Babylon ruins. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Edward G. Martens.
A small portion of the ruins of ancient Babylon in present-day Hillah, Babil Governorate, Iraq (2005), 53 miles south of Baghdad

What is…
Babylon

Hebrew: בָּבֶל —transliteration: Babel —meaning: “The Gate of God(s)

Greek: Βαβυλών —transliteration: Babylṓn —meaning: Babel

In the Assyrian tablets it means “The city of the dispersion of the tribes.”

also known as: Babel and Babilu (Semitic form), Babyl in Babyl Province, Iraq

Introduction

Babylon (Babel) is an ancient city and kingdom first mentioned in Scripture in Genesis 10:10:

Now Cush fathered Nimrod; he became a mighty one on the earth. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord; therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. (NASB)

The city of Babylon was the capital of the ancient Babylonian empire. The city, built along both banks of the Euphrates river, had steep embankments to contain the river’s seasonal floods. It was perhaps the first city to reach a population above 200,000. 1 The ruins comprise a large tell of broken mud-brick buildings and debris covering an area estimated at about 2,200 acres (890 to 900 hectares).2

The monumental list of its kings reaches back to B.C. 2300, and includes Khammurabi, or Amraphel, the contemporary of Abraham. It stood on the Euphrates, about 200 miles above its junction with the Tigris, which flowed through its midst and divided it into two almost equal parts.

Biblical significance

Babylon appears throughout the Bible, including several prophecies and in descriptions of the destruction of Jerusalem and subsequent Babylonian captivity, most of which are found in the Book of Daniel. These include the episode of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and King Belshazzar’s feast. Babylon became a symbol of worldliness and evil. The Book of Revelation refers to Babylon many centuries after it ceased to be a major political center. The city is personified by the “Whore of Babylon,” riding on a scarlet beast with seven heads and ten horns, and drunk on the blood of the righteous.

History

The Elamites invaded Chaldea (i.e., Lower Mesopotamia, or Shinar, and Upper Mesopotamia, or Accad, now combined into one) and held it in subjection. At length Khammu-rabi delivered it from the foreign yoke, and founded the new empire of Chaldea, making Babylon the capital of the united kingdom.

This city gradually grew in extent and grandeur, but in time it became subject to Assyria. When Nineveh fell (B.C. 606) it threw off the Assyrian yoke, and became the capital of the growing Babylonian empire.

Under Nebuchadnezzar it became one of the most splendid cities of the ancient world.

After passing through various ups and downs, the city was occupied by Cyrus, “king of Elam,” B.C. 538, who issued a decree permitting the Jews to return to their own land (Ezra 1). It then ceased to be the capital of an empire.

It was again and again visited by hostile armies, till its inhabitants were all driven from their homes, and the city became a complete desolation, its very site being forgotten from among men.

Archaeology

The utter desolation of the city once called “The glory of kingdoms” (Isa.13:19) was foretold by the prophets (Isa.13:4-22; Jeremiah 25:12; 50:2-3; Dan. 2:31-38).

Site of Babylon—satellite view

On the west bank of the Euphrates, about 50 miles south of Bagdad, there is a series of artificial mounds of vast extent. These are the ruins of this once famous, proud city. These ruins are principally:

  1. The great mound called Babil by the Arabs. This was probably the noted Temple of Belus, which was a pyramid about 480 feet high.

  2. The Kasr (i.e., “the palace”)

    This was the great palace of Nebuchadnezzar. It is almost a square, each side of which is about 700 feet long. The little town of Hillah, near the site of Babylon, is built almost wholly of bricks taken from this single mound.

  3. A lofty mound, on the summit of which stands a modern tomb called Amran ibn-Ali. This is probably the most ancient portion of the remains of the city, and represents the ruins of the famous hanging-gardens, or perhaps of some royal palace.

Beginning in 1978, the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, rebuilt parts of the city. “Hussein installed a portrait of himself and Nebuchadnezzar at the entrance to the ruins and inscribed his name on many of the bricks, in imitation of Nebuchadnezzar. One frequent inscription reads: ‘This was built by Saddam Hussein, son of Nebuchadnezzar, to glorify Iraq’.”

Babylon and Rome

The Babylon mentioned in 1 Peter 5:13 was not Rome, as some have thought, but the literal city of Babylon, which was inhabited by many Jews at the time Peter wrote.

In Rev. 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; and 18:2, “Babylon” is supposed to mean Rome, not considered as pagan, but as the prolongation of the ancient power in the papal form. Rome, pagan and papal, is regarded as one power.

“The literal Babylon was the beginner and supporter of tyranny and idolatry… This city and its whole empire were taken by the Persians under Cyrus; the Persians were subdued by the Macedonians, and the Macedonians by the Romans; so that Rome succeeded to the power of old Babylon. And it was her method to adopt the worship of the false deities she had conquered; so that by her own act she became the heiress and successor of all the Babylonian idolatry, and of all that was introduced into it by the immediate successors of Babylon, and consequently of all the idolatry of the Earth.”

Rome, or “mystical Babylon,” is “that great city which reigneth over the kings of the Earth” (Revelation 17:18).

The Apostle John reported in Revelation

After these things I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was illumined with his glory. And he cried out with a mighty voice, saying,

Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place of demons and a prison of every unclean spirit, and a prison of every unclean and hateful bird. For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the passion of her immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed acts of immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have become rich by the wealth of her sensuality.”

I heard another voice from heaven, saying,

“Come out of her, my people, so that you will not participate in her sins and receive of her plagues; for her sins have piled up as high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. Pay her back even as she has paid, and give back to her double according to her deeds; in the cup which she has mixed, mix twice as much for her. To the degree that she glorified herself and lived sensuously, to the same degree give her torment and mourning; for she says in her heart,

‘I sit as a queen and I am not a widow, and will never see mourning.’

For this reason in one day her plagues will come, pestilence and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for the Lord God who judges her is strong.

And the kings of the earth, who committed acts of immorality and lived sensuously with her, will weep and lament over her when they see the smoke of her burning, standing at a distance because of the fear of her torment, saying, ‘Woe, woe, the great city, Babylon, the strong city! For in one hour your judgment has come.’”
—excerpt from Revelation 17 NASB

  1. Tertius Chandler, Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth: An Historical Census (St. David's University Press: ISBN 0-88946-207-0, 1987).
  2. Marc van de Mieroop, The Ancient Mesopotamian City (Oxford: Oxford University Press - ISBN 9780191588457, 1997), p. 95.

Also see

Article Version: May 13, 2021