Nabonidus (555-539 BC)

Nabonidus (Akk. Nabû-na'id "Nabû is praised") was not only the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Dynasty, but certainly also the most controversial one.[1] Having come to power through unclear circumstances (he may have been involved in a conspiracy that brought about the murder of his predecessor, the boy king Lâbâši-Marduk) [], he spent the seventeen years of his reign making such unusual and radical political and religious decisions that the very influential Marduk priesthood finally decided that even a foreigner could not be worse than their own king and they opened the gates of Babylon to the Persian army of Cyrus the Great [], the man who would put an end to the Babylonian Empire.

Nabonidus, the Son

It is already apparent from a look at his parentage that Nabonidus was a rather uncommon Babylonian ruler. While his father, Nabû-balāssu-iqbi, obviously did not play a very important role either in Nabonidus' life or in Babylonian politics, Nabonidus' career and the decisions he made as king seem to have been strongly influenced by his mother Adad-guppi [] who had been deported by the troops of Nabopolassar [] from Ḫarrān, the last stronghold of the Assyrian Empire [], and who held the memory of her hometown dear in her heart.[2] According to a pseudo-autobiographical inscription by the scribes of Nabonidus on the occasion of her funeral, Adad-guppi [] seems to have attained quite an influential position at the Babylonian court, despite her foreign origin. Not only did she introduce her son Nabonidus to Nebuchadnezzar II [] and Neriglissar [], and put him into their service, but she also conducted the funeral rites for these kings (that were allegedly neglected by their respective sons and successors, Amēl-Marduk [] and Lâbâši-Marduk []) after their deaths as if she was a member of the royal family. Nabonidus again seems to have made good use of his mother's connections and to have found very influential friends at the Babylonian court since after a conspiracy that led to the murder of Neriglissar []'s successor Lâbâši-Marduk [] he was surprisingly proclaimed the new king of Babylon.[3]

Nabonidus, fulfiller of a mission

Having attained power, Nabonidus quickly started preparing for a project close to his and his mother's heart, the restoration of Eḫulḫul, the temple of the moon-god (Akkadian: Sîn) in his mother's hometown Ḫarrān. Already in his first year of reign, he announced his intention to restore that destroyed holy building in a lengthy inscription (written on a stele erected in Babylon) that was meant to provide the project with religious legitimacy by putting it into a religious-historical context. In this text, he explains that the devastation of cult centers by the Medes (Babylonia's involvement was concealed) was retribution by the god Marduk for the Assyrian king Sennacherib []'s desecration of his earthly residence Babylon:

"He [pl]otted evil. (As for) [the on]e who would lead away the people (Sennacherib []), his heart pondered criminal act(s). [He did] n[ot] forgive the people of the la[nd of Akkad] (and) [approach]ed Babylon with evil intent[ion]s, laid waste to its sanctuaries, made (its) plans unrecognizable, (and) destroyed (its) pelludû-rites. He took the hand of the prince, the god Marduk, and brought (him) into Baltil (Aššur). He treated the land like the wrath of a god. The prince, the god Marduk, did not relax his [a]nger (and) he made his dwelling inside Baltil (Aššur) for twenty-one years. Time [e]lapsed, the appointed time arrived, (and) the anger of the king of the gods, the lord of lords abated and he remembered Esagil and Babylon, the dwelling of his lordly majesty: (As for) the king of the land Subartu (Sennacherib []), the one who had brought about the destruction of the land through the wrath of the god Marduk, a son (of his), his (own) offspring, cut him down with the sword." (Schaudig 2001, pp. 515-516, 3.3a i 1'-41'; translation by Jamie Novotny)

According to Nabonidus' story, after the fall of the Assyrian Empire, Marduk's wrath had abated and he had granted the Babylonian kings Nebuchadnezzar (II) [] and Neriglissar [] permission to restore a number of cults, in particular the Eanna temple of Ištar at Uruk and the Eulmaš temple of Annunītum at Sippar-Annunītum. However, these projects remained uncompleted and, thus, Nabonidus finished the work began by his predecessors. In addition, Marduk also entrusted him with the restoration of the Eḫulḫul temple in Ḫarrān:

