Nabopolassar (625-605 BC)

Nabopolassar (Akk. Nabû-apla-uṣur "O Nabû, protect the heir!"), a man whose origins are obscure, took full advantage of the rapid decline of Assyria's domination over Babylonia when that once-great empire [] was embroiled in an internal power struggle, and proclaimed himself king of Babylon on the twenty-third of November 626 BC. While this self-declared "son of a nobody" may have started his career as a high-ranking official of the Assyrian king, his rise to power is not well documented in the extent contemporary and later sources. However, the laconic chronographic series often referred to as the "Babylonian Chronicles" [] records some important details about his early reign, a tumultuous time during which he gained absolute control over Babylonia and helped bring the formidable Assyrian Empire [] to a tragic end. His growing authority can also be traced in date formulae written on economic documents discovered in a number of Babylonian cities.

Raise to Power

The founder of the so-called "Neo-Babylonian Dynasty" spent his first decade as king at war with his archenemy, the Assyrian king Sîn-šarra-iškun [] (ca. 626-612 BC). This violent clash of kings not only found its way into the "Babylonian Chronicles" [] but also into a few classical sources and two Seleucid-period literary letters, in one of which the Babylonian king openly declares war on Assyria. Initially, Assyria took the fight to Babylonia, but Nabopolassar was eventually able to drive out his adversary's armies and take the offensive, penetrating deep into the heart of the Assyrian Empire []; the latter feat was accomplished with the support of the Medes, a group of people who were determined to see the cities of their long-despised foe in smoldering ruins.

The first deathblow was struck in 614 BC, when Babylonian and Median forces stormed into the Assyrian heartland and captured and sacked the religious capital of the Assyrians, the venerated city of Ashur. The Medes, not the Babylonians, laid waste to that great metropolis; the Babylonian king's army arrived on the scene only after the bloody battle had finished. Nabopolassar and Cyaxares II, the ruler of the Medes, met outside of Ashur and concluded a treaty. Two years later, in 612 BC, the Babylonian-Median coalition delivered a second, more decisive blow. Nineveh, Sîn-šarra-iškun []'s well-fortified administrative capital, was surrounded and, after an intensive three-month siege, the gates were breached and the city and its royal palaces and holy temples were plundered and destroyed; for the Babylonians, this was payback for what Sennacherib [] had done to Babylon in 689 BC. According to later tradition, the Assyrian king died while his palace was engulfed in flames; it is unclear, assuming the story does pertain to this Assyrian king and not an earlier Babylonian king, if Sîn-šarra-iškun []'s death resulted from suicide or murder. Nineteenth and twentieth century excavations at Nineveh have unearthed proof of this city's violent destruction. In addition to a thick layer of grey ash found in various parts of the city and traces of fire on reliefs lining the walls of palaces, archaeologists have discovered the skeletons of numerous individuals who died either defending or storming the city gates, including a teenage boy.

Although Nabopolassar and his Median ally had effectively brought down the most powerful empire the world had seen up to that time, there was still some fight left in Assyria. Aššur-uballiṭ II [], who may have been a member of the Assyrian royal family, declared himself king in the cult center of the moon-god, the city of Ḫarrān, located in the northwestern part of the empire. Even with the support of Egypt, Assyria was unable to withstand the assault of its enemies and Aššur-uballiṭ [] was forced to flee his stronghold, Assyria's ersatz capital. In 609 BC, Assyria ceased to exist as a political entity, while Babylon was just starting to assert itself as the dominate military power of the ancient Middle East.

Building Activities and Legacy

As the challenger of the great Assyrian Empire [] and eventually the founder of a new empire, military affairs were certainly Nabopolassar's main concern. However, he also wanted the splendor of Babylonia's capital (and other Babylonian cities) to match its newly regained, central political importance. Thus, he commanded his workmen to start renovating Babylon's ziggurat Etemenanki, as well as other temples, in addition to repaving parts of the procession road, repairing and strengthening the quay wall along the Euphrates River, and completely reconstructing the inner and outer city walls, both of which were reportedly falling into ruins. At Sippar, the cult center of the sun-god, he also sponsored a number of building activities.

Knowing that he would not live forever, Nabopolassar wisely let his sons Nebuchadnezzar (II) [] and Nabû-šuma-līšir actively participate in state affairs. Both of them participated in an official ceremony that inaugurated Nabopolassar's renovation of Etemenanki [], the temple-tower of Marduk at Babylon. In addition, Nebuchadnezzar (II) [] also fought battles in his father's stead during the last years of his father's reign. Thus, when Nabopolassar died in 605 BC, he not only left a flourishing new empire to his successor Nebuchadnezzar (II) [], but also the ambitions and the knowledge necessary to consolidate and expand it.

For further information on the official texts of Nabopolassar, click here or the "Inscriptions" link to the left.

Browse online Nabopolassar Corpus []

Selected Bibliography

Brinkman, J.A., 'Nabopolassar,' in: D.O. Edzard (ed.), Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie 9, Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 1998-2001, pp. 12-16.

Da Riva, R., The Neo-Babylonian Royal Inscriptions: An Introduction (Guides to the Mesopotamian Textual Record 4), Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2008.

Da Riva, R., The Inscriptions of Nabopolassar, Amel-Marduk and Neriglissar (Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Records 3), Boston: de Gruyter, 2013.

Gerardi, P., 'Declaring War in Mesopotamia,' Archiv für Orientforschung 33 (1986), pp. 30-38.

Glassner, J.-J., Mesopotamian Chronicles (Writings from the Ancient World 19), Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004.

Jursa, M., 'Die Söhne Kudurrus und die Herkunft der neubabylonischen Dynastie,' Revue d'Assyriologie et d'archéologie orientale 101 (2007), pp. 125-136.

Lambert, W.G., 'The Letter of Sîn-šarra-iškun to Nabopolassar,' in: I. Spar and W.G. Lambert (eds.), Literary and Scholastic Texts of the First Millennium B.C. (Cuneiform Texts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art 2), New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2005, pp. 203-210.

Novotny, J., 'Sīn-šarru-iškun,' in: H.D. Baker (ed.), The Prosopography of the Neo-Assyrian Empire 3/1, Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 2002, pp. 1143-1145.

Oates, J., 'The Fall of Assyria (635-609 B.C.),' in: J. Boardman et al. (eds.), The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and Other States of the Near East, from the Eighth to the Sixth Centuries BC (The Cambridge Ancient History 3/2), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992 (second edition), pp. 162-193.

Bastian Still

Bastian Still, 'Nabopolassar (625-605 BC)', RIBo, Babylon 7: The Inscriptions of the Neo-Babylonian Dynasty, The RIBo Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2016 []

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