Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC)

Whether one loved and admired or feared and hated him, Nebuchadnezzar II (Akk. Nabû-kudurrī-uṣur „O Nabû, preserve my first-born son"), the son and successor of Nabopolassar [], evoked many different intensive emotions and has left a lasting impression, not only on his own contemporaries, but also on people living many generations after his death. The main reasons for this are undoubtedly his repeated campaigns against the Judean capital Jerusalem, which led to its destruction and the so-called "Babylonian Exile" of (a sizeable portion of) its population, as well as his magnificent, large-scale refurbishing of his military and religious capital, Babylon. His present-day fame as one of the world's most famous ancient rulers is especially due to the literary and artistic reception of his accomplishments (some of which were part of his strategy to consolidate and expand the empire that his father Nabopolassar [] had founded), as well as their later use for ideological and propagandistic purposes.

Nebuchadnezzar, the Conqueror

When Nebuchadnezzar II ascended the throne in 605 BC, he was already an experienced military leader. Not only had he negotiated with the administrators of the Eanna temple at Uruk in order to obtain support for his father, Nabopolassar [], when the Babylonian army alongside the Medes was fighting the remnants of the Assyrian army at Ḫarrān in 610, but he had also already personally led several successful military campaigns in his father's stead, e.g., against Zamua in 607 and against the Egyptian garrison stationed at Carchemish in 605. According to a Babylonian chronicle (ABC 5 []), Nebuchadnezzar only briefly suspended the latter campaign in order to claim the throne at Babylon when he had heard about his father's death and then quickly returned to Syria ("the Hatti-land"), where he marched from city to city without meeting any (noteworthy) resistance.

The first years of Nebuchadnezzar's reign were spent mostly afield. It is possible that the submission of Jehoiakim of Judah, which is mentioned in 2 Kings 24:1 [], and the plea of Adon (of Ekron?) to the Egyptian pharaoh to aid him against the Babylonian army, which is recorded in the Saqqara Papyrus, took place during this time. In 602, however, a decisive event must have occurred since from that year onwards campaigns started only late in the year and lasted considerably shorter than before. It has been suggested that the reason for this could have been a rebellion incited by peasants recruited into the army who feared that they would lose their crops while they were on campaign far from home instead of performing crucial agricultural tasks; and that the king's brother, Nabû-šuma-līšir, who is surprisingly mentioned in the Babylonian chronicle [] for that year (unfortunately in broken context), may have played a part in this rebellion (Tyborowski 1996). The campaign against the Egyptians in the following year (601) seems to have taken its toll on the Babylonian army since, according to the afore-mentioned chronicle [] Nebuchadnezzar spent the following year (600/599) reorganizing his forces; that military expedition forced the Egyptians to give up any control they had on territory on the Asian continent (Wiseman 1985, pp. 29-30).

Jehoiakim of Judah probably took advantage of the hiatus of military pressure and once again declared his independence from Babylon (see 2 Kings 24:1 []), a serious mistake that he and his successor Jehoiakin would soon have to pay for. After the Babylonian army successfully campaigned against the Arabs in 599, Jerusalem became Nebuchadnezzar's next target and Judah's capital was successfully conquered on the second of Addaru (= on the 16th of March), 597. Jehoiakin, who had been king for only three months, was ousted from his throne and was deported to Babylon together with his entire entourage, a large number of fighting men and skilled craftsmen, and plenty of booty.[1] In his place, Nebuchadnezzar installed Jehoiakin's uncle Mattaniah, whom he called Zedekiah, as the new ruler. The king of Babylon certainly expected loyalty from his newly-appointed vassal; however, after only a few years, Zedekiah made the same mistake as his predecessor and started a rebellion against Babylonian hegemony.

