The Fall of Babylon: A Reassessment

The author's perspective on what and who sealed the fate of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

One of the most pivotal points in ancient history is the fall of the Neo-Babylonian Empire[i]. Its demise was sudden and unexpected. It changed the reality and the very trajectory of civilization in the Old World. Since the fall of Babylonia helped ensure and consolidate the establishment of the Persian Empire under Cyrus II[ii], it is important that a more accurate assessment be made to understand exactly what happened that changed things so profoundly. In this brief paper, the intention is to reconstruct as effectively as possible the actual circumstances of Babylon’s fall by reviewing and reassessing the materials that we have available to us from antiquity.

I contend that to understand the dimensions of this epic series of events it is necessary to view the information that we already have, primarily from a political perspective, which means taking into account the practical nature of political struggle, its complexity and the attending intrigue.

Rise to Power

The best way to approach this subject is as a narrative centering on the reign of the sixth ruler of the 11th Dynasty, the last king of Babylon, Nabonidus[iii]. As background, it is important to note that the Neo-Babylonian Empire only lasted 87 years, from 626 to 539 BC. The first Neo-Babylonian ruler of the 11th dynasty was Nabopolassar (626 -605 BC), an Assyrian official who rebelled and established himself as king in Babylonia, ejecting the Assyrians in 616 BC and then proceeding to destroy the Assyrian Empire. His son, Nebuchadnezzar, sent an army (possibly more than once) west toward Egypt, conquered Judah, destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in the process, and incorporated both Phoenicia and Cilicia into the empire.

Amel-Marduk, the third king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, reigned only two years before being murdered by Nebuchadnezzar’s son-in-law, Neriglissar, who was a capable official and good businessman. His son, Labashi-Marduk, however, was killed within a year by a group of senior officials, who saw him as absolutely unfit to rule. Labashi-Marduk was seen as a child who was cruel and evil. After 9 months, he was tortured to death. In his place, Nabonidus was named to be king. Remarkably, his reign lasted 17 years. On the whole, though, it seems that the whole tenor of the 11th dynasty was not particularly stable.

The Nabonidus Reign, Exile and Belshazzar

Upon taking the throne, Nabonidus was 60 years old. He was from a noble family, but not the royal family. He had held important posts under both Nebuchadnezzar and Neriglissar. One of the most noticeable traits of Nabonidus was that he was a great devotee of the god Sin[iv], whose central shrine appears to have been in Harran. He seems to have made it his mission to promote and elevate the worship and position of Sin within the empire as a whole. It is important to remember that Sin, the moon god, was central and pivotal in the Assyrian pantheon. This would not make Nabonidus popular, since the Babylonians suffered for a very long time under the Assyrian yoke.

Moreover, Harran was the strategic city commanding the roads from Northern Mesopotamia to Syria and Asia, therefore possessing as a result a hugely important marketplace. This is certainly a prime reason why Nabonidus would lavish great attention on its god. However, Nabonidus by no means restricted the promotion of Sin to just Harran. He rebuilds the Temple to Sin there, which was destroyed by the Medes in the process of overthrowing Assyria. It is stated in the Nabonidus Cylinders[v] that the god Marduk commanded him to rebuild the sanctuary of Ehulhul and specifically establish the god Sin there. In doing so, Nabonidus marched from Gaza with numerous troops and rebuilt it anew on the foundation of Assurbanipal, who had built on the foundation of Shalmaneser III. He refers to Sin as the Creator and King of the Gods[vi].

Apparently, there was a great deal of discontent and opposition against Nabonidus in the first half of his reign. In the stele called the Verse Account of Nabonidus[vii], the statement is made that the country had descended into lawlessness. The king listened to no one. As a result, the common people perished through hunger. Trade was interfered with and prosperity ruined. The nobility was decimated, killed in war. Farmers were ruined, because the country’s arable land was not being protected. This was complicated by the confiscation of property (probably illegally or wantonly). The accusation is leveled that the king has defied the gods and established Sin as lord of the gods. The stele also laments that a cessation of the New Year festival has occurred.

