King Nabonidus and the Great Walls of Babylon

By: Leon Legrain

Originally Published in 1923

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THE extension of the walls of the great city of Babylon after King Nabuchadnezzar is a vexed question, which may derive some light from an inscription of Nabonidus on a clay barrel shaped cylinder entered in the Museum collections before 1900. The text here first translated strangely confirms the results of the German survey and excavations at Babylon from 1899 to 1912 and gives practically the same length of 8 kilometers for the twin walls toward the East, Imgur-Enlil and Nimitta-Enlil.

But we must first listen to the father of all chroniclers, Herodotus. “This city—Babylon—situated in a large plain, forms a square of 120 stadion on each side, which amounts to 480 stadion for the whole circuit. It is so magnificent that we know no other city that may compare with it. A large and deep moat full of water runs all around. Next is found a wall of 50 royal cubits thick and 200 high. The royal cubit is three fingers larger than the average. . . . On the top and along the borders of the wall have been built towers, with one single floor, facing one another, and with enough space left between them, as is necessary to a four horses chariot to turn round. This wall had 100 gates of massive bronze, as were also the lintels and the jambs. In this way was Babylon surrounded by a rampart.”

The city known to Herodotus and excavated by the Germans, dates from the Neo Babylonian kings since Nabopolassar. The three great ruins of Babylon on the East bank of the Euphrates are from North to South, Babil, Kasr and Amran. Babil is a new palace of Nabuchadnezzar. Kasr covers the older palace of the same king and of his father, and also a temple of the goddess Ninmah. Amran marks the site of Esagila, the tower of Babel and the temple of Marduk. The canal Arahtu, and later the Euphrates surrounded Kasr on the East, as well as on the West and cut it from Babil and Amran. The big walls were farther East from this inner fortified citadel, and enclosed the rest of the city.

The distance from Babil to the south along the river is about four kilometers; from the river to the eastern angle of the big walls, three kilometers. The N.E. and S.E. walls had each a length of four kilometers, of which a course of four to five kilometers is still visible. Only a small portion of the walls has been so far excavated. Their structure from the inside of the city toward the outside included a 7 meters thick raw brick wall, a 12 meters vacant space, a 7.80 meters thick baked brick wall, the vacant space between the walls being filled with mud. The massive rampart measured 26.80 meters. The walls of Herodotus, 50 royal cubits thick, measured 27.84 meters, the length of a royal cubit being about 0.5568. At the foot of the baked brick wall began the moat wall also in burnt bricks and 3.30 meters thick. The opposite embankment has not been found.

The mud wall had on either face towers 8.37 meters large and at 52.50 meters intervals from axis to axis. No towers of the outer wall have been so far excavated. The top of the rampart formed a boulevard 25 meters in width, quite sufficient for any team of two or four horses, and important for the protection of the place as it allowed a rapid transportation of troops.

According to Herodotus the West Euphrates bank was also protected by two more walls. The river cut across a square from angle to angle. The circuit would have measured 18 kilometers. Herodotus says 86 and Ktesias 65. The reality as evidenced by the ruins is different. The N.E. front is still up today of 4 kilometers 400. A length of 2 kilometers can be traced on the S.E. The moat wall bricks are of the square type, of 0.33 centimeter with stamp, in use since Nebuchadnezzar. The baked bricks of the outer wall measure 0.32 centimeter and have no stamp. They may date from the first years of the same king. The inner mud wall is certainly older and had a small scarp still visible within the vacant space. Its foundation rested on an artificial dam. Its mortar is only mud. The baked bricks of the outer wall are cemented with bitumen, and its foundation reach below the water level.

All the inscriptions of the neo-Babylonian kings mention the twin walls of Babylon: Ingur-Enlil and Nimitta-Enlil. The present inscription of Nabonidus gives precise information about the length of the walls, as being of 20 U Š. U Š is a measure of length equal to 720 royal cubits, or to 60 G A R of 12 cubits each. In modem measures U Š = 400.95 meters, and the length of 20 U Š = 8019 meters, is exactly the same as found in a survey of the N.E. and S.E. walls.

Whatever may have been the later extension of the city on the western bank under the Persian and Greek kings, the ever growing power of Persia, shortly to culminate in the capture of Babylon, while Belshazzar made merry in his palace, was reason enough for his father to restore the Eastern walls as a shield against the enemy.

The baked clay cylinder measures 0.316 millimeter in length, with diameters from 0.042 to 0.057 millimeter. It has two columns, with 25 lines of inscription each, and is damaged on the right end. It was bought by H. V. Hilprecht from Shamash of Bagdad in Constantinople before 1900 and registered in the Museum Collection in 1904 as C. B. S. 16108.

Cuneiform inscription, Column I Lines 1-25
Cuneiform inscription, Column II Lines 1-25

Translation of the Text

Col. I. Nabonidus, the king of Babylon, the great, the exalted, the shepherd, the restorer, who heads the commands of the gods, the wise, the worshiper, mindful of the sanctuaries of the great gods, the perfect prince, created by the leader of the gods, Marduk; the offspring of Zakar, by whom all kings are created, together with Mu’ati like him a son of Esagila; the work of Nin-igi-azag, the wise creator of all things; the elect of Nannar the prince, lord of the crown by whom snares are revealed; who is every day filled with the fear of the great gods, whose ears are intent on the restoration of Esagila and Ezida, the son of Nabû-balatsu-ikbi, the wise prince, I am.
For Babylon I bethought myself of good deeds. On Esagila the palace of the great gods I bestowed gifts. To Ezida, the life giver I granted abundantly every possible thing. As for Emeslam the shrine of the hero of the gods I made his riches plentiful. At that time Imgur-Enlil, the rampart of Babylon had grown weak in its foundation and its wall was dilapidated. Its head had decayed and Nimitta did no longer exist. In order to fortify its rampart and to rebuild Nimitta, I tore down its ruined walls and Imgur-Enlil the strong wall of Babylon, 20 U S in length, as a durable boundary, a continuous enclosure, its new circuit a lasting enlargement, its powerful shield I spread out in front of the enemies.
The cities, the strong places . . . I fortified, like the nests of the . . . birds, I raised their walls mountain high. The day when I laid the foundation of thy sanctuary (?) I struck on a chest. . . . The inscription of the name of a preceding king, which I saw in it, I deposited inside together with the inscription of my own name.
O Enlil of the gods, Marduk of the righteous command, lord, lofty messenger of the gods, look with joy on this work. Let all that has been made ever stand before [thee ]. To prolong the days of my life shall be the order [on thy lips]. Let me never have a rival. . . . May I rule as the pastor of all them. . . . The totality of the dark heads, the whole of [Enlil’s] subjects, may I be their lord for ever, may I reign supreme. The kings, the throne occupants, founded on the waters, the waters of the deep, may I charge them with chains (?) may I exert their royalty. O lord, thy worshiper shall grow old, his life shall be doubled, his name shall be supreme. Truly I am the king thy restorer who takes care of thy sanctuary for ever.

Cite This Article

Legrain, Leon. "King Nabonidus and the Great Walls of Babylon." The Museum Journal XIV, no. 4 (December, 1923): 282-287. Accessed July 13, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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