Biblical accounts -- 2 Kings 24 []:20-25 []:21 and Jeremiah 52 []:1-23 (cf. also 2 Chronicles 36 []:11-21) -- describe the consequences of this second rebellion as being very dramatic: In 587, after a siege that reportedly lasted two years and caused severe famine in the city, the fleeing king was caught and brought in bronze shackles to Babylon; before being deported, Zedekiah still had to watch his sons (and, according to Jeremiah 52 []:10, also his officials) being killed. The walls of Jerusalem were broken down, its temple and the royal palaces were set on fire, and its population was carried off into exile, except for some extremely poor people who were left behind in order to take care of vineyards and fields.[2]

One should note that despite the cruelties that are reported in the passages mentioned above, Nebuchadnezzar is generally not negatively described in the Bible.[3] On the contrary, the invasion of Judah and the deportation of its population are explicitly stated as being part of God's will because certain Judean rulers, priests, and other people had misbehaved; there are even passages in which the acceptance of the Judeans of their living in exile is actively promoted (cf. especially Jeremiah 29 []). Laments and curses like those in Psalm 137 [], on the other hand, are rare. This is not surprising if one remembers that many of the Biblical books were not edited in the Judean capital Jerusalem, but rather under strong Babylonian cultural (and certainly also political) influence during the "exile".[4] However, the fact that Jewish literature flourished during that period gives us reason to assume that the Judeans in Babylonia, despite the fact that they had originally come there as prisoners of war, lived reasonably good lives; this assumption is also supported by extant cuneiform (Akkadian) sources.[5]

Nebuchadnezzar, the Builder

In order to prove himself worthy of Nabopolassar []'s legacy, that is, to be the leader of a thriving new empire, Nebuchadnezzar not only had to prove himself on the battlefield by leading successful campaigns, but he also needed to effectively demonstrate that he could take care of the country, its cities, its people, and its gods, and that he was eager to enhance its prestige. What better way to do this than by continuing and expanding the building programs started by his father?

From a royal inscription of Nabopolassar [] we learn that this king made two of his sons, Nebuchadnezzar and - notably - Nabû-šuma-līšir, actively take part in an official ceremony that inaugurated his renovation of Etemenanki, the temple-tower of Marduk at Babylon []. Thus, Nebuchadnezzar was certainly well-informed about and involved in his father's building and restoration projects already as the heir designate to the throne of Babylon, and it was only natural for him to continue these projects after he came to power.

Inscriptions reporting on Nebuchadnezzar's temple building activities have been found in different cities from all over modern-day southern Iraq. In inscriptions found at Wadi Brisa and Nahr al-Kalb, he also boasts of having erected two large defense walls: One from Kish to Kār-Nergal and the other from the Euphrates River at Sippar to Opis on the Tigris River. His main project, however, was the magnificent refurbishing of his capital Babylon. There, he not only renovated temples, the ziggurat, and the Arahtu quay wall, as well as enlarged the existing palace (an activity that required elevating the procession road), but he also had two new large royal residences constructed outside the previous enclosure of the city and had them surrounded with a gigantic wall. The enduring symbol of Nebuchadnezzar's building activities and Babylon's grandeur, the so-called Ishtar Gate, which had originally been situated at the northern end of the procession road, is nowadays proudly on display in the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin, where it has been brought to and been reconstructed after it had been unearthed during the German excavations led by Robert Koldewey at the beginning of the 20th century. At Babylon, a replica has been erected under Iraq's former president Saddam Hussein (r. 1979-2003 AD), who -- believing that he could match Nebuchadnezzar's fame -- also instructed his workmen to rebuild Nebuchadnezzar's palace and to construct a new palace of his own next to it. Whether the bricks commemorating his name and building work in Arabic script will survive more than 2500 years, like those of Nebuchadnezzar did, is, however, subject to serious doubt since he never reached the level of glory that Nebuchadnezzar had achieved and, unlike the latter, he did not have successors [] who would inherit a large, stable empire and hold his memory in high esteem.

Selected Bibliography

Czichon, R.M., 'Nebukadnezar II. B. Archäologisch,' in: D.O. Edzard (ed.), Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie 9, Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1998-2001, pp. 201-206.