The Nabonidus Chronicle states that the king went into self-imposed exile in Arabia for a period of 10 years. It would seem that he really had no other viable choice under the circumstances, if he wished to save his crown. However, due to Nabonidus’ decade long absence, the New Year’s Festival[viii] ceased. It could not be held, since the presence and participation of the king was central to this vital ritual. The Babylonians believed the order of the universe had to be restored every year in order to prevent the cosmos from devolving back into chaos.

During the New Year Festival, the critical rituals were done to maintain order and ensure blessing and prosperity. The rituals revolved on reestablishing the proper relationship between the people — represented by the king — and the gods, represented by the chief god, Marduk.

The welfare of the nation and its structural coherence, as well as the natural hierarchy of the universe was seen to be totally dependent on the precise rituals that had to be carried out during the New Year Festival.  The rituals revolved around the re-creation of the World, the Defeat of Chaos, the Restoration of Order, the Forgiving of the Past and the Determination of Destiny. The King was the representative of the country. It was he who faced Bel and then installed Marduk.

Any cessation of the New Year Festival would have been devastating, let alone one that lasted a full decade. The practical and psychological trauma this induced must have been enormous. Moreover, it came on the heels of a period of time in which the country had deteriorated into lawlessness.

The Verse Account indicates that Nabonidus entrusted the army to his son, Belshazzar[ix] and entrusted kingship to Belshazzar and himself. It appears then that Belshazzar was empowered to run the government, while Nabonidus moved to Arabia for political refuge and for purposes of political maneuvering. It seems that one of Nabonidus’ aims was to build up the Arabian Peninsula as a buffer against possible Persian expansion. It is also interesting that the god Sin was a very prominent deity in the Arabian pantheon.

It is important to note that in the Nabonidus Cylinders from the great city of Ur, Nabonidus fervently prays to Sin that he not sin against the god and that he fulfill all the rituals without any errors or mistakes. He makes a point of praying that Belshazzar show the same reverence and care, so that as a result both he and Belshazzar are rewarded for their piety. This indicates that divine rituals had to be completed fully and meticulously in order to bring harmony and blessing. More importantly, it is clear that Nabonidus, at the time of his departure from Babylon, understood he and Belshazzar to be completely on the same page. Nabonidus at that time had total confidence in Belshazzar and felt comfortable leaving him as his agent in the capital and in effective administrative and military control.

The famous authority on Ancient Mesopotamia, Georges Roux, asserts that Belshazzar was put in charge of the country because he had a record of being an able soldier and administrator and that he respected and revered the ancient traditions, thus restoring and renovating the Temples of Marduk, something erroneously attributed to Nabonidus.

The Chronicle of Nabonidus states that from the seventh to the eleventh year of his sojourn in Arabia (meaning the seventh through tenth year) Nabonidus was in the oasis of Tayma. Inscriptions from Harran note that Nabonidus wandered from oasis to oasis as far as Yathrib. This would accord with the Biblical evidence that Nabonidus went through a period where he completely lost his mind and his mental faculties.

Upon arriving in Tayma, Nabonidus kills the ruling prince. He and the army then take up residence there and proceed to literally work the people to death building a replica of his palace in Babylon. This very possibly indicates that he was in permanent exile and could not return to Babylon.

It is interesting here to note that the following story appears in the fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel: A dream that Daniel interprets for the king prophesies that because of the king’s iniquities and arrogance, he will be driven away from men and live like a beast in the field, eating grass and being washed only by the dew of heaven[x]. Only through generosity to the poor can his sins be redeemed. But the king did not heed this advice. He remained selfish and arrogant. As a result, twelve months after the prophecy, the king is driven away and for seven seasons lives in the fields with the animals, eats grass and drinks the dew, his hair growing as long and thick as eagle’s wings and his nail resembling the talons of a bird. When the allotted time is up, the king regains his senses and his faculties return. He gives thanks and admits that there is greater power in the world than he is.

In the Biblical story, the king named is Nebuchadnezzar. However, in the same account found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the king is Nabonidus. This accords with many of the ancient assertions that Nabonidus was insane. It seems that in general, Nabonidus was very self-referenced (possibly narcissistic), arrogant and unconcerned about the welfare of others. However, at some juncture during the years he was in Tayma, Nabonidus seems to have had a complete nervous breakdown and/or a psychotic episode. In the cuneiform text, the Verse Account of Nabonidus, he is called a liar, claiming victories he never won. The stele asserts that Nabonidus claimed triumphs that were either not his or never occurred. He would also claim to see visions and those would provide him with access to secret, esoteric knowledge. Such knowledge led him to lecture the priests on holy matters and rituals He was branded as a heretic.

This account raises the possibility that Nabonidus did not necessarily go into exile completely voluntarily. He may have been under considerable pressure to do so by the kingdom. The ancient record does indicate that he was not very well liked. Moreover, the exile in Arabia seems to have exacerbated matters and pushed him over the edge completely.

A more important point is that for ten years Belshazzar ran the empire primarily on his own. Much of the army and all of the administration were left in his hands, while Nabonidus was driven away (according to Daniel) and preoccupied with establishing control over Arabia. The fact that Nabonidus built an exact duplicate of the royal palace in Tayma surgests he did not believe he could ever return or at least would be in exile for a very long time, if not permanently.

It is quite likely that Belshazzar did keep Nabonidus responsibly updated on what the situation in Babylonia was, on a regular basis. Belshazzar had a great respect for tradition, family and duty. Whether Nabonidus responded or not, or even cared that much, is another question, considering he had his own agenda and focus.

Cyrus II ascended the throne of Persia 3 years prior to Nabonidus’ ascension in Babylonia. During the years Nabonidus was in Arabia, Cyrus was establishing his own empire. He conquered Ionia, Asia Minor, Parthia, Sogdia, Bactria and part of India. In response, Nabonidus raised troops in Syria and subsequently invaded Arabia.

Return of the King

According to the Book of Daniel, it was the king’s conviction that his sanity was restored to him in its entire splendor specifically for the glory of Babylonia. After completely recovering his faculties, it says that at that juncture Nabonidus was sought out by the court and the nobility and that he was reestablished in the kingdom with even more power. This would indicate that several crucial realities were emerging as a result of his recovery. First, that upon regaining his sanity, Nabonidus believed that he had been brought back to life and elevated to an even higher level of competence and grandeur than he previously exhibited. With this greater power, he was destined to expand the glory and power of the empire.

At this point, Nabonidus is contacted by the nobility, who want to reestablish him in Babylon and are willing to give the king substantial support. This does not mean that all of the nobility was reaching out to Nabonidus. The biblical text refers to “companions” and “nobles.” That presumably means close friends and supporters. The increasing success of Cyrus may have been the pivotal, if not the most salient and pressing, reason for turning to the king, i.e. the defense of the empire.

It is now that we need to examine the position that Belshazzar was in, so as to understand the dynamics of what actually transpired and how the Neo-Babylonian Empire was brought to an end.

What is most important to bear in mind is that while the archeological and historic records all blame Nabonidus with causing economic ruin[xi], social turmoil, injustice and heresy, no such complaints or allegations were made throughout the 10 years that Belshazzar was effectively the ruler. It seems fairly apparent that Nabonidus’ push to promote Sin as the prime deity of Babylon and the empire caused very fundamental and practical ruptures within the daily life of the people and government. It was also a direct assault on the power and prestige of the central priesthood that served Marduk.

The ardent desire of Nebuchadnezzar (and his successors in all likelihood) was to model the Neo-Babylonian Empire socially, politically and economically along the lines of the laws, policies and culture of the early Babylonian dynasties. The focus was on reviving all of the elements that had made Old Babylonia great in the more distant past. This policy reflects a society that was very mindful of tradition. The religion of Mesopotamia was astrologically based, so an important function of the priesthood was to determine what the gods were planning to do and what fate they were ordaining so that the leaders and people knew how to proceed. They could propitiate the gods and beg for forgiveness if the gods were unfavorable or angry. Alternately, they could offer praise and lavish offerings to the gods if they were well disposed.

By promoting Sin as the central deity, not only was the divine order being massively disrupted, much of practical life and society was directly affected by the commotion. Not only were the temples the cultic centers, they were also the major economic and financial centers. Nabonidus’ policies undermined the system, throwing much of the society and the economy into deep uncertainty and subsequent chaos. This would appear to be the cause of the distress and commotion that forced Nabonidus to flee or be exiled to Arabia. It would also be the root conflict between Belshazzar and Nabonidus.

Historical accounts do not accuse Belshazzar of ever being lawless, arrogant or of being a heretic. Nabonidus was preoccupied by the subjugation of Arabia, while Belshazzar ran the governance of the empire. Belshazzar continued to operate as the sole ruler effectively during the years that Nabonidus lost his mind altogether.

We do not know exactly at what point in time Nabonidus recovered from his debilitating condition. We do know, however, that the New Year Festival[xii] was resumed during the 17th year of Nabonidus’ reign. This means it was at that time, the last year of his reign, that Nabonidus returned to Babylon per se. Whether or not he returned to Babylonia in general, earlier than his entrance into the capital, is another question.

In psychological terms, a person coming out of a coma, an emotional trauma or an emotional breakdown often exhibits personality and/or behavioral changes. Sometimes, these changes manifest as the intensification of certain already active beliefs and behaviors. At other times, the experience can activate latent or dormant ones.

When Nabonidus ‘reclaimed’ his sanity, he had to have realized that Belshazzar had become the sole ruler of the empire during his absence, and easily have come to the paranoid conclusion that Belshazzar had usurped the throne. His son, in his mind, had become his biggest enemy. If he wished to regain the throne, Nabonidus would need a strong ally and a covert plan of operation.

It would appear that Nabonidus, upon returning, set about exercising his authority. This normally would have had to be done gradually and discreetly. However, under the threat of an imminent war with Persia, the process could be moved along much faster. Under urgency of these circumstances, it would also be easier to marginalize Belshazzar. This could be reinforced by slander to Belshazzar’s subordinates about his son. In the ancient records, Nabonidus was accused of lying as well as taking credit for achievements that were not his. Slandering an opponent to destroy his credibility and isolate him is a critical step in the process of destroying him. It is all the more effective if the statements are coming from an authority figure that abuses his title for self gain.

By this time, Cyrus had extended his empire to the Arabian Gulf and the two empires were bordering each other. Cyrus crossed the Tigris River in 539 BC and attacked the Babylonian forces at Opis. We have no direct information about who the Babylonian commander was or what the casualty figures were. However, the people of Opis and/or elements of the army revolted and it was Nabonidus who quashed the rebellion. This would indicate that it was Nabonidus at the head of the army. The sources report that the Persians massacred the Babylonian forces and that the governor of Gutium (Assyria) with his forces changed sides and defected to Cyrus.

This fiasco could be understood in two different ways: (1) Nabonidus was old and incompetent at this juncture. After all, he was in his late 70’s and had recently recovered from a major psychological breakdown in the not too distant past. And (2), he was secretly working with Cyrus in order to regain his throne, this claim supported by both Cyrus’ and Nabonidus’ cylinders referencing each other in a manner that indicates comradery. In that case, the army at Opis, as well as the population, realized from Nabonidus’ behavior that something was very seriously wrong and that the king was either endangering their lives or betraying them. When they rebelled, he ruthlessly cut them down. In this scenario, he would have also ordered the Assyrian forces to defect. This would leave Babylonia highly, but not completely, vulnerable.

To prepare for the takeover of Babylonia, there was already fierce psychological warfare being waged by the Persians depicting Cyrus not as a conqueror, but as a liberator and savior. He was heralded as a very wise, humane and enlightened ruler who freed peoples from corruption, crisis and oppression and was benevolent and merciful.

After the Battle of Opis, Cyrus takes a circuitous route before he reaches the very important city of Sippar, which he conquers without any resistance. After the surrender of the city, Nabonidus, who was there at the time, exits and heads directly to Babylon itself. Two factors are worth considering here. One is why was Nabonidus in Sippar without an army? The second question would be; is it possible that it was not the bulk of the Babylonian army that was defeated at Opis. Perhaps that is why Cyrus approached Sippar cautiously. However, if Nabonidus did have a sizable army at hand, why would he avoid facing the Persians?

