Nabopolassar: The Rebel Ruler of Babylonia Who Had the Gods on His Side
Nabopolassar was the founder of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which existed between the 7th and 6th centuries BC. But the Neo-Assyrians that were losing power at the time didn’t make his rise easy. If the rebel ruler wanted to gain control he’d have to fight for it. Thankfully for him, the gods were apparently on his side.
It was during Nabopolassar’s lifetime that the Neo-Assyrian Empire was in decline. This was the dominant power in the Middle East at the time, and Nabopolassar seized the opportunity to rebel against his overlords. The rebellion was a success and he became the ruler of Babylonia. Nabopolassar died after a reign of about 20 years, and was succeeded by his son, Nebuchadnezzar II .
‘Nebuchadnezzar Ordering the Construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to Please his Consort Amyitis (Nebuchadnezzar and Sémiramis)’ (1676) by R ené-Antoine Houasse . ( Public Domain )
The Assyrian Fall and Rebel Rise
Prior to his ascension to the throne, Nabopolassar was an obscure and unknown chieftain of the Chaldeans. In 631 BC, the last major Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, died and was succeeded by one of his sons, Ashur-etil-ilani. The new ruler was weak, however, and civil war soon broke out. Ashur-etil-ilani was deposed by one of his own generals, Sin-shumu-lishir, who in turn was ousted by Sin-shar-ishkun, a brother of Ashur-etil-ilani. In the chaos that ensued, the subjects of the Assyrian Empire, including Babylonia, ceased paying tribute to the Assyrians, and began to assert their independence.
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Nabopolassar’s rebellion was not the first of its kind, as several native rulers had previously defied the Assyrians to claim the throne of Babylonia, only to be deposed soon after. For instance, in 693 BC, a Chaldean prince by the name of Mushezib-Marduk was chosen to replace Nergal-ushezib, a Babylonian Elamite puppet. The latter had succeeded an Assyrian prince, Ashur-nadin-shumi, who was murdered by the Elamites. In any case, Mushezib-Marduk’s reign did not last for long, as the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, attacked and sacked Babylon in 689 BC.
Babylonian king with a mace, who stands on a rectangular chequer-board dais, follows the suppliant goddess (with necklace counterweight), and the robed king with an animal offering. They stand before the ascending Sun god who holds a saw-toothed blade and rests his foot on a couchant human-headed bull (full face). (Hjaltland Collection/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Nabopolassar’s Lucky Break
Things were different, however, during the time of Nabopolassar. In 626/5 BC, he became the ruler of Babylon by popular consent. When Sin-shar-ishkun learned of this, he prepared an army and marched towards Babylon, hoping to regain control of the region.
Fortunately for him, another massive rebellion broke out in Assyria, and Sin-shar-ishkun was forced to return to defend his throne. This meant that the rebel had time to gather his forces to take on the Assyrians. The Chaldeans entered into an alliance with the Medes (another former vassal of the Assyrians), the Scythians, and the Cimmerians.
Medes and Persians at the eastern stairs of the Apadana in Persepolis, Iran. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
In 616 BC, Nabopolassar and his allies went on the offensive, attacking the Assyrians. Assur was sacked in 614 BC, and two years later, the Assyrian capital of Nineveh fell as well. Although this was a huge blow to the Assyrians, their empire did not come to an end, as those who remained fled to Harran, where Ahsur-uballit was installed as the new Assyrian ruler. The Assyrians fled once more, this time to Carchemish, which was under the control of the Egyptians.
Nabopolassar in the Bible
Harran was captured in 610 BC and the remaining Assyrians made their last stand at Carchemish. The Egyptian pharaoh, Necho II, sent an army to aid the Assyrians. This episode is recorded in the Old Testament, as it involved Josiah, a king of Judah. Josiah sided with the Babylonians and fought against the Egyptians as they were journeying northwards along the Mediterranean coast through Josiah’s territory. Josiah lost his life, but the Egyptian army was also disrupted by the battle.
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King Josiah by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. ( Public Domain )
As a consequence of this, despite the aid of the Egyptians, the Assyrians were defeated by Nabopolassar’s son, Nebuchadnezzar, at the Battle of Carchemish in 605 BC. Nabopolassar died in the same year, or in the following year, and was succeeded by Nebuchadnezzar.
A Cylinder to Remember the Ruler
Finally, it is worth mentioning an artifact connected to the Babylonian ruler. A clay cylinder known as the ‘Nabopolassar Cylinder’ was discovered in Baghdad around 1921. From the inscription on the cylinder, we learn that the ruler portrayed himself as a pious man and it was due to this piety that the gods were on his side.
This small terracotta cylinder records the work on the walls of the city of Babylon by the king Nabopolassar. From Babylon, Mesopotamia, Iraq. Neo-Babylonian period, 625-605 BC. The British Museum, London. (Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
The author of the text, presumably Nabopolassar himself, mentions how he succeeded in defeating the Assyrians with the help of the gods. Moreover, the text also mentions the restoration work he had carried out on some of the structures in Babylon.
By Wu Mingren
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