Janssen, C., Bābil, The City of Witchcraft and Wine: The Name and Fame of Babylon in Medieval Arabic Geographical Texts (Mesopotamian History and Environment Series 2, Memoirs 2), Ghent: University of Ghent, 1995. [Go back to note 3.]

Lipschitz, O., and J. Blenkinsopp (eds.), Judah and the Judeans in the Neo-Babylonian Period, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2003.

Oded, B., 'Observations on the Israelite/Judaean Exiles in Mesopotamia During the Eighth-Sixth Centuries BCE,' in: Immigration and Emigration within the Ancient Near East: Festschrift E. Lipiński (Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 65), Leuven: Peeters, 1995, pp. 205-212. [Go back to note 5.]

Sack, R.H., Images of Nebuchadnezzar: The Emergence of a Legend, Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press / London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1991; 2004 (second, revised and expanded edition). [Go back to note 3.]

Streck, M.P., 'Nebukadnezar II. A. Historisch. König von Babylon (604-562),' in: D.O. Edzard (ed.), Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie 9, Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1998-2001, pp. 194-201.

Tyborowski, W., 'The Third Year of Nebuchadnezzar II (602 B.C.) According to the Babylonian Chronicle BM 21946 - an Attempt at an Interpretation,' Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 86 (1996), pp. 211-216. [Go back to body text.]

Wiseman, D.J., Nebuchadrezzar and Babylon, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. [Go back to body text.]

[1] He shared this fate with other defeated Levantine kings (from Arwad, Ashdod, Gaza, Mir, Sidon, and Tyre), all of whom are mentioned in the so-called "Hofkalender Inscription" of Nebuchadnezzar. [Go back to body text.]

[2] 2 Kings 25 []:22-25 further reports that Nebuchadnezzar appointed afterwards a new ruler (Gedaliah) and that this vassal tried to convince the remaining officers of the Judean army that it would be to their own advantage to loyally serve the Babylonian king. His appointment, however, obviously did not increase his popularity, since soon afterwards he was murdered by a group led by one of these men, Ishmael, son of Nethaniah. This act of resistance reportedly caused much of the population of Judah to flee to Egypt because they feared retribution. [It is, however, also possible that this murderous act was the reason for a third deportation of Judean citizens into Babylonian, as mentioned in Jeremiah 52 []:28-30.] [Go back to body text.]

[3] Even the story of "Nebuchadnezzar's Madness" Daniel 4 []:28-37 -- a passage in which the activities of a later Babylonian ruler, Nabonidus [], who spent ten years of his reign in the Arabian desert, are attributed to Nebuchadnezzar -- has a happy ending. After living for seven years away from people and eating grass like an oxen, the isolated ruler of Babylon reportedly recognized that sovereignty belongs only to God and was subsequently reinstalled as king, in all his former glory. Later (Islamic) tradition, however, is much more critical; e.g., Ibn Rusta (ca. 900 AD; cf. Janssen 1995, 42 and 5 [Arabic page numbering]) describes Nebuchadnezzar together with the mythical ruler "Nimrūd" as an "infidel", and Al-Bīrūnī (973-1048 AD) states that the people of Jerusalem had called everyone Nebuchadnezzar who destroyed their city (cf. Sack 1991, 54). [Go back to body text.]

[4] Similarly, the Babylonian Talmud, which is regarded as one of the most important Jewish scriptures ever written, was compiled (much later) by large communities of Jews who were living in settlements in Babylonia. [Go back to body text.]

[5] For example, some administrative documents from a palace at Babylon prove that Jehoiakin (who is explicitly designated as "king of Judah") and persons from his entourage received rations (Oded 1995). This indicates that the "prison" in which Jehoiakin is supposed to have got to know Nebuchadnezzar's son and successor, Amēl-Marduk [], might have been quite a comfortable one. [Go back to body text.]

Alexa Bartelmus

Alexa Bartelmus, 'Nebuchadnezzar II (604-562 BC)', RIBo, Babylon 7: The Inscriptions of the Neo-Babylonian Dynasty, The RIBo Project, a sub-project of MOCCI, 2016 []

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