Humiliation: The Fall of Babylon, the World’s Capital–
As Foreseen by our Holy Prophets, Yeshaya and Yirmiyah
In a previous issue of Kankan,1The Fast and the Feast we discussed how the fall of the city of Babylon occurred on Tisha B’Av, the date on which the Babylonians had destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem exactly 70 years earlier.
At the fall of Jerusalem, our forefathers put up a heroic fight against the Babylonians. This was not the case with the fall of Babylon, however, which suffered a strikingly humiliating defeat, falling to its enemy without a single shot being fired.
Yashayah Hanavi foresaw the fall of Babylon in a prophecy:2Yeshaya 45:1. “Thus said Hashem to Koresh, His anointed one—whose right hand He has grasped, treading down nations before him, ungirding the loins of kings, opening doors before him and letting no gate stay shut.”
How did the prophecy play out in real life? How did the mighty Babylonian capital suffer such a humiliating defeat? And how do different historians describe it?
As devastating as the defeat was, it was compounded by the discovery that the downfall of Babylon had been planned years earlier by its own queen!
The Glorious Walls of the City of Babylon
Before we describe the means by which Babylon fell to its enemy, we need to appreciate just how well-fortified and secure the city was.
King Hammurabi (r. 1792-1750 BCE) surrounded his city of Babylon with more impressive walls than was usually seen shortly after he assumed the throne in 1792 BCE. But the credit for transforming the city of Babylon into an awe-inspiring wonder belongs to King Nebuchadnezzar II.
Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605-562 BCE) built three walls around Babylon at a height of forty feet and so broad at the top, that chariots could race around [on the top of] them. The Ishtar Gate in the wall of Nebuchadnezzar II’s Babylon was claimed by some to be greater than any of the listed Wonders of the Ancient World. The Greek historian Herodotus claimed that, “Babylon surpasses in wonder any city in the known world” and specifically praised the walls which he said were 56 miles (90 kilometers) long, 80 feet (24 meters) thick, and 320 feet (97 meters) high. Although it is generally believed that Herodotus exaggerated the majesty of Babylon, other ancient writers have also noted the magnificence of the walls.
Walls alone are not enough to keep a city safe. The enemy can still lay siege, and wait for hunger to overcome those within. This wasn’t the case with Babylon, however, which was well prepared for such a possibility. The Greek historian Herodotus writes that before the fall of Babylon,4Herodotus, Histories, 1.190. “they had brought in provisions beforehand to last for very many years.”
Since laying siege wasn’t an option, the enemy had no choice but to penetrate the city itself. Yet, with such fortifications, the likelihood of entering was seemingly nil!
The Greek historian Xenophon quoted the words of King Cyrus [Heb. Koresh] after surveying the walls:5Xenophon: Cyropaedia vol. 7, chapter 5. “My friends and allies, we have surveyed the city on every side, and for my part I fail to see any possibility of taking by assault, walls so lofty and so strong!”
We know that Cyrus did manage to penetrate the fortified city in the end, and bring the Babylonian empire to its very knees. How did Cyrus manage this feat?
When we search the historical literature regarding the fall of Babylon, there doesn’t appear to be any discussion of this.
Let us turn to the historical sources and accounts of witnesses of the event, and see how they describe it.
This is the writing that is inscribed, ‘mene mene tekel upharsin’. And this is its meaning: mene—G-d has numbered [the days of] your kingdom and brought it to an end; tekel—you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting; peres—your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and the Persians.”
That verse is immediately followed by:8Daniel 30. “That very night, Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed.”
Cyrus’ Description of the Battle at Opis
On a Persian propaganda clay tablet, which survived the centuries, we read what is presumed to be written by the priests of Babylon, at the request of King Cyrus. The tablet is known today as the Nabonidus Chronicle, and we read the following:9ABC 7 (Nabonidus Chronicle), livius.org, accessed June 2020.
When Cyrus did battle at Opis on the [bank of] the Tigris against the army of Akkad, the people of Akkad retreated. He carried off the plunder [and] slaughtered the people. On the fourteenth day, Sippar was captured without a battle. Nabonidus fled. On the sixteenth day,10See, Rabbi Alexander Hool, The Challenge of Jewish History, Mosaica Press, 2015, pages 218-220 Ugbaru, governor of Gutium, and the army of Cyrus, entered Babylon without a battle.