It is worth seriously considering that in order to regain his throne from Belshazzar he worked out an arrangement with Cyrus to facilitate a takeover, in exchange for making the Babylonian empire an ally of the Persian or for ruling Babylonia as a co-regent in a united empire. Both Cyrus’ and Nabonidus’ cylinder transcripts suggest as much.

Babylon and the Jews

Before going into the fall of Babylon itself, it is important to discuss the significance of the Jews, their position in the empire and their relationship to the court.

The status of the Jews in the Neo-Babylonian Empire was very favorable as can be deduced from the biblical material. In the first chapter of the Book of Daniel it states that Nebuchadnezzar specifically took talented men from among the Judaean captives and had them trained in Aramaic, the literature and culture of Babylonia and then incorporated them into the court as officials and administrators. When Meshach, Shadrach and Abed-Nego survived the ordeal of the fiery furnace, the king made them administrators of the province of Babylonia. For his service, Daniel was appointed the prefect of all the wise men of Babylon and appointed governor of the province.

In the Book of Ezra, Chapter 1, it lists the names of the prominent men and their families that were returning to Judaea to resettle under Cyrus’s edict. The amount of wealth that they carried with them was substantial, apart from the Holy Vessels of Jerusalem and the monetary donations collected from the Jewish community. It is stated that priests, prophets, heads of the clans and even Nehemiah, who Cyrus appointed as governor of Judaea, went. The Book of Daniel places the number at over 42,000[xiii]. In accord with Biblical reckoning this number in all probability only includes the important families, not necessarily the ordinary people who chose to return as well. One way or the other, in spite of the intense emotional pull and the joy of being repatriated in their homeland, the number of people returning by no means is anywhere near the total Jewish population. The vast majority of the Jews in Babylonia chose to stay, which strongly suggests that they had found a comfortable place in Babylonian society.

Their acceptance and success may be the reason why, on one hand, Meshach, Shadrach and Abed-Nego and later, Daniel, are denounced by some nobles and why, on the other, that Darius is so relieved and happy that Daniel survived the lions’ den. Daniel remained a prominent figure from the time of Nebuchadnezzar until the ascension of Cyrus, which means that he had to have had a similar relationship to Belshazzar. In other words, the Jews remained valuable assets and loyal servants of the crown throughout the existence of the empire.

In Mesopotamian belief, an idol was not a statue. It was the god or goddess incarnate. The god or goddess inhabited the image and operated from their temple to dwell amidst people of the city, so as to watch over them and rule. When the hostilities first began with the Persians, Nabonidus had the gods from many of important cities removed from their sanctuaries[xiv] and brought to Babylon. This would frighten and demoralize the population since in times of danger the people looked to the gods for protection and solace. Nabonidus’ move rendered the populous helpless and terrified. The gods had left them abandoned. In essence, Nabonidus was holding the gods captive, thereby removing any aid and protection.

According to Herodotus, shortly after Nabonidus went into exile, the queen Nitocris (most likely with Belshazzar’s help) built fortifications in defense of Babylonia. Since Belshazzar was in constant communication with Nabonidus[xv], it is almost certain that he had a fair working knowledge of the whole system. That would mean Nabonidus was in a position to provide Cyrus information vital for bypassing Babylon’s defenses and taking the city by stealth and surprise. The Persians knew to dig canals to divert the river water that ran under Babylon’s walls, so as to lower the water level and allow troops into the city. Who fed them the schematics of the defense system, if not Nabonidus?

This brings us to the issue of the feast[xvi] taking place in the palace, the coup de grâce. With the loss of a substantial part of the army during the battle of Opis and the surrender of Sippar, the last step in the process of bringing down Belshazzar and regaining control of the country was the capture of Babylon itself. With knowledge of the empire’s defenses, the Persians could infiltrate the city. However, it was not in Nabonidus’s interest to have his forces slaughtered if his aim was to effectively govern. They needed to be neutralized, not killed.

