiform script simply states, "The army of Cyrus entered Babylon without a battle."

The fall of the Chaldean dynasty ended their political leadership of Babylon. However, the city of Babylon continued as an economic and cultural center. Cyrus made Babylon his winter headquarters and granted the area considerable independence. One century later, Herodotus wrote that Babylon was "surpassing in splendor any city in the known world." Another legacy of Cyrus was the unification of the economies of Mesopotamia and the Iranian plateau, which was of great import to later Parthian and Moslem cultures.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2359070301