Empires are formed and fall, dynasties rise to prominence and crumble in poverty and ruin, ethnicities disappear from the fate of the Earth – these are the inevitable aspects of the histories of ancient empires. Mesopotamia, rightfully called the cradle of civilization, was an area of the Middle East where many important kingdoms, empires, and cultures arose over many millennia. Amongst these was the Chaldean Empire, whose ruling Chaldean dynasty is the perfect example of how much uncertainty and unpredictability there was for the rulers of these ancient realms. Who were the Chaldeans? And how did they rise to such lofty prominence?
The Chaldean Dynasty Rises Up to Power and Prosperity
Chaldea was an ancient region located in the southern part of Mesopotamia, in what is now modern-day Iraq. It was one of the oldest and most important centers of civilization in the ancient Near East. The name “Chaldea” is derived from the ancient Semitic term “Kaldu” or “Kalduhu,” which referred to the inhabitants of the region. It was situated in the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, known as the alluvial plain of southern Mesopotamia. It was bordered by the (modern) Persian Gulf to the southeast and the Arabian Desert to the southwest.
Chaldea was a small country, generally marshy, stretching in the southern corner of Mesopotamia, roughly between Babylon and Uruk. It existed from around 10th century BC, up to mid-6th century BC.
The Chaldeans (Kaldu) were a West-Semitic speaking tribe. During the 11th century BC, when the East Semitic Kingdom of Babylon was weakened, these tribes migrated eastwards and eventually settled in the marshy plains that would become known as Chaldea.
The Chaldeans were proper newcomers to the region. The East Semitic Akkadians and Babylonians were in the area for roughly 3,000 years already. The West Semitic Chaldeans had no relation to them, but were still able to gain a foothold in these lands and settle unopposed. They first appear in written records during the reign of the King of Mari, Aššur-ketta-lēšir II (late 12th to early 11th century BC), which record them reaching Mesopotamia as early as the 11th century BC. And so it was that, slowly but surely, the newly arriving Chaldeans slowly built their small state, gradually rising in power and waiting for a chance to rise to ultimate prominence. And, given the unpredictability of such ancient kingdoms, such a chance was soon to appear.
The Weaknesses of Babylon
The next major mention of the Chaldeans is dated to the 850s BC, during the reign of the Assyrian King, Shalmaneser III . This was a time of weakness in Babylon, and its kings were unable to prevent these nomadic tribes from settling in its lands. So it was that the Kaldu tribes settled largely unopposed and lived in the shadow of Babylon for many decades. They were, however, quickly becoming assimilated – their Chaldean customs were unable to persevere amidst the strong influence of Babylon. They were quick to adopt their customs and traditions.
The most famous moment of the Chaldeans’ history is certainly the Chaldean Dynasty. This dynasty refers to the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and the assumption that the dynasty’s founder, Nabopolassar, was of Chaldean origins. However, there were no exact confirmations of Nabopolassar’s origins, so the name still remains only an assumption based on some ancient writings. Nabopolassar was most likely the son of Nebuchadnezzar (nickname Kudurru), a governor of Uruk who had been appointed by the Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. A shrewd and capable nobleman, Nabopolassar revolted against the Neo-Assyrian king Sinsharishkun at an advantageous moment, at a time when Babylonia was already plagued by major political instability. Nabopolassar and his supporters managed to decisively push the Assyrians out of Babylonia, after nearly ten years of fighting and conflicts.
Nabopolasar, ruler of the Chaldean Dynasty allied with the Medes, and took the city of Nineveh. (Mu-tamajo) むーたんじょ/CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Thus, Nabopolasar founded the Chaldean Dynasty as he became the King of Babylon in 626 BC. His son, Nebuchadnezzar II, succeeded him and expanded the empire to its greatest extent. Nabopolassar’s rise to power marked a significant turning point in the history of Mesopotamia. Before Nabopolassar’s rise, the dominant power in Mesopotamia was the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians had controlled vast territories, including Babylonia (the southern part of Mesopotamia), and had a reputation for their military might and brutal tactics. Seeing an opportunity to challenge the weakening Assyrians, Nabopolassar formed an alliance with the Medes, an Indo-Iranian people living to the east of Assyria. The Medes were also seeking to expand their influence in the region. In 612 BC, the combined forces of Nabopolassar’s Babylonians and the Medes launched a major assault on the Assyrian capital, Nineveh. This event marked the beginning of the end for the once-mighty Assyrian Empire.
A New Power Rises
Following the fall of Nineveh, the Assyrian Empire collapsed, and Nabopolassar’s forces emerged as a dominant power in the region. Nabopolassar declared himself king of Babylon and established the Neo-Babylonian Empire, also known as the Chaldean Dynasty. But Nabopolassar’s rule was not limited to Babylon alone. He quickly expanded his control over other parts of Babylonia and worked to strengthen the empire’s economy, infrastructure, and military. His most significant contribution was setting the stage for his son, Nebuchadnezzar II, who would become the most renowned and powerful ruler of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Nabopolassar’s policies and military campaigns laid the foundation for the greatness of his successor’s reign.
The reign of Nebuchadnezzar II , also known as Nebuchadrezzar II, was one of the most illustrious and significant periods in the history of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. He ruled as the king of Babylon from 605 to 562 BC and played a crucial role in the empire’s rise to greatness. Nebuchadnezzar II is widely regarded as one of the most powerful and successful rulers of the ancient world. One of the most significant events during Nebuchadnezzar II’s reign was the conquest of the Kingdom of Judah. In 587 BC, he captured Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, and destroyed the city, including its famous First Temple. This event is known as the Babylonian Captivity, during which many Jews were exiled to Babylon.
Nebuchadnezzar II was also known for his impressive building projects in Babylon. The most famous of these was the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The gardens were constructed to please his homesick wife, who missed the green landscapes of her homeland. His achievements and reign made the Neo-Babylonian Empire one of the foremost powers on the globe. Under Nebuchadnezzar II’s leadership, Babylon’s military forces were highly organized and formidable. He maintained a large standing army, which helped secure the empire’s borders and suppress rebellions within the territories.
A hand-colored engraving of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. ( Public Domain )
Nebuchadnezzar II ruled for nearly 43 years, and he was succeeded by his son, Amel-Marduk (also known as Evil-Merodach). While the Neo-Babylonian Empire continued to exist after his death, it gradually declined in power. Amel-Marduk (Man of Marduk) was likely a despised ruler by the Babylonians, and was seen as incompetent. He was eventually murdered because of this, and replaced by a usurper, Neriglissar. This new ruler was unrelated to the Chaldean Dynasty, but entered it by marrying one of Nebuchadnezzar’s daughters. Thus, the Chaldean Dynasty essentially ended after just three consecutive rulers. Labashi-Marduk, Neriglissar’s son and heir, was partly descended from the Chaldeans, through his mother.
A Short Ascent, and a Steep Descent
By the time of Labashi-Marduk, the great deeds of Nebuchadnezzar II meant little. The Neo-Babylonian Empire faced internal strife and conflicts, as is usually the case when such a powerful ruler dies. Labashi-Marduk sat on the throne for just three months, before being deposed and killed by a new King, Nabonidus. He was the last native ruler of Mesopotamia, and the last ruler of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Although regarded as a vibrant and successful ruler, Nabonidus could do little to stave off the rapid downfall of Babylonia. Because a new power was looming, against which few could stand.
Cyrus the Great , ruler of the Persians, was growing incredibly powerful. He had been expanding his realm in the years leading up to the conquest of Babylonia. He had already conquered the Median Empire and Lydia, and his ambitions for further territorial expansion brought him to the Babylonian lands. In 539 BC, Cyrus’s forces marched toward Babylonia. Nabonidus, at the time an old man, was growing increasingly unpopular due to his perceived neglect of Babylonian traditions and patronage of foreign deities. He also spent a lot of his time away from Babylon, which further weakened his grip on the empire.
The Fall of Babylon; Cyrus the Great defeating the Babylonian army (1831). Mezzotint by John Martin. (Welcome Trust/ CC BY 4.0 )
As Cyrus’s forces approached, the city of Babylon did not put up significant resistance. A single battle fought at Opis ended in a complete rout of the Babylonian army, allowing Cyrus to march unopposed to the major cities. He first captured Sippar without battle, and marched towards Babylon itself. According to historical accounts, Cyrus’s troops diverted the Euphrates River, allowing them to enter the city through the riverbed and bypass the mighty walls. Babylon fell without a prolonged siege or battle. Soon after, Nabonidus came from nearby Borsippa and surrendered to Cyrus the Great. So, in essence, the Neo-Babylonian Empire fell to Cyrus without any significant resistance.
Millennia Come to an End
After the conquest, Cyrus the Great issued a famous proclamation known as the ” Cyrus Cylinder .” This cylinder, discovered in modern times, is considered one of the earliest human rights charters. In it, Cyrus declared that he would respect the customs, religions, and traditions of the people he conquered and allow the exiled people to return to their homelands. The conquest of Babylonia is of particular significance to the Jewish people. Under the Babylonian rule, many Jews had been exiled from Judah to Babylon (the Babylonian Captivity). Following the conquest, Cyrus allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland and even supported the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.
With the fall of Babylon, the Neo-Babylonian Empire came to an end, and Babylonia became a part of the vast Achaemenid Persian Empire . Cyrus respected local customs and allowed local rulers to retain some autonomy, thus effectively integrating the conquered territories into his empire. As a result, the Achaemenid Empire arose as one of the most dominant powers on the globe. It existed until around 330 BC, when it was defeated by the famed Alexander the Great, who was an ardent admirer of Cyrus the Great.
The Persian conquest of Babylonia was a momentous event that reshaped the political landscape of the ancient Near East. It marked the rise of the Achaemenid Persian Empire as a dominant and multi-cultural superpower, and Babylon’s status as a prominent city declined in the following centuries, though it continued to be an important center of trade and culture. In the end, it was a sudden and disastrous end to a city with several thousand years of history. It also goes to show us that even the oldest of empires can fall in a day.
Top image: The Hanging Gardens of the Chaldean Dynasty of Mesopotamia. Source: Sarry/Adobe Stock