At the time of the assault on Babylon, there was a great feast occurring in the palace. This feast is stressed in the Book of Daniel and in the writings of Herodotus and Xenophon. At such a time, this makes no sense whatsoever. During a major war which threatens Babylonia’s empire, if not her independence, why have such a huge feast at such an inappropriate time?

In the 5th chapter of Daniel, it states that Belshazzar organized the feast and was present. It also points out that the feast was attended by 1000 of his nobles. In other words, a very large number of those present were supporters of Belshazzar, as opposed to those nobles who were allied more directly to Nabonidus.

In Daniel, mention is made that during the course of the feast, everyone became very drunk and that not only were the nobles there, but so were their consorts and concubines. Herodotus describes the feast as being filled with debauchery. Under these circumstances, it is no wonder that Babylon fell without a struggle. It was not because the population was looking to be liberated from traumatic conditions, as Persian propaganda claimed. Rather, the “peaceful takeover” was due to the fact that the city was invaded by stealth, while the nobles were conveniently all gathered together in the same place. Drunk and exhausted, they were not in any mental or physical shape to think clearly, let alone to fight.

Why the feast was held at all is a matter of conjecture. However, a couple of logical possibilities come to mind. Belshazzar was an effective and intelligent ruler. It is not likely that he came up with this idea on his own. Ordinarily, having a great feast at this time would not make sense, either logically or militarily. The order to have such a lavish celebration had to have come from elsewhere. That would be Nabonidus, who could act through his supporters at court without being there himself. Nabonidus was in the country, though not in Babylon proper. This would allow him to issue orders, marginalize Belshazzar and set him up to take the fall.

The two strongest possibilities for explaining why the feast was held when it was are; Nabonidus ordered it on the pretext that he was returning to the capital and that reconciliation was about to take place, or that word had been spread deliberately that the Persians had suffered a massive defeat and a celebration was in order.

This ‘celebration’ tactic would include Nabonidus demanding the sacred vessels from the Temple in Jerusalem be used in the feast. The use of the sacred vessels is stressed in Daniel and mentioned as a serious issue in both Herodotus and Xenophon. The primary reason for such mention and emphasis is that this kind of action constitutes an act of wanton and deliberate sacrilege.

Jeremiah had prophesied at the time Jerusalem was destroyed, that the exile would be over in 70 years time. The Jewish community in Babylonia, as well as the government, was very aware of this fact. Nebuchadnezzar, Nabonidus and even Darius the Mede, had direct experiences with the God of the Jews and respected His power.

The Jews were longing to go back, reestablish the homeland and to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Both, symbolically and practically, this meant that they would be returning with the Temple vessels. However when some of the vessels were used in the feast under Nabonidus’ order, they were defiled ritually and could never, under biblical law, be used again in the Temple. The political message that this transmitted was that the government, ostensibly under Belshazzar, had no intention of ever repatriating the Jews to Judaea.

The objective of this move by Nabonidus was to drive a wedge between the Jews and Belshazzar, thus depriving him of a strong base of support. The feast had a double-edged purpose. On one hand, it neutralized the nobles who supported Belshazzar and turned them over to the Persians ‘without a struggle’ and also caused a tremendous breach between the Jews and Belshazzar.

In one fell swoop, two of the central pillars upon which Belshazzar depended were torn away, completely destroying his position and laying the blame for Babylon’s fall squarely on his shoulders.

It is emphasized in Cyrus’ cylinder material that Sippar and Babylon were taken without a fight. Nabonidus was present in or around both locations at the time they ‘welcomed’ the Persians. It would seem that in all probability, Nabonidus pulled off the same type of deceit and betrayal in Sippar as he did in Babylon. There was a close relationship between what happened in both locales, probably because there were close connections between the two cities. An indication of this is the fact that when Nabonidus removed the gods from most of their sanctuaries and brought them to Babylon, Sippar was one of the few cities that was exempted.