"[(As for) the temples] whose storerooms had been plu[ndered], (where) they (the gods) no (longer) resided in their dwellings, [...] the god Marduk, my lord, waited for me and had the renovation of the cults of the god(s) placed in my hands. By his holy mouth, he ordered (as a duty) for my reign the appeasement of the angry gods (and) (their) installation in their dwellings. (As for) Ḫarrān (and) Eḫulḫul, which had laid in ruins for fifty-four years, (whose) sanctuaries had been destroyed through the devastation (brought about) by the Umman-manda (Medes), with (the consent of) the gods, the appointed time of reconciliation, fifty-four years, drew near, when the god Sîn would return to his (proper) place. Now, he returned to his (proper) place, and the god Sîn, the lord of the (lunar) crown, remembered his sublime dwelling, but (it was) the god Marduk, the king of gods, (who) ordered the gathering of the gods, as many as had left his cella with him." (Schaudig 2001, p. 521, 3.3a x 1'-31'; translation by Jamie Novotny)

By giving this mythical introduction, Eḫulḫul appears to be on par with the old and venerable Babylonian sanctuaries; moreover, this temple's restoration is presented as the culmination of a mission that Marduk had entrusted to the Neo-Babylonian rulers.

Nabonidus, the "Archaeologist"

Nabonidus really seems to have been convinced of his mission to restore the sanctuaries of Babylonia's gods; at least he took this task very seriously. Numerous inscriptions record the building/restoration of the Ebabbar temples at Sippar and Larsa, the Eulmaš temples at Akkad and Sippar-Annunītum, and the Egipar temple at Ur (where he also installed his daughter, En-nigaldi-Nanna, as a high priestess of the moon-god during his second regnal year), as well as sanctuaries of other important Babylonian gods. While carrying out work on these temples, Nabonidus showed a remarkable interest in their history. Whenever his workmen found a document or an image that provided information on building activities by earlier kings, the object as well as the circumstances of its finding were mentioned in his royal inscriptions, and damaged objects were carefully restored, e.g.:

"He (Nabonidus) discovered a statue of Sargon (of Agade), the father of Narām-Sîn, in that foundation: Half of its head had come off and its features had become old (and) unrecognizable. To show reverence for the gods (and) honor (the tradition of) kingship, he assigned craftsmen who know (their) craft and (then) renovated the statue's head and made its features whole (again). (As for) that statue, he did not alter its place, he had it installed in Ebabbar (and) established a taklīmu-offering for it." (Schaudig 2001, p. 592, P4 iii 29'-iv 5'; translation by Jamie Novotny)

Furthermore, there were often attempts to provide a date for the reign of the object's owners (or, more precisely, an attempt to estimate the span of time between the reigns of those previous rulers and that of Nabonidus). For example:

"I removed (the debris of) that temple, sought out its original foundation, and dug down eighteen cubits deep, and the foundation of Narām-Sîn, the son of Sargon (of Agade), which for 3,200 years no king who came before me had seen -- The god Šamaš, the great lord, revealed to me (the original foundation of) Ebabbar, the temple, the dwelling of his contentment." (Schaudig 2001, p. 422 2.12 ex. 1 ii 55-60; translation by Jamie Novotny)

Passages such as this one have led to the frequently quoted idea that Nabonidus was the world's first (known) "archaeologist". However, it has also been argued that his statements are often exaggerated or even purely fictional,[4] and that his main interest was not a scholarly, but rather a political one, namely the try to support his claim to the throne (that was not legitimated by birth) by showing that he did as good (or rather even better) than his royal predecessors. In any event, his inscriptions clearly convey the message that he cared for the history of the country he ruled, respected its religious and cultural traditions, and did everything that was necessary to preserve them.

