The View of Babylon at the Near End of History

by Esteban

“The influence and prestige of Mesopotamia ensured that its myths, legends, and history were widely disseminated in the Near East and beyond. Many elements of Assyrian and Babylonian legal institutions and laws, science, astronomy, mathematics and medicine, calendar and the division of time, as well as magical and ritual beliefs and practices such as divination were widely adopted, as can be seen in Classical and Hellenistic Greek literature and in the Bible.

Whereas the early Greeks knew of Mesopotamia at one remove, the Israelites had direct and often painful experience of the Mesopotamians. Mesopotamian myths and history are interwoven with biblical accounts of the early days of the world: for example, the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. From the mid-ninth century B.C.E., the biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah suffered from Assyrian expansionism, and revolts against Assyrian, and later, Babylonian, rule led to the sack of their cities and the deportation of many of their citizens. The climax came in 588–587 B.C.E., when Jerusalem was put to the torch, the Temple destroyed, and its notables exiled to Babylon.

Although a substantial Jewish community flourished in Babylon for many centuries, becoming familiar with Babylonian traditions, it is the purple prose of the traditionalists who returned to Judah that formed the picture of Mesopotamia that passed into Western consciousness via the Bible. Centuries of conflict had produced a very hostile biblical view of Mesopotamian culture and civilization, especially of Babylon “the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth” (Revelation 17:5), ruled by supposedly corrupt and decadent rulers like Belshazzar, who was “weighed in the balance and found wanting” (Daniel 5:27).

Although the Greeks had no such political axe to grind, they also gave the Mesopotamians a bad press, contrasting their alien practices with the civilized behavior epitomized in the Greek mind by the Greeks. Thus, for example, Herodotus draws attention to the practice of sacred prostitution. He also gives an anecdotal and fanciful account of Mesopotamian history. In contrast, his descriptions of the cities of Babylonia, and particularly Babylon itself, are both accurate and informative.

Nevertheless, contemporaries came to doubt his accounts, which conflicted with those in the twenty-three-volume Persica of Ctesias, a Greek doctor at the Persian court in the fifth century B.C.E. In fact, Ctesias’s account is far less reliable than that of Herodotus, being filtered through the attitudes and knowledge of Mesopotamia’s Persian conquerors. Unfortunately, it was upon Ctesias’s work that later Classical scholars based their writings about Mesopotamia.

This was despite the existence of a far better account, a three-volume work by the third century B.C.E. Babylonian scholar Berossus. A native of Babylon, Berossus wrote in Greek but had access to many cuneiform texts that provided detailed and accurate information on Mesopotamian history and culture. Berossus’s Babyloniaca, which ran from the Creation to Alexander’s conquest, was copied and circulated for a few centuries but by the first century B.C.E. had been largely superseded by a digest in which a Greek scholar, Alexander Polyhistor, uncritically assembled material from a number of different and conflicting texts, including Berossus and Ctesias. Information was drawn from Berossus’s work to calculate chronology, particularly the dates of the Creation and the Flood, but his original was otherwise neglected. Little of it survived the Classical period.

The Hellenistic Greeks took an active interest in the visible relics of Mesopotamia’s past. Alexander the Great began reconstructing the ziggurat of Marduk (the Tower of Babel), although work ceased upon his death. His successors carried out restorations in the precinct of Marduk and of the temple of Nabu in Borsippa. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, reputedly built by Nebuchadrezzar for his Median queen, Amyitis, were regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, their fame long outlasting their physical existence. Some versions of the list of Seven Wonders also included the great walls of Babylon, said by Herodotus to be wide enough to turn a four-horse chariot on.”

Jane R. McIntosh, Ancient Mesopotamia, 2005, pp. 21-3.