Berossus, the Babylonian Historian
Let’s see how historians, who lived at a later period, documented that point in history.
We’ll start with the Babylonian historian Berossus, who lived around the time of Shimon HaTzadik. Berossus wrote Babyloniaca, and much of his writing has survived solely in quotes by the Jewish historian, Josephus. In the words of Berossus:11Against Apion, vol. I. section 20. “Hereupon Cyrus took Babylon.”
That is all he writes, with no mention of how the famous fortified city was taken!
The Account of Josephus
The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius lived at the time of the destruction of the second beis hamikdash. He presents his account of how events unfolded, citing the story of Belshazzar as it is written in sefer Daniel. But the actual historic account of how Babylon fell to the enemy is mentioned in less than a single line. In the words of Josephus:12Antiquities of the Jews, vol. 10, chapter 11, section 4. “Now, after a little while, both himself and the city were taken by Cyrus, the king of Persia.”
The Big Question
How did Cyrus do it? How was the most fortified city in the ancient world “taken by Cyrus” and “without battle”?
In the article “The Last Kings of Babylon,” we presented in a nutshell, how the fall of Babylon took place:
The capital of Babylon, which was a fortified city surrounded by a strong and tall wall, was cut in two by the Euphrates River. The walls were built in such a way that it was impossible to penetrate the city from the points of entry and exit of the river, for the depth of the river was the height of two men.
The Persian army viewed this entrance to the city as the best point of entry for themselves, but any attempt at underwater penetration wasn’t viable due to the depth.
So they came up with the following idea: They dug a few canals to divert most of the river’s waters, and as a result, the water level lowered dramatically, at which point the Persian army marched into the city. Babylon fell to the Persians without firing a single shot.
They entered the palace where the king lost his head to the Persians.
While this is fascinating, we can look deeper and ask what is the basis for this understanding?
Xenophon, the Greek Historian
Xenophon describes a very dramatic scene that took place outside the city walls of Babylon:13Xenophon: Cyropaedia vol. 7, chapter 5.
When Cyrus reached the city [of Babylon] he surrounded it entirely with his forces, and then rode around the walls himself, attended by his friends and the leading officers of the allies. Having surveyed the fortifications, he prepared to lead off his troops…
Cyrus called a council of his officers and said, “My friends and allies, we have surveyed the city on every side, and for my part, I fail to see any possibility of taking, by assault, walls so lofty and so strong. On the other hand, the greater the population, the more quickly must they yield to hunger, unless they come out to fight. If none of you have any other scheme to suggest, I propose that we reduce them by blockade.”
Then Chrysantas spoke:
“Does not the river flow through the middle of the city, and it is not at least a quarter of a mile in width?”
“To be sure it is,” answered Gobryas, “and so deep that the water would cover two men, one standing on the other’s shoulders; in fact, the city is even better protected by its river than by its walls.”
At which Cyrus said, “Well, Chrysantas, we must forego what is beyond our power. But let us measure off at once, work for each of us. Set to, and dig a trench as wide and as deep as we can…”
Thereupon Cyrus took his measurements all-round the city… he had a gigantic trench dug from end to end of the wall, his men heaping up the earth on their own side.
…By this time the trenches were dug. And Cyrus heard that it was a time of high festival in Babylon when the citizens drink and make merry the whole night long. As soon as the darkness fell, he set his men to work. The mouths of the trenches were opened, and during the night the water poured in, so that the river-bed formed a highway into the heart of the city.
When the great stream had taken to its new channel, Cyrus ordered his Persian officers to bring up their thousands, horse and foot alike, each detachment drawn up two deep, the allies to follow in their old order. They lined up immediately, and Cyrus made his own bodyguard descend into the dry channel first, to see if the bottom was firm enough for marching…
Thereupon they entered. And of those they met, some were struck down and slain, and others fled into their houses, and some raised the hue and cry. But Gobryas and his friends covered the cry with their shouts, as though they were revelers themselves. And thus, making their way by the quickest route, they soon found themselves before the king’s palace.
