After defeating the combined armies of Egypt and Assyria at Carchemish in 605 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon conquered Jerusalem. Babylon carted way the city’s holy temple treasures and took captive, along with many others, the prophet Daniel and his three friends Mishael, Hananiah and Azariah (better known soon afterward for dancing in a fiery furnace after being renamed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego). Following his facilitation of the first deportation at Jerusalem, then General Nebuchadnezzar succeeded his father, Nabopollassar, as king. The rest, of course, is history, but little of what has been written is kind to the Neo-Babylonian Empire’s most notorious commander-in-chief. There are, of course, reasons for that.
Read the Book of Daniel and you too will likely consider Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon to have been a savage, narcissist and boor. Of course you would be right, but no one is perfect. In the course of researching my book about the Prophet Daniel’s life in Babylon, For the Sake of His Name, I discovered, along with several factors which help to explain Nebuchadnezzar’s serial brutality toward Jerusalem, ample testimony of his exceptional talents as a statesman, engineer and visionary as well as gifted general and king.
In this, Part One of a two-part study, Defending Nebuchadnezzar, we’ll examine the great king’s singular list of accomplishments. In Part Two, we’ll examine the geopolitical havoc that drove him to madness, obsessing over Egypt and his most impactful move, historically, his decision to put a savage end to the sovereignty of ancient Israel.
Victory at Carchemish.
King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon was the pivotal foreign player in the the final chapter of ancient Jewish sovereignty in the Levant. The restoration of Ancient Babylon as the dominant power in the region, the Neo-Babylonian Empire, began under his father, Nabopollassar, who led Babylon in a revolt against formally preeminent Assyria in 612 BCE. The revolt did not end decisively until, seven years later in 605, Nebuchadnezzar defeated both Egypt and Assyria at Carchemish. The victory spelled doom for the Assyrian Empire, set Egypt on its heels and, combined with King Josiah’s death four years earlier in a related battle, doomed Judah to its eventual end.
As a twenty-nine year old general, Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon had bested the two most powerful nations in the Levant. The Nebuchadnezzar Chronicle, now housed in the British Museum, claims that Nebuchadnezzar…
…crossed the river to go against the Egyptian army which lay in Karchemiš. They fought with each other and the Egyptian army withdrew before him. He accomplished their defeat and beat them to non-existence. As for the rest of the Egyptian army which had escaped from the defeat so quickly that no weapon had reached them, in the district of Hamath the Babylonian troops overtook and defeated them so that not a single man escaped to his own country. At that time Nebuchadnezzar conquered the whole area of Hamath.
Replica of the Ishtar Gate at the Berlin Museum.*
The Ishtar Gate
Thirty years into his reign as king in Babylon, about 575 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar commissioned the building of the Ishtar Gate, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World, as an intimidating and opulent entry into the interior of ancient Babylon. The gate’s dedicatory inscription leaves no doubt of the king’s robust self image, reading…
Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, the faithful prince appointed by the will of Marduk, the highest of princely princes, beloved of Nabu, of prudent counsel, who has learned to embrace wisdom, who fathomed their divine being and reveres their majesty, the untiring governor, who always takes to heart the care of the cult of Esagila and Ezida and is constantly concerned with the well-being of Babylon and Borsippa, the wise, the humble, the caretaker of Esagila and Ezida, the firstborn son of Nabopolassar, the King of Babylon…
Faithful, princely, beloved, prudent, untiring… Our prince was quite the guy.
Alliance with Media & The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Nineveh’s end, and so the resurgence of Babylon, became a certainty when young general Nebuchadnezzar married the Median princess, Amytis.
Sennacherib of Assyria, before shaving
The alliance between Media and Babylonia was cemented by the marriage of the daughter of Cyaxares with Nebuchadnezzar, son of Nabopolassar and heir to the throne of Babylon. (A History Of Persia, Volume 1, Sir Percy Sykes)
Following his participation in one of the most eventful and successful political marriages in history, legend has it that King Nebuchadnezzar, in response to his queen, Amytis‘ homesickness for the forested mountains of the Median Empire, built the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, with trees and plants of her homeland. Conclusions drawn from advances in interpreting ancient cuneiform writing now suggest that the Hanging Gardens were actually built in Nineveh, by Sennacherib. Clearly, based on the cuneiform, Sennacherib sponsored the construction of a fantastic garden. Assuming, because of that, that Nebuchadnezzar could not have also engineered a spectacular garden, seems weak. To believe that placing the famous Hanging Gardens at Babylon was simply a historical mistake would require us to believe that those who recorded the tale for posterity were unable to differentiate between Nineveh and Babylon and Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar. (Like moderns confusing Paris with Moscow and Czar Nicholas with Charles DeGaulle.)
In either case, Nebuchadnezzar’s marriage to Amytis changed the world.
Conquest of Tyre
The ancient port of Tyre, including its adjacent island fortress, was one of the preeminent seats of power in the Levant between the 10th and 8th centuries BCE. Nebuchadnezzar II and Babylon captured the mainland city, a spectacular military achievement in itself but, apparently, failed to capture the fortified island. (There is evidence that Babylon’s failure was related to Nebuchadnezzar’s famous Seven Year Madness. Click here for an excellent discussion of this and more.) I had some fun with my research on Tyre in For the Sake of his Name in the following dialogue, part of a fictional briefing of Nebuchadnezzar by the Prophet, Daniel and his friend, Azariah…
Azariah rarely had the nerve to challenge the king but he too had changed having survived Nebuchadnezzar’s best efforts to murder him. He stood and said forcefully, “O king. Even if Babylon is able to take the adjacent mainland at Tyre, your own sources report that the city’s inhabitants may easily retreat to the rocky, fortified island half a mile offshore. From there they will still have their ships, they will command easy access to food and the materials necessary to both wage effective war and survive a lengthy siege.”
Nebuchadnezzar began to strum the tabletop with his fingers.
“The island’s walls facing the mainland are over 150 feet high,” Azariah said. “They stand nearly perpendicular to where they meet the sea. The fortifications are built to withstand any ram yet devised. The channel between the mainland and her coastline is over twenty feet deep. It’s swept with powerful currents, turbulent winds, changeable weather and…”
“Enough!” Nebuchadnezzar shouted, fists clenched on the table and his eyes shut tight. “That is quite enough. I am Nebuchadnezzar the second, son of Nabopolassar, king of Akkad, ruler of the known world, favorite of the gods. I am the gleam in Marduk’s eye, lord over millions…” He stopped, breathing heavily as if he had jogged a great distance.
“And even so, O king,” Daniel said softly, “Tyre remains a mighty, imposing fortress.”
Fifteen Million Baked Bricks
Following the defeat of the Assyrian Empire by the Medes and Babylonians between 614 – 609 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II rebuilt the city of Babylon on a grand scale. It has been estimated that 15 million baked bricks were used in the construction of official buildings. The bricks are usually square and often bear cuneiform inscriptions, generally made with a stamp…but occasionally written by hand.
*Photo Credit: “Ishtar Gate at Berlin Museum” by Rictor Norton – http://www.flickr.com/photos/24065742@N00/151247206/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ishtar_Gate_at_Berlin_Museum.jpg#/media/File:Ishtar_Gate_at_Berlin_Museum.jpg