Belshazzar seems to ask for Daniel’s help. When Daniel was able to interpret the vision that Belshazzar had of the feast’s writing on the wall[xvii], the message made known that the kingdom was falling to Cyrus citing, ‘your kingdom is divided’ in present tense. It was not a prophecy of future events, but rather a notice stating the current facts, with premeditated intentions. Belshazzar’s knees knocked, he was terrified at realizing the full truth of how he was manipulated and deceived, what his father’s agenda really was and the extent of the betrayal.

Prior to translation, he offers Daniel the position of third in the kingdom. This means that Daniel should join a triumvirate. The first in line would be Nabonidus, who regardless of all the treachery is still the lawful king. Belshazzar would remain as second and Daniel would be the third in command. With that constellation of power, tradition would be respected and upheld and the combination of Belshazzar and Daniel working together would hold Nabonidus in check. Belshazzar was hoping to reverse the unfolding situation and save Babylon.

What he did not realize was that it was already too late. Within hours, the nobility would be captured and he himself would be killed. It is noteworthy that he is the only one that dies. This would support the assumption that Belshazzar was ultimately the target. He had to be overthrown and eliminated because he effectively held the real power on the throne. It was in the interest of both Nabonidus and Cyrus to have Belshazzar killed.

Nabonidus returns to Babylon immediately after its fall, in anticipation of being placed on the throne by Cyrus, only to be double-crossed. When Cyrus enters the city a couple of weeks later, Nabonidus is arrested[xviii]. Instead of killing him, Cyrus rewards his assistance by making Nabonidus the governor of Carmenia in Persia itself. This worked for Cyrus on two counts. He was being honorable enough by acknowledging Nabonidus’ enormous contribution in facilitating the incorporation of the Babylonian Empire, and he was furthering a wise political policy of treating conquered people humanely and compassionately.

Cyrus

Cyrus’ strategy was well thought out and very effective politically. It established Cyrus’ reputation as one of being a merciful ruler, not only deeply concerned about the welfare of his own people, but also responsive to the needs and sensitivities of even subject peoples. In the Bible, Cyrus is highly regarded and described as sent by God to restore the Jews to their homeland. Even Herodotus saw Cyrus as the model of a true ruler.

In addition, it should be pointed out that this policy also had tremendous propaganda and public relations value. It set forth the feeling that Cyrus was not a ruthless enemy, that he was a man with a wide perspective and enlightened viewpoint. He might even be considered a potential liberator from injustice, oppression and chaos. Moreover, his policy of working to restore the fortunes of conquered peoples, treating them with dignity and understanding went a long way in co-opting subject peoples and creating a strong bond of loyalty.

Though Cyrus did not punish and destroy former enemies, it seems that it was not a universal policy. Cities and countries that Cyrus was concerned about “courting” and co-opting, generally were named specifically in the records. These were usually peoples or places that were of strategic and economic importance.

It is of interest that one of the first things Cyrus did after capturing Babylon was to create an edict allowing for the restoration of Judea[xix]. It is one thing to rebuild a fallen city, to protect the rights of a subject people and to integrate them into the empire. However, the Jews were already integrated, not only into Babylonian society, but holding high ranks within the government itself.

The intention of the edict was to reestablish a strong Jewish presence in Judea. Cyrus allowed aristocracy, the heads of the clans, the priests and prophets as well as officials and administrators to return. They were encouraged to solicit contributions for the Temple’s rebuilding from all over the empire. When they arrived in Judaea, families settled in their original towns. Obviously, the plan was to rebuild and empower a strong Jewish presence in the province in Judaea, which would be loyal to Persia. This would solidify Persia’s hold on the land bridge between Asia and Africa. It both held Egypt in check and subsequently opened the door for its eventual conquest.

Since Belshazzar was well aware of the anticipation around the possible fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy, it is quite conceivable that in order to secure Babylonia’s future, protect it from the Persians and the Egyptians and expand the empire, Belshazzar was planning to utilize the Jews in the same way. Cyrus being alerted of this by Nabonidus may explain why he attacked Babylonia when he did. He may have felt that he had to preempt or face a stronger enemy in Babylon.