Practically speaking, the plan sounds difficult to execute.
Did Cyrus really dig a trench and divert a quarter-mile-wide river, without being discovered by the Babylonians? That is very difficult to believe, and, it must be noted, Greek historians weren’t famous for their reliability.
Let’s learn more about the Babylonian royal family. We will find a clue that connects Cyrus and his trench-digging, the Babylonian monarchs and the fall of the City of Babylon.
King Belshazzar’s Concealed Identity
In the article “The Last Kings of Babylon,” we shared a discussion about two kings, father and son, Nabonidus and Belshazzar, who were co-regents of the Babylonian empire.
It is the accepted historical narrative that there was one Babylonian king, named Nabonidus, and that he ruled for the entire last seventeen years of the empire. But according to Herodotus, there were actually two kings. They were a father and son, who shared the rule during these seventeen years between them, both having the same name, Labynetos/Nabonidus.
The fact that Belshazzar was king of Babylon, is only known through classic Jewish history, with the two sources that name Belshazzar as king, being sefer Daniel and the writings of Josephus. The Greek historians however, only mention a Babylonian king named Nabonidus.
Xenophon did not name the last kings of Babylon, and Josephus was disturbed by the lack of clarity. In his book Against Apion, Josephus copied the text written by the Babylonian historian Berossus, who referred to Nabonidus only as the last king of Babylonia who ruled for seventeen years. Josephus, in his book Antiquities of the Jews, brought the story from sefer Daniel, and suggested that Belshazzar is the one who reigned for seventeen years.
When introducing the topic of Belshazzar’s ascent to the Babylonian throne, he added:14Antiquities of the Jews, vol. 10, chapter 11, section 2.
And when he, [Belshazzar’s predecessor], was dead, it came to Belshazzar, who by the Babylonians was called Naboandelus [Nabonidus]. Against him, did Cyrus, the king of Persia, and Darius, the king of Media, make war.
Josephus knew of Belshazzar from sefer Daniel. He also knew that the last king of Babylon reigned for 17 years. Since Josephus knew that according to the Greeks, the last king of Babylon was Labynetos/Nabonidus, we can question: Did Josephus write that because he knew that Belshazzar was called Nabonidus by the Greeks, or was it an assumption in order to resolve the contradiction?
Herodotus refers to Nabonidus by the name ‘Labynetos’. It’s very similar phonetically to ‘Nabonidus,’ as only the initial phoneme is switched. When discussing the king against whom the Persians laid siege, he describes the king as follows:
This queen then is reported to have been such as I have described. And it was the son of this woman, bearing the same name as his father, Labynetos, and being ruler over the Assyrians, against whom Cyrus was marching.
And who is the above-mentioned queen? We will soon identify her.
Thus, in summary:
The Babylonian historian Berossus identified only one Babylonian king. He was named Nabonidus, and reigned for seventeen years, until the fall of Babylon.
The Jewish historian, Josephus, knew that Belshazzar was the Babylonian king who fell to the Persians. Josephus suggests that Belshazzar, a Persian name, and Nabonidus, a Greek name, refer to the same king of Babylon.
The Greek historian Herodotus, knew of two kings, father and son, both with the same name, and that it was the son who reigned when Babylon fell to the Persians.
As mentioned in a previous article, archeological findings confirm a father and son co-regency, between Nabonidus and his son Belshazzar. Therefore, Josephus’ explanation is in fact a piece of information he had, but wasn’t sure where to place it. Indeed, according to Herodotus, Belshazzar was called by the Greeks, Labynetos/Nabonidus II.
With this information, we can also deduce the name of Belshazzar’s mother: Queen Nitocris.
According to some historians, Nitocris was the daughter of Nevuchadnezzar.15See, Raymond Philip Dougherty (1877–1933), Nabonidus and Belshazzar: A Study of the Closing Events of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, Wipf and Stock, 2008. This might be established by the commentators on sefer Daniel. Rashi and other commentaries note that Belshazzar was a grandson of Nevuchadnezzar.
With this knowledge, let us turn to Nitocris, Belshazzar’s mother and wife of King Nabonidus I. Queen Nitocris is the queen who is mentioned in sefer Daniel.16Daniel 5:10, and see Malbim there. Her predecessor was Queen Semiramis, the wife of Nevuchadnezzar.17About the encounter of Semiramis and her daughter with Tzidkiyah and Achav, see Sanhedrin 93a; Mechilta DeRabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, 20:23, Me’am Loez, Yirmiyah 31. Semiramis is mentioned in the Midrash.18“Another interpretation: ‘It is governed by women’ (Shoftim 19:25): four women gained rulership in the world, and they were Izevel and Athaliah from Israel and Semiramis and Vashti from the gentile nations of the world.” Esther Rabbah 3:2.
Herodotus, wrote the following about Semiramis:19Herodotus, 1.184-186.
Of this Babylon, besides many other rulers, of whom I shall make mention in the Assyrian history, and who added improvement to the walls and temples, there were also two who were women. Of these, the one who ruled first, named Semiramis, who lived five generations20The husband of Nitocris was Nabonidus, who was the fifth king after Nebuchadnezzar, as follows: 1) Nebuchadnezzar, 2) Evil Merodach, 3) Neriglissar, 4) Labashi-Marduk, and 5) Nabonidus. before the other, produced banks of earth in the plain which are a sight worth seeing. Before this, the river used to flood like a sea over the whole plain.
Then Herodotus continues, describing her daughter, Nitocris:
The queen who lived after her time, named Nitocris, was wiser than she, [Semiramis], who had reigned before. And firstly, she [Nitocris], left behind her monuments [developments] which I shall tell of; then secondly, seeing that the monarchy of the Medes was great and not apt to remain still, but that besides other cities, even Nineveh, had been captured by the Medes, she made provision against the Medes in so far as she was able.
First, as regards to the river Euphrates which flows through the midst of their city – whereas before this it flowed straight – she by digging channels above, made it so winding that it actually comes three times in its course to one of the villages in Assyria. And the name of the village to which the Euphrates comes is Ardericca. And at this day those who travel from this Sea of ours to Babylon, in their voyage down the river Euphrates arrive three times at this same village, on three separate days.
This she did thus; and she also piled up a mound along each bank of the river, which is worthy to cause wonder for its size and height: and at a great distance above Babylon, she dug a basin for a lake, which she caused to extend along at a very small distance from the river, excavating it everywhere of such depth as to come to water, and making the extent such that the circuit of it measured four hundred and twenty furlongs: and the earth which was dug out of this excavation she used up by piling it in mounds along the banks of the river. And when this had been dug by her, she brought stones and set them all round it, as a facing wall.
Both these two things she did, that is she made the river to have a winding course, and she made the place which was dug out, all into a swamp, in order that the river might run more slowly, having its force broken by going round many bends, and that the voyages might be winding to Babylon, and after the voyages there might follow a long circuit of the pool. These works she carried out in that part where the entrance to the country was, and the shortest way to it from Media, so that the Medes might not have to deal with her kingdom and learn of her affairs.
These defenses she cast round her city from the depth; and she made the following addition which was dependent upon them:—The city was in two divisions, and the river occupied the space between. And in the time of the former rulers, when anyone wished to pass over from one division to the other, he had to pass over in a boat, and that, as I imagine, was troublesome. She however made provision also for this, for when she was digging the basin for the lake, she left this other monument of herself derived from the same work. That is, she caused stones to be cut of very great length, and when the stones were prepared for her and the place had been dug out, she turned aside the whole stream of the river into the place which she had been digging. And while this was being filled with water, the ancient bed of the river being dried up in the meantime, she built up the river banks with baked bricks and constructed steps that led from the little gates down to the river, after the same fashion as the wall and the edges of the river.
And also, about the middle of the city, as I judge, with the stones which she had caused to be dug out, she proceeded to build a bridge, binding together the stones with iron and lead. And upon the top she laid squared timbers across, to remain there while it was daytime, over which the people of Babylon made the passage across. But at night they used to take away these timbers for this reason, namely that they might not go backwards and forwards by night and steal from one another.
