The Lost Years of Nabonidus, Last King of the Neo-Babylonian Empire
Nabonidus was the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, reigning from 556-539 BC. He took the throne after the assassination of the boy-king Labashi-Marduk, who was murdered in a conspiracy only nine months after his inauguration. It is not known whether Nabonidus played a role in his death, but he was chosen as the new king soon after. During many years of his kingship, Nabonidus was absent at the Arabian oasis of Tayma. The reasons for his long absence remain a matter of controversy, with theories ranging from illness, to madness, to an interest in religious archaeology.
In most ancient accounts, Nabonidus is depicted as a royal anomaly. His mother is believed to have been a priestess of the moon god Sîn to whom Nabonidus was unusually and obsessively devoted. As king, Nabonidus was maligned by the priests of the Babylonian chief god, Marduk. It is believed this was caused by Nabonidus overt devotion to Sîn and his lack of attention to the city's important New Year's festival.
Seal of the high priest of the moon god Sin, dating to 2100 B.C.E. Nabonidus' devotion to Sin was highly unusual, in that Marduk had been the chief god of Babylon for several centuries. Image source: New World Encylopedia.
It was after Nabonidus launched successful campaigns in Edom and Cilicia (modern Turkey) that he left Babylon, residing at the rich desert oasis of Tayma, (Temâ) in Arabia, returning only after many years. In the meantime, his son Belshazzar ruled from Babylon. Nabonidus returned to the capital in time to lead his armies against the ascendant forces of Persia under Cyrus the Great. Nabonidus eventually surrendered to the Persian forces in 539 BC and was allowed to live out his life in relative freedom. The end of his reign marks the beginning of the Persian Empire and the end of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.
But just what happened in the lost years of Nabonidus? Why did he abandon the city he was ruling over? And what did he do during his time in Tayma?
The Nabonidus Chronicle (c 4 th – 1 st century BC) tells the story of the rule of Nabonidus. Credit: British Museum
It is thought that Nabonidus first became interested in Tayma during his campaign against Edom. Tayma was an important oasis, from which lucrative Arabian trade routes could be controlled. However, why Nabonidus stayed for so long—about ten years, from circa 553-543 BC —remains a mystery.
One theory is that he was not comfortable in Babylon, which was the center of Marduk worship, where he was expected to perform public rites centering on Marduk's cult during the annual New Year's festival. On the fifth day of the festival, the king was required to submit himself to Marduk in the presence of the high priest, who would temporarily strip him of his crown and royal insignia, returning them only after the king prayed for forgiveness and received a hard slap in the face from the priest. Moreover, on the eighth day, the king had to implore all the gods to support and honor Marduk, an act which may have been unacceptable to Nabonidus if he was devoted to Sin as supreme.
New Year’s Eve festivities honouring Marduk. Image source.
Some have suggested that Tayma was attractive to Nabonidus as an archaeological site, where he might find sacred inscriptions or prophecies related to his own spiritual quest.
Another possibility is that the king had become seriously ill and went to the oasis of Tayma to recover. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, a fragment known as the Prayer of Nabonidus relates that Nabonidus suffered from an ulcer, causing him to retreat from civilization and stay in Tayma until he was healed by a Jewish exorcist after praying to the Hebrew God:
I, Nabonidus, was afflicted with an evil ulcer for seven years, and far from men I was driven, until I prayed to the most high God. And an exorcist pardoned my sins. He was a Jew from among the children of the exile of Judah… During my stay at Tayma, I prayed to the gods of silver and gold, bronze and iron, wood, stone and lime, because I thought and considered them gods….
This legend may explain a confusing issue in the Book of Daniel, in which the king in question is called Nebuchadnezzar. However, this Nebuchadnezzar's son is named Belshazzar, which was in fact the name of Nabonidus' son, who reigned in his stead while Nabonidus was at Tayma. It may thus be the case that the Book of Daniel confuses Nabonidus with Nebuchadnezzar. However, Daniel describes its king's disease as a type of madness, rather than an ulcer, saying: "He was driven away from people and ate grass like cattle. His body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair grew like the feathers of an eagle and his nails like the claws of a bird" (Daniel 4:33).
It is now known that during his stay in Tayma, Nabonidus adorned the oasis with a full royal complex, most of which has come to light during recent excavations. Regarding Nabonidus' return to Babylon, this may have had to do with the mounting threat of Cyrus and growing disagreements with Belshazzar, who was relieved of his command directly after Nabonidus returned, along with a number of administrators. The Nabonidus Chronicle indicates that the New Year festival was indeed celebrated by the king in Nabonidus' final year.
Al-Hamra, Nabonidus Temple Al Radhm Palace of Nabonidus. Image source.
Nabonidus successor, Cyrus, brought an end to the Neo-Babylonian Empire and initiated the ascendancy of Persia. Cyrus' policy of returning religious artifacts and priests to their home sanctuaries soon extended to the empire's western regions as well, as he allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem with their sacred vessels and begin rebuilding the Temple. Thus, the end of Nabonidus' reign also marks the beginning of the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews, as well as the beginning of the Persian Empire.
The article ‘The Lost Years of Nabonidus, Last King of the Neo-Babylonian Empire’ is adapted from the article: Nabonidus. (2008, October 22). New World Encyclopedia.
Featured image: William Blake's ‘The Madness of Nebchuadnezzar’: Does the Book of Daniel confuse Nebchuadnezzar II with Nabonidus?