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The Last King of Babylon

Investigating the reign of Mesopotamia’s most eccentric ruler

March/April 2022

NabondiusBabylonRuinsThe fall of an empire in antiquity was usually the result of complex, interconnected factors that lay beyond the scope of any one person’s control. Nonetheless, traumatized contemporaries and later historians alike have often laid the fault at the feet of a single individual. “It’s the last ruler who is usually blamed for an empire’s downfall,” says University of Toronto Assyriologist Paul-Alain Beaulieu. The enigmatic Neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus seemed destined for just such a fate after the Persian armies of Cyrus the Great marched through Babylon’s gates in October 539 B.C. By deposing Nabonidus, whose reign was marked by eccentric political and religious choices, the Persians ensured that he would be the last ruler of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (626–539 B.C.) and the last native-born Mesopotamian king. For some 2,500 years, Mesopotamian cities, states, and empires had been ruled by their own, or by outsiders who adopted their ways. But after Nabonidus (r. 556–539 B.C.), the region was conquered by a series of foreign empires before Mesopotamia’s great ancient cities such as Ur, Uruk, and Babylon finally withered away. Many sources from antiquity cast Nabonidus as the villain who brought about the downfall of Babylon, and by extension, Mesopotamia. “He was a controversial figure,” says Beaulieu, “and perhaps a tragic one.” Today, some scholars believe that, despite being variously portrayed in ancient texts as a mad usurper and a heretic whose apostasy doomed an empire, Nabonidus may, in fact, have simply been a difficult personality with a singular political vision whose reign was cut short before he could realize his ambitions.  


Nabonidus Stela Ur WhiteEver since Assyriologists, who specialize in translating Mesopotamian cuneiform documents, mostly in the form of clay tablets, first began to read Neo-Babylonian records excavated in the late nineteenth century, Nabonidus has stood out as an unusual ruler. While the record is fragmentary, cuneiform tablets and inscriptions have helped scholars trace Nabonidus’ unconventional career. A palace courtier, Nabonidus came to power in his 50s or 60s by way of a coup that may have been orchestrated by his son Belshazzar, who plays a central role in the Bible’s Book of Daniel. In this biblical account, Nabonidus, who is mistakenly identified as his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar II (r. 605–562 B.C.), is described as a mad king obsessed with dreams. According to the Book of Daniel, the king leaves Babylon to live in the wilderness for seven years. This depiction overlaps somewhat with Nabonidus’ own inscriptions, in which he emphasizes that he was an especially pious man who paid heed to dreams as the divine messages of the gods. Nabonidus was also infamous in antiquity for abandoning Babylon for 10 years to live in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, where he established a kind of shadow capital at the oasis of Tayma. This was a strange and unprecedented move for a Mesopotamian ruler.  


Nabonidus was also known for his near-fanatical devotion to the moon god, Sin, whom he raised to the status of the most important deity in the Babylonian pantheon. This came at the expense of Marduk, Babylon’s longtime patron god, whom earlier Neo-Babylonian kings had promoted as the empire’s chief deity. Some scholars believe that by elevating Sin, a god whose main temples lay outside the city of Babylon, Nabonidus was perhaps attempting to unite a large and diffuse empire under the worship of a god who held more appeal than Marduk to people throughout the realm. “Nabonidus was a new man, with a new vision of the Babylonian Empire,” says Beaulieu.

Nabonidus White Box
Royal Antiquarians

Marduk Standing Stone
Babylon’s God King



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