Nabonidus, the Absent King

After three years of reign, however, Nabonidus made a decision that was probably as surprising to his subjects as it appears to us today: He gave the command of the military to his son Belshazzar (who is well-known from the enthralling account of the fall of Babylon in Daniel 5 []) and left the Babylonian capital together with some of his troops for a long-term stay on the Arabian peninsula. In an inscription on a stele from Ḫarrān, he gives the following explanation:

"The people, the citizens of Babylon, Borsippa, Nippur, Ur, Uruk, Larsa, the šangû-priests, (and) the people of the cult centers of the land of Akkad sinned against his (the god Sîn's) great divinity and (then) left (it and) committed sacrilege (against it). They did not know the great anger of the king of the gods, the god Nannāru; they forgot their cultic rites and spoke lies and things that were not true. They were eating one another like dog(s); they allowed heat stress[5] and famine to exist in their midst, (which) reduced the (number of) people of the land. However, he (the god Sîn) allowed me to escape from my city, Babylon, and for ten years I wandered the road between the cities of Tēmā (Tayma), Dadanu (Al-ʿUla), Padakku (Fadak/Al-Hayit), Ḫibrā (Ḫaybar), (and) Yadiḫu (Yadiʿu), as far as the city Yathribu (Medina). I did not enter into my city, Babylon." (Schaudig 2001, pp. 488-489 3.1 ex. 1 i 14b-27a; translation by Jamie Novotny)

Although Nabonidus explicitly states that he fled his capital when Babylon was in dire straits,[6] his stay in Tayma has often been interpreted (among many other things) as an intentional campaign in order to control the important trade routes that ran through there. At least according to the later composed Verse Account [], Nabonidus does not seem to have behaved as a refugee, but rather as a conqueror:

"Upon arriv[ing], he (Nabonidus) killed the ruler of the city Tēmā (Tayma) with the [sword], slaughte[red] the herds of those who lived in (both) the ci[ty and] country. Moreover, he himself established the city Tēmā as his residence (and) the strength of the land of Akkad [(was) with him. He mad]e the city glorious (and) buil[t a palace (there)] like the palace he had built (in) Šuanna (Babylon); [Inside it, he set up] ... [...] for the protection of the city and the l[and]; he surrounded it with defense towe[r(s) ...]." (Schaudig 2001, p. 568, P1 ii 24'b-31'; translation by Jamie Novotny)

While there is so far no proof that the remains of some massive architectural structures that were discovered at Tayma date back to the time Nabonidus (as is occasionally claimed), a number of finds from this site and its surroundings[7] amply testify to his presence and influence in the region. Not only were a stele of Nabonidus and two other inscribed objects giving his name and filiation discovered at Tayma itself, but on rocks some kilometres southwest of Tayma there is also a large number of graffiti with Taymanic (an early Arabic dialect) inscriptions of which at least some have been identified as having been written by members of Nabonidus's entourage (see Hayajneh 2001; Müller and Al-Said 2002). In 2013, another spectacular find was made at the oasis of Al-Hayit: There, a relief of Nabonidus was found whose inscription seems to allow the identification of this place with Padakku (Hausleiter and Schaudig 2014). This also fits nicely with Nabonidus's claim that he did not content himself with a comfortable stay at Tayma but also travelled to other places on the Arabian peninsula.[8]

Nabonidus, the Despised King

Whatever Nabonidus' reasons for staying abroad so long were, his decision had far-reaching consequences for the cult of Marduk at Babylon, since during the king's absence the yearly celebrations of the important New Year festival could not be held. This was a serious affront to the priesthood of Marduk whose influence (like that of other priesthoods) was at the same time drastically reduced by expropriation of their temple estates.[9] When the king finally returned to Babylon after ten years of absence (reportedly on the 17th Tašrīt, the day of the akītu-festival of Sîn of Ḫarrān), he was ever more obsessed with his devotion to the moon-god. Not only did he now bring his plans to restore the Eḫulḫul temple to completion, but he also portrayed Sîn as the supreme deity of the Babylonian pantheon while virtually ignoring Marduk in the few inscriptions from that period still dealing with building activities at other places than Ḫarrān (all concerning Sîn and his family). All this must have caused deep dissatisfaction and frustration among Marduk's priesthood in Babylon. Unfortunately, apart from Nabonidus' own inscriptions, there are not many sources on the last years of his reign, and even less credible ones. Thus, the sequence of events that led to the fall of Neo-Babylonian must for the time being remain speculative. Nevertheless, because of the reasons outlined above, it is very likely that the claim made by Cyrus II [] in his famous Cylinder inscription [] that he had entered Babylon peacefully, on the explicit wish of Marduk, and that the people of Babylon had rejoiced at his kingship, although of course written for propagandistic purposes had a realistic background, and it seems reasonable to assume that the frustrated Marduk-priesthood had played an active part in his victory.

