Nabonidus (Akkadian Nabû-nāʾid) was the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, reigning from 556-539 B.C.E. Although his background is uncertain, his mother may have been a priestess of the moon god Sîn to whom Nabonidus was unusually devoted. He took the throne after the assassination of the boy-king Labashi-Marduk. It is not clear whether Nabonidus played a role in Labashi-Marduk's death.
As king, Nabonidus was maligned by the priests of the chief Babylonian deity 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. During several years of his kingship, Nabonidus was absent at the Arabian oasis of Tayma. During this period his son Belshazzar reigned in his place. The reasons for his long absence remain a matter of controversy, with theories ranging from illness, to madness, to an interest in religious archaeology.
Nabonidus returned to the capital in time to lead his armies against the ascendant forces of Persia under Cyrus the Great. While battling Persia, Nabonidus gathered statues of various divinities and their priests from his southern and eastern provinces. Cyrus criticized these policies and returned the artifacts to their previous locations. Nabonidus surrendered to the Persian forces in 539 B.C.E. 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.
In his own inscriptions, Nabonidus himself makes no claim to known royal origins, although he refers to his otherwise unknown father, Nabu-balatsu-iqbi, as "wise prince." His mother was connected to the temple of the moon god Sîn in Harran, but her ancestry, too, is unknown. The fact that Nabonidus makes repeated references to Ashurbanipal, the last great Neo-Assyrian king, has been cited as evidence that he may have been of Assyrian origin. However Nabonidus' Persian successor, Cyrus the Great, also referred to Ashurbanipal, so this is hardly conclusive evidence.
In any case, it is clear that Nabonidus did not belong to the previous Babylonian ruling dynasty, the Chaldeans, of whom Nebuchadnezzar II was the most famous member. He came to the throne in 556 B.C.E. after the assassination of the youthful king Labashi-Marduk, the son of Neriglissar. Labashi-Marduk had succeeded his father when still only a boy, after the latter's four-year reign. Most likely due to his very young age, Labashi-Marduk was considered unfit to rule, and was murdered in a conspiracy only nine months after his inauguration. Nabonidus was consequently chosen as the new king.
In most ancient accounts, Nabonidus is depicted as a royal anomaly. He worshiped the moon god Sîn (mythology) beyond all the other gods, and paid special devotion to Sîn's temple in Harran, where his mother was a priestess. After successful campaigns in Edom and Cilicia (modern Turkey) early in his reign, 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 is harshly criticized for neglecting the Babylonian chief god, Marduk and failing to observe the New Year festivals in Babylon. The Nabonidus Chronicle complains that for several years: "The king did not come to Babylon for the [New Year's] ceremonies… the image of the god Bêl (Marduk) did not go out of the Esagila (temple) in procession, the festival of the New Year was omitted."
Why Nabonidus stayed in Tayma for so long is a matter of uncertainty. He seems to have become interested in the place 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—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 person 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. 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.
Although Nabonidus' personal preference for Sîn is clear, scholars are divided regarding the degree of his supposed monotheism. In the Nabonidus cylinder currently displayed at the British Museum, the king refers to the moon god as "Sîn, king of the gods of heaven and the netherworld, without whom no city or country can be founded." Some claim that it is obvious from his inscriptions that he became almost henotheistic, considering Sîn as the national god of Babylon superior even to Marduk.
Others, however, insist that Nabonidus, while personally devoted to Sîn, respected the other cults in his kingdom, pointing out that he supported construction works to their temples and did not suppress their worship. In this theory, his negative image is due mainly to his long absence from Babylon during his stay in Tayma, during which the important, Marduk-centered New Year festival could not take place, a fact which deeply offended the priests of Marduk. These priests, who were highly literate, left records denigrating the king in a fashion similar to the priests of Jerusalem denigrating the Israelite kings who did not properly honor Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible. In fact, there is no sign of the civil unrest during Nabonidus' reign, not even during his absence, and he was able to return to his throