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Alexander the Great enters Babylon

Detail of the Alexander mosaic, found in Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Italy). On 21 or 22 October 331, Alexander entered Babylon, the old capital of the ancient Near East. The longest description is that of the Roman author Quintus Curtius Rufus, who based his account on earlier, Greek sources. It should be read together with a brief Babylonian eyewitness account, that mentions the date of the surrender. Section 5.1.17-33 of Curtius Rufus' History of Alexander the Great of Macedonia was translated by John Yardley.
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Water color by W. Anger, showing triumphal procession in Babylon.
A royal procession. Water color by W. Anger. In front:
the Procession Street; center: the Ištar Gate; on the horizon: the Etemenanki. (Pergamonmuseum, Berlin; !!!)

Moving on to Babylon, Alexander was met by Mazaeus, who had taken refuge in the city after the battle [of Gaugamela]. He came as a suppliant with his grown-up children to surrender himself and the city. Alexander was pleased at his coming, for besieging so well-fortified a city would have been an arduous task and, besides, since he was an eminent man and a good soldier who had also won distinction in the recent battle, Mazaeus' example was likely to induce the others to surrender. Accordingly Alexander gave him and his children a courteous welcome. Nevertheless, he put himself at the head of his column, which he formed into a square, and ordered his men to advance into the city as if they were going into battle.

A large number of the Babylonians had taken up a position on the walls, eager to have a view of their new king, but most went out to meet him, including the man in charge of the citadel and royal treasury, Bagophanes. Not to be outdone by Mazaeus in paying his respects to Alexander, Bagophanes had carpeted the whole road with flowers and garlands and set up at intervals on both sides silver altars heaped not just with frankincense but with all manner of perfumes [1]. Following him were his gifts - herds of cattle and horses, and lions, too, and leopards, carried along in cages.

Next came the Magians chanting a song in their native fashion, and behind them were the Chaldaeans [2], then the Babylonians, represented not only by priests but also by musicians equipped with their national instrument. (The role of the latter was to sing the praises of the Persian kings, that of the Chaldaeans to reveal astronomical movements and regular seasonal changes.) At the rear came the Babylonian cavalry, their equipment and that of the horses suggesting extravagance rather than majesty. 

Mesopotamian royal chariot, from Nimrud. British Museum, London (Britain). Photo Marco Prins.
Mesopotamian royal chariot
(British museum)

Surrounded by an armed guard, the king instructed the townspeople to follow at the rear of his infantry; then he entered the city on a chariot and went into the palace. The next day he made an inspection of Darius' furniture and all his treasure, but it was the city itself, with its beauty and antiquity, that commanded the attention not only of the king, but of all the Macedonians.

And with justification. Founded by [the legendary queen] Semiramis [...], its wall is constructed of small baked bricks and is cemented together with bitumen. The wall is ten meters wide and it is said that two chariots meeting on it can safely pass each other. Its height is twenty-five meters and its towers stand three meters higher again. The circumference of the whole work is 365 stades, each stade, according to the traditional account, being completed in a single day.[3]

Map of Babylon in the age of Alexander the Great. Design Jona Lendering.

The buildings of the city are not contiguous to the walls but are about thirty meter's width from them, and even the city area is not completely built up -the inhabited sector covers only 275 hectares- nor do the buildings form a continuous mass, presumably because scattering them in different locations seemed safer. The rest of the land is sown and cultivated so that, in the event of attack from outside, the besieged could be supplied with produce from the soil of the city itself.

The Euphrates passes through the city, its flow confined by great embankments. Large as these structures are, behind all of them are huge pits sunk deep in the ground to take water of the river when in spate, for when its level has exceeded the top of the embankment, the flood would sweep away city buildings if there were no drain shafts and cisterns to siphon it off. These are constructed of baked brick, the entire work cemented with bitumen.

The two parts of the city are connected by a stone bridge over the river, and this is also reckoned among the wonders of the East. For the Euphrates carries along with it a thick layer of mud and, even after digging this out to a great depth to lay the foundations, one can hardly find a solid base for a supporting structure. Moreover, there is a continuous build-up of sand which gathers around the piles supporting the bridge, impeding the flow of water, and this constriction makes the river smash against the bridge with greater violence than if it had an unimpeded passage.

The Babylonians also have a citadel 3,7 kilometers in circumference. The foundations of its turrets are sunk ten meters into the ground and the fortifications rise 24 meters above it at the highest point. On its summit are the Hanging Gardens, a wonder celebrated by the fables of the Greeks.[4] They are as high as the top of the walls and owe their charm to the shade of many trees. The columns supporting the whole edifice are built of rock, and on top of them is a flat surface of squared stones strong enough to bear the deep layer of earth placed upon it and the water used for irrigating it.


Ištar gate, Pergamon Museum, Berlin (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
Babylon's Ištar Gate (Pergamonmuseum, Berlin)
Note 1:
The sight of all this must have been impressive, and it may have seemed even more formidable because the Macedonian army entered the city through the splendid Ištar Gate and the Procession Street, which were built to impress any visitor. In fact, the modern visitor of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, where the remains of the gate and road are put on display, is still impressed by their beautiful decoration.

Note 2:
The Magians were Persian religious specialists, who were well known for their incantations and sacrificial hymns. The Chaldaeans were the priests of the great temple of Marduk, the Esagila; they were famous astronomers.

Two Babylonians. Eastern stairs of the apadana at Persepolis. Photo Marco Prins.
Two Babylonians. Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis (more).

Classical descriptions of Babylon rival with each other in exaggeration, but Curtius Rufus' height and width are -for once- more or less accurate. The length of 67 kilometers is, of course, nonsense; the actual circumference of the city was 8,4 kilometers.

Note 4:
Although Babylon has been excavated, it has not been possible to find out what lies behind the legendary tales about this wonder of the ancient world.

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