For further information on the inscriptions of Nabonidus, click here or the "Inscriptions" link to the left.

Selected Bibliography

Bartelmus, A., and J. Taylor, 'Collecting and Connecting History: Nabonidus and the Kassite Rebuilding of E(ul)maš of (Ištar)-Annunītu in Sippar-Annunītu,' Journal of Cuneiform Studies 66 (2014), pp. 113-128. [Go back to note 4]

Beaulieu, P.-A., The Reign of Nabonidus, King of Babylon 556-539 BC, New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1989. [Go back to body text] [Go back to note 3] [Go back to note 9]

Beaulieu, P.-A., 'Nabonidus the Mad King: A Reconsideration of His Steles from Harran and Babylon,' in: M. Heinz/M.H. Feldman, Representations of Political Power Case Histories from Times of Change and Dissolving Order in the Ancient Near East, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2007, pp. 137-166. [Go back to note 10]

Crowell, B.L., 'Nabonidus, as-Silaʿ, and the Beginning of the End of Edom,' Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 348 (2007), pp. 75-88. [Go back to note 8]

Dalley, S., and A. Goguel, 'The Selaʿ Sculpture: A Neo-Babylonian Rock Relief in Southern Jordan,' Annual of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan, Amman 41 (1997), pp. 169-176. [Go back to note 8]

Grassi, G., 'Nabonidus, King of Babylon,' Middle East - Topics & Arguments 3 [] (2014), pp. 125-135. [Go back to note 10]

Hausleiter, A., and H. Schaudig, 'Nabonidus at al-Hayit/Padakku,' Nouvelles Assyriologiques Brèves et Utilitaires 2014, pp. 114-115, no. 70. [Go back to body text]

Hayajneh, H., 'First evidence of Nabonidus in the Ancient North Arabian Inscriptions from the Region of Taymāʾ,' Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies 31 (2001), pp. 81-95. [Go back to body text]

Jursa, M., 'Neubabylonische Texte,' in: Texte zum Rechts- und Wirtschaftsleben (Texte aus der Umwelt des Alten Testaments, N.F. 1), Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2004, pp. 89-110. [Go back to note 9]

Jursa, M., 'The Neo-Babylonian Empire,' in: M. Gehler and R. Rollinger (eds.), Imperien und Reiche in der Weltgeschichte. Epochenübergreifende und globalhistorische Vergleiche, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2014, pp. 121-148. [Go back to note 2]

Kinnier Wilson, J.V., and I. Finkel, 'On būšānu and di'u, or Why Nabonidus Went to Tema,' Le Journal des Médecines Cuneiformes 9 (2007), pp. 16-22. [Go back to note 5]

Mayer, W., 'Nabonids Herkunft,' in: M. Dietrich/O. Loretz (eds.), Dubsar anta-men: Studien zur Altorientalistik: Festschrift für Willem H. Ph. Römer zur Vollendung seines 70. Lebensjahres mit Beiträgen von Freunden, Schülern und Kollegen (Alter Orient und Altes Testament 253), Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1998, pp. 245-261. [Go back to note 2]

Müller, W.W., and S.F. Al-Said, 'Der babylonische König Nabonid in taymanischen Inschriften,' in: N. Nebes (ed.), Neue Beiträge zur Semitistik: Erstes Arbeitstreffen der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Semitistik in der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft vom 11. bis 13. September 2000 an der Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena (Jenaer Beiträge zum Vorderen Orient 5), Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2002, pp. 105-121. [Go back to body text]

Schaudig, H., Die Inschriften Nabonids von Babylon und Kyros' des Großen samt den in ihrem Umfeld entstandenen Tendenzschriften (Alter Orient und Altes Testament 256), Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2001. [Go back to bodytext] [Go back to note 2] [Go back to note 3]

Schaudig, H., 'Nabonid, der "Archäologe auf dem Königsthron." Zum Geschichtsbild des ausgehenden neubabylonischen Reiches,' in: G. J. Selz (ed.), Festschrift für Burkhart Kienast zu seinem 70. Geburtstage dargebracht von Freunden, Schülern und Kollegen (Alter Orient und Altes Testament 274), Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2003, pp. 447-497. [Go back to note 4]