And when the place dug out had been made into a lake full of water by the river, and at the same time the bridge had been completed, then she conducted the Euphrates back into its ancient channel from the lake. And so, the place dug out being made into a swamp was thought to serve a good purpose, and a bridge had been set up for the inhabitants of the city.”
As we see, Queen Nitocris had in mind the advancement of the city’s architecture and infrastructure. It seems impressive that her plan accomplished so many things:
- Calming the raging river and stopping it from flooding, by changing its structure and adding swamps.
- Defense against the Medes, by having a long, winding ride down the Euphrates until enemies could reach the capital.
- She had a bridge built over the river, within the city. It helped with both travel and in establishing law and order.
- The development of the city by Queen Nitocris seemed admirable, and a judicious goal.
What she didn’t realize is that she also prepared the means for the fall of the city to the Persians! This indeed took place not so many years later, during the reign of her son, King Belshazzar.
Babylon was considered a most secure city.
The Babylonians were prepared for siege in the event of a lengthy battle. They had the supplies to shelter themselves in their city for years. They had fortified walls. Additionally, the river was protected with gates that were installed inside the city.
The report of Herodotus explains why, despite all of this, the Babylonians were still ill-prepared for the attack that actually took place:21Herodotus, 1.190.
When the next spring was just beginning, then at length he, [Cyrus], continued his advance upon Babylon. And the men of Babylon had marched forth out of their city and were awaiting him. So, when in his advance he came near to the city, the Babylonians joined battle with him. And having been defeated in the fight, they were shut up close within their city. But knowing well even before this that Cyrus was not apt to remain still, and seeing him lay hands on every nation equally, they had brought in provisions beforehand to last for very many years. For this reason, they were not at all concerned by the siege. Cyrus was in straits what to do, for much time went by and his affairs made no progress onwards.
Herodotus continues his account, describing how the accomplishments of Queen Nitocris brought about the fall of Babylon:22Herodotus, 1.191.
Therefore, whether it was some other man who suggested it to Cyrus when he was in a strait what to do, or whether he himself perceived what he ought to do, Cyrus did as follows:
The main body of his army he posted at the place where the river runs into the city, and then again behind the city, he set others, where the river issues forth from the city. And he proclaimed to his army that so soon as they should see that the stream had become passable, they should enter by this way into the city.
Having thus set them in their places and in this manner exhorted them, he marched away himself with that part of his army which was not fit for fighting. And when he came to the lake, Cyrus did the same thing which the queen of the Babylonians had done as regards the river and the lake. That is to say, he conducted the river by a channel into the lake, which was at that time a swamp, and so made the former course of the river passable, by the sinking of the stream.
When this had been done, the Persians who had been posted for that very purpose entered by the bed of the river Euphrates into Babylon, the stream having sunk so far that it reached about to the middle of a man’s thigh.
Now, if the Babylonians had surmised that which was being done by Cyrus, they would have allowed the Persians to enter the city and then destroyed them miserably. For they could have locked all the little gates that led to the river and climbed onto the ramparts which were along the banks of the river, they would have caught them, as if they were so many fish in a barrel.
But as it was, the Persians came upon them unexpectedly. And owing to the size of the city, it was said by the inhabitants, that when those about the edges of the city had suffered capture, those Babylonians who dwelt in the center did not know that they had been captured, as they chanced to be holding a festival. And so, they went on dancing and rejoicing during this time, until they learnt the truth only too well.”
Cyrus didn’t have to dig new trenches to divert the river around the city. Queen Nitocris had already begun the digging of these trenches many years earlier when diverting the river, as part of her plan for improving the city’s defense. Cyrus had a great advantage, as the trenches were ready and waiting for him and his attack on Babylon!
Babylon, the capital of the civilized world, was conquered by its arch-enemy without a battle. The enemy marched in, as if the city was theirs.
What a humiliating defeat indeed!
Josephus used the right words to describe this victory. That is exactly what happened, “Now, after a little while, both himself and the city were taken by Cyrus, the king of Persia.” – The city was simply taken.
No one could have foreseen such a defeat. But our prophets Yeshaya and Yirmiyah did!
All Foreseen by Our Holy Prophets!
Herodotus mentions the river gates. The gates should have been the stronghold of the Babylonians, but these were wide open, welcoming the enemy in.
