Babylonia was one of the great empires of the Ancient Middle East. King Nebuchadnezzar the Great, ruler of the land for over forty years, was its most renowned leader. He ruthlessly put down any resistance to his rule, including the Jews, who had the unfortunate fate of a homeland in the middle of great empires. Their capital city, Jerusalem, was destroyed in 586 BCE as part of Nebuchadnezzar’s effort to gain firm control. The Jews suffered greatly but would years later return and start anew.
Ancient Middle East At A Glance
Ancient Egypt was a great power in the Middle East for thousands of years. Egypt had the Nile River to provide for them and natural barriers to protect them from invasion.
Mesopotamia was an ancient region consisting of parts of modern Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, and Turkey. Mesopotamia means “the land between the rivers.”
Rivers served as the lifeblood of the region. It was the “Fertile Crescent,” a crescent-shaped area of land so rich and bountiful that there was enough surplus food for great civilizations to arise. The Assyrians and Babylonians were two great powers over the centuries.
A small strip of land lies between Egypt and Mesopotamia. It borders the Mediterranean Sea, which provided one group of people who lived there (Phoenicians) the route to be successful traders. Another group that lived in the middle of all the action? The Ancient Israelites.
Nebuchadnezzar and the Bible
King Nebuchadnezzar is a bad guy in the Hebrew Bible but one who was part of God’s plan.
He “did evil in the sight of the Lord” and ultimately was punished by being driven mad. The prophet Daniel, who escaped unharmed from the lion’s den, said the king wandered around for many years, eating grass and acting like an animal.
Nebuchadnezzar repented and went back to being a great king. The god of the Jews was satisfied.
The Hebrew Bible is a religious text, not a history book. Daniel’s tale is not an accurate historical account.
Luckily, we have many other sources from this period, including clay tablets with writing known as cuneiform. We can compare the history as portrayed in the Bible, with many details that are not reliable, with these other sources.
And, evil or not, even the Jewish version of King Nebuchadnezzar II’s reign shows he is appropriately known as Nebuchadnezzar the Great.
Nebuchadnezzar the Great
Nebuchadnezzar, whose name honors the great Assyrian-Babylonian god Nabu, was born around 630 BCE in Chaldea, a region in southeast Babylonia.
The Assyrian Empire was in control of the overall region, including the lands of the Israelites. Assyrian defeated the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. The defeat began a period of “diaspora” (scattering) of the Jewish people away from the land many still believe was promised by their god to the four corners of the world.
The southern region, Judah, with the capital in Jerusalem, continued to have some independence.
Jerusalem was not just a capital city. It had special religious significance, including as the home of the Jewish temple, where they worshiped their god.
Nebuchadnezzar’s father (Nabopolassar) took advantage of the weakening power of the Assyrians and declared himself the independent king of Babylonia. Nabopolassar, with the help of some allies, eventually defeated the Assyrians.
Nebuchadnezzar would become the most renowned leader of the Babylonian Empire. He would reign from 605-562 BCE. Long before, there was another Babylonian leader with his name, so he is known today as Nebuchadnezzar II.
Judah Gets In Between Three Empires
The kings of Judah were at the mercy of the great powers around them. Assyria let the kingdom of Judah alone as long as it remained a loyal vassal. Jewish kings had to honor the authority of the Assyrians and provide them with financial tribute.
As the Assyrian Empire weakened, small regional kingdoms such as Judah had some degree of independence. Anyway, empires at the time only had so much power over far-fledged parts of their empire.
Meanwhile, Egypt also was a power broker in the Middle East. Judah was right in between the forces of two great powers.
In 609 BCE, roughly when the Assyrians were about to be defeated, the king of Judah made the poor decision of trying to block an Egyptian army. The Egyptians killed the king of Judah. Judah then became a vassal of Egypt. The Hebrew Bible tells its version of these events.
The Fall of Jerusalem
Nebuchadnezzar challenged Egyptian control of Judah a few years later.
Their engineers dug tunnels to weaken the wall from the depths. Battering rams crushed the walls themselves. Soldiers used ladders to climb over the walls.
The city surrendered in 597 BCE. Babylonian forces came in and did some looting. The conquerors also expelled some Jewish elites (including the king) to Babylon.
A new Jewish king (Zedekiah) was installed. The Babylonian army moved on, satisfied that they had now secured this fundamental border area. Zedekiah soon determined that it was safe to challenge Babylonian rule, biblical sources noting nearby powers egged him on.
Nebuchadnezzar, who did not stay in power for so long by letting his vassals get uppity, sent his army to Jerusalem once again. How dare his puppet king be rebellious! It was about 587 BCE.
The siege was long and hard, lasting over a year and a half. The city’s population suffered greatly, famine reigning the land, as the Jewish king and army fled.
Nebuchadnezzar had Zedekiah’s sons killed and the Jewish king himself was blinded. The Jewish dynasty was over.
The Babylonians plundered the Jewish temple and deported large numbers of people, continuing a period known in Jewish history as the “Babylonian Captivity.”
The Jewish Bible is full of laments about the fall of their great city such as written by the prophet Jeremiah, who proclaimed that it was all part of God’s plan:
What Happened Next?
The final defeat of Jerusalem helped Nebuchadnezzar to firmly be in control.
He spent many years engaging in great building projects, including hanging gardens in Babylonia which are known as one of the wonders of the ancient world. Nebuchadnezzar might have built the gardens to satisfy his wife, who was homesick for the flora of her homeland.
The Babylonian Empire continued after the death of Nebuchadnezzar. The empire, however, suffered through a series of short and troubled reigns. Nabonidus (556-539 BCE) is probably the real person behind the “Nebuchadnezzar going mad” story.
So The Empires Turn
The Persians (modern-day Iran) defeated Babylon in 539 BCE. Cyrus the Great, the Persian leader, allowed the exiled Jews who wished to do so to return.
Then came the Greeks and Syrians. And, a return to Jewish rule. The Romans gained control of Palestine. Jesus was born around that time. The Jews later suffered through another destruction of Jerusalem that is addressed in the Christian Bible. But, that is another story.