Schaudig, H., 'The Restoration of Temples in the Neo- and Late Babylonian Periods: A Royal Prerogative as the Setting for Political Argument,' in: M.J. Boda and J. Novotny (eds.), From the Foundations to the Crenellations: Essays on Temple Building in the Ancient Near East and Hebrew Bible (Alter Orient und Altes Testament 366), Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2010, pp. 141-164. [Go back to body text]

[1] The extraordinary personality of this last Babylonian king has inspired the fantasy of both ancient and modern authors so much that it is impossible to establish who this king really was. This page attempts to highlight some of the important aspects of his life. [Go back to body text.]

[2] The origin of Nabonidus's father, Nabû-balāssu-iqbi (on the alleged variant Nusku-balāssu-iqbi see Schaudig 2001, p. 342), is still an issue of debate. Suggestions range from the idea that he may have been an Aramean tribal leader (see, e.g., Jursa 2014, p. 132) to the hypothesis that he could have been part of the Babylonian royal family, possibly a brother or half-brother of Nabopolassar (Mayer 1998, pp. 256-257). In any case, he is remarkably only mentioned in inscriptions of Nabonidus himself, but not in the (pseudo-autobiographical) inscription of his mother Adad-guppi. [Go back to body text.]

[3] The name "Nabonidus" rarely occurs in documents before Nabonidus became king, and the few extant references may not actually be to the king of the same name (see Beaulieu 1989, pp. 79-86). According to two of his own inscriptions (Schaudig 2001, p. 520, 3.3a vii 47'-48' and pp. 488, 3.1 i 8-9), Nabonidus did not personally have any pretension to the throne. The account by Berossos [] (quoted in Flavius Josephus, Contra Apionem 1, 20 []) only states that Lâbâši-Marduk [] was killed by "his friends" and that the same men afterwards made Nabonidus king. According to Beaulieu 1989, pp. 90-98, Nabonidus's son Belshazzar who rose to a very prominent position at the Babylonian court shortly after his father became king may have been the leader of that conspiracy, which certainly took place in Babylon itself. In outlying regions like Uruk and Sippar, Nabonidus' authority was only accepted about a month after ascending the throne. [Go back to body text.]

[4] One should note that the data given in the inscriptions is not always correct (for example, Sargon reigned in the twenty-forth century BC, that is, less than 2,000 years before Nabonidus and not 3,200 as stated in the inscription quoted above), and that Nabonidus occasionally even seems to have made up the wording of allegedly found inscriptions (Schaudig 2003; cf. also Bartelmus and Taylor 2014, pp. 123-124). [Go back to body text.]

[5] Translation of this term follows Kinnier Wilson and Finkel 2007, p. 21-22. [Go back to body text.]

[6] A similar claim is made in an Aramaic text that was discovered in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls [] from the caves of Qumran, the so-called "Prayer of Nabonidus" []. In this text, it is stated that Nabonidus had come down with a serious illness. According to Kinnier Wilson and Finkel (2007), this illness may have been scurvy and it may have been a result of the hunger crisis that had affected Babylon according to the above-mentioned passage of Nabonidus' Harran Stele. However, it seems hard to imagine that insufficient food supply in Babylon should have affected even the king himself. [Go back to body text.]

[7] Since 2004, systematical excavations at Tayma are conducted by the Saudi Commission for Antiquities and Tourism (SCTA) [] and the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) []. [Go back to body text.]

[8] On his way to Tema, Nabonidus also left a rock relief at As-Silaʿ in Jordan; see Dalley and Goguel 1997 and Crowell 2007. [Go back to body text.]

[9] According to Jursa (2004, p. 101), expropriation of temple estates had already started late in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II []; Beaulieu (1989, pp. 124-125) states that Neriglissar [] dismissed all officials of the temple Eanna (at Uruk) in his first year. [Go back to body text.]

Alexa Bartelmus

Alexa Bartelmus, 'Nabonidus (555-539 BC)', RIBo, Babylon 7: The Inscriptions of the Neo-Babylonian Dynasty, The RIBo Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2016 []

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