Holy and secular buildings alike were decorated in bricks brightly glazed in bold blues, reds and greens. Whimsical animal figures—strutting long-necked dragons and elegant bulls—adorned temples, gates and palaces. These animals “are symbolic and magical,” says the Italian archaeologist, and contrast starkly with the severe and warlike stone friezes that lined the walls of Assyrian palaces.
Learning was highly prized, and astronomy and mathematics were especially esteemed. “There was an ideology of freedom, of justice, of peace,” Bergamini says. As the prophet Daniel notes, Babylon boasted a concentration of sages supported by the palace and temples. But ideology did not always match reality. The Babylonian army sacked Jerusalem (among many cities), blinded a rebellious Jewish prince, enslaved countless peoples and fought viciously along Babylonia’s shifting borders. Yet foreigners such as Daniel (who impressed the imperial court with his prophetic interpretations of Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams) rose to high levels in the government, despite their original status as captives.
After Nebuchadnezzar’s death in 562 B.C., a seven-year struggle for power commenced. Nabonidus gained control, but the new king became devoted to the moon god Sin—an unpopular deity among local conservatives—and retreated to a distant desert town. Meanwhile, Persia grew stronger and more covetous of its neighbor.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Persian army led by Cyrus surprised Babylon’s oblivious inhabitants. Even as the enemy breached the city’s outer defenses, Herodotus wrote, the people “engaged in a festival, continued dancing and reveling.” The Persian king entered Babylon in triumph, forbade looting and freed the Jews. He then went on to greater conquests as far away as Greece, and Persian and Greek foreigners (Alexander the Great died there) oversaw the slow decay of Babylon. Around A.D. 75, the last generation of priests recorded astronomical observations in cuneiform, and the ruined city was abandoned.
The most recent attempt to raise Babylon took place in 1987 when, under Saddam Hussein’s orders, parts of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace were rebuilt. But the salty soil and rising water table have played havoc with the new walls, causing them to crack and twist the fragile, ancient foundations below. Bergamini says he and other archaeologists could not prevent this folly. “It’s complete nonsense—the right thing is to destroy the [new] walls.” It won’t be hard to distinguish old from new: each new brick is stamped with Saddam’s name. And Saddam is not the only one to have put his mark on this place: in April, at least one U.S. tank rolled over some of the ancient mounds on its way to Baghdad.