The tragedy is that Babylonia could have regained its former glory or possibly surpassed it under an unencumbered reign of Belshazzar. Instead, the Neo-Babylonian Empire was short-lived due to Nabonidus’ insanity, sabotage and betrayal. Rather, Belshazzar, the king who could have laid the foundations for a resurgence of Babylonian culture and influence was marginalized, slandered, and murdered. This was one of the greatest tragedies to play out in the ancient world.

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Reference sources:

[i] Wikipedia Fall of Babylon

[ii] Britannica Cyrus The Great

[iii] Livius Nabonidus

[iv] Britannica Mesopotamia God Sin

[v] Wikivisually Cylinders of Nabonidus translation

[vi] Livius Nabonidus Cylinder from Sippar

[vii] Wikipedia Verse account of Nabonidus

[viii] New Encyclopedia Nabonidus (3rd paragraph ‘Reign’)

[ix] Creation.com Belshazzar

[x] Ancient Origins The Lost Years of Nabonidus

[xi] Cambridge University Press Neo-Babylonian Society and Economy (‘summary’ footnote) Also note JSTOR’s ‘abstract’ citing Nabonidus additionally collapsing the Iron Age polity of Edom

[xii] World History Akitu – The Babylonian New Year Festival (second and last paragraphs)

[xiii] Complete History of the Holy Bible

[xiv] Nabonidus The Mad King Page 139

[xv] Nabonidus and Belshazzar – the Neo-Babylonian Empire by Raymond Philip Dougherty

[xvi] Bible.org Belshazzar’s Feast

[xvii]  Bible Gateway Writing on the Wall, Book of Daniel

[xviii] Encyclopedia Nabonidus

[xix] My Jewish Learning Palestine Under Persian Rule

Cyrus Cylinders translation

‘Translation of A’ (point 3) referencing Nabonidus as incompetent and causing disarray by demanding the Babylonians pray to his moon god, Sin. For two thousand years, the Babylonians had only prayed to Marduk.

‘Cyrus takes Babylon’ – Cyrus clarifies Nabonidus as an ally when Babylon was conquered the night of the feast, with Nabonidus helping to plan and successfully invade the Empire.

‘Religious Measures’ (point 33) proving Nabonidus ordered the feast and that the Jerusalem Temple goblets be used at this celebration of his return – this was sacrilegious, disobeying God. Hence the writing on the wall was directed at Nabonidus yet he failed to show at the feast. All fingers pointed to Belshazzar.

Nabonidus Cylinders translation

Specifically this excerpt ‘while Cyrus is the king of the world whose triumphs are true and whose yoke the kings of all the countries are pulling.’ He acknowledges Cyrus as a great warrior and leader, followed by hallucinations that without him, Cyrus wouldn’t have successfully invaded Babylon. This is where Nabonidus egomania and long term insanity is self transcribed with delusions of grandeur and power. Nabonidus has regularly been cited as mentally unstable but not in the context of anything more than an isolated topic. Not one person, aside Rabbi Fisdel and I, has associated his insanity as spearheading the Babylonian collapse. That’s why this cylinder is important. 

Rabbi Steven Fisdel is the founder of the Center for Jewish Mystical Studies in Albany, California. Rabbi Fisdel has firsthand experience with both the esoteric and practical sides of Kabbalah, studying the original texts, clarifying the ideas and subsequently teaching the traditional doctrines to people of all spiritual backgrounds. Rabbi Fisdel served for 12 years in the congregational rabbinate in California. He served as a core faculty member of Chochmat HaLev, a center for Jewish meditation and spirituality, from its inception and was for many years a visiting scholar at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. He is the author of two books, “The Practice of Kabbalah” and “The Dead Sea Scrolls: Understanding Their Spiritual Message.” He has written and produced two CD sets, Meditations on the Tree of Life and The Katriel Deck: The Original Kabbalist Tarot. His current work in progress is an in-depth explanation of the fundamental principles of Kabbalist thought and practice.

Rabbi Fisdel received his BA at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and both his BHL and MA at Spertus College of Judaica in Chicago. He was trained and received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement.

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