The Prophecy of Yeshaya
More than a century earlier, our prophet Yeshaya foresaw what Herodotus reports as history:23Yeshaya 45:1.
Thus said Hashem to Koresh, His anointed one— whose right hand He has grasped, treading down nations before him, ungirding the loins of kings, opening doors before him and letting no gate stay shut.
The next passuk in sefer Yeshaya states:24Yeshaya 45:2. “I will march before you and level the ‘hadurim’ that loom up.”
Let’s turn to the system of studying Torah known as drash.
What does hadurim mean? Several commentators on sefer Yeshaya try to understand the word. Rashi offers two explanations of what hadurim means.
Ben Azai in Masechet Sukkah,25Sukkah 35a. asks how we know that the “pri etz hadar”26Vayikra 23:40. refers to the esrog? The esrog tree requires a lot of water. He says: “Don’t read it as hadar, but rather hydor, because in Greek hydor means water.”
This comment indicates that hadurim could refer to water or perhaps, waterways.
The passuk in Yeshaya then, reveals the very point of entry for the city’s conquest – the leveling of the Euphrates river. Thus, we can read the passuk: “I will march before you and level the water that looms up.”
The Prophecy of Yirmiyah
“Pis’om naflah Bavel vatishaver – Suddenly Babylon has fallen and is shattered!”27Yirmiyah, 51:8. is how Yirmiyah’s prophecy explains Babylon’s sudden fall.
Yirmiyah gives us quite a clear depiction of the scene, how things could have happened so ‘suddenly’:28Yirmiyah, 51:30-32.
Runner dashes to meet runner, messenger to meet messenger, to report to the king of Babylon that his city is captured, from end to end.
The fords are captured, and the swamp ponds are consumed in fire, and the fighting men are in a panic.
The city of Babylon was indeed taken by its fords and through its river and lakes!
The words “ponds are consumed in fire” might poetically refer to the idea that the ponds were dried out since water evaporates with heat and it was as if the ponds dried out.
A mere few verses later, we have the scene quite clearly set:29Yirmiyah, 51:36-41.
Therefore, thus said Hashem: “I am going to uphold your cause and take vengeance for you; I will dry up her sea [perhaps referring to Euphrates River] and make her fountain run dry [perhaps referring to its moat].
Babylon shall become rubble, a den for jackals, An object of horror and hissing, without inhabitant.
Like lions, they roar together, they growl like lion cubs.
When they are heated [in the peak of summer, Tamuz–Av], I will set out their drink and get them drunk [at the feast of Belshazzar], that they may become hilarious and then sleep an endless sleep, never to awake [Belshazzar was killed that night] —declares Hashem.
I will bring them down like lambs for slaughter, like rams and he-goats.”
How has Sheshach [Babylon] been captured!?
The praise of the whole earth has been taken!
How has Babylon become a horror to the nations!?
Further, we read Tisha B’Av – A Mo’ed
The halachah regarding Tisha B’Av is stated in the Shulchan Aruch:30Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 559:4. “One does not say tachanun on Tisha B’Av… because it is called ‘mo’ed’.”
‘Mo’ed’ means a time to celebrate.
Tisha B’Av is regarded as the peak-day of mourning by Klal Yisrael. In what sense, then, is Tisha B’Av a mo’ed?
Rav Yosef…said this tradition, “In the future, the Jews will establish a festival day when Tarmod is destroyed.
The Tarmodeans caused great trouble for the Jews during the churban Beis Hamikdash. For that reason, the destruction of the Tarmodeans will be a cause for celebration.
We mourn the destruction of the batei mikdash on Tisha B’Av each year. Yet, it is still called a mo’ed. The reason is, that on that very same day, those who destroyed it were destroyed themselves. This is also the vision for the future.
Earlier, we marveled at the great planning which brought about the fall of Israel’s enemies through their own accomplishments. Babylon’s fall was ‘planned’ by their proficient queen!
Seeing how the prophecies of Yeshaya and Yirmiyah were so accurately fulfilled, we may hope for a similar design, one of humbling defeat of today’s enemies of Israel, even though the prophecies for the hoped-for redemption of the future are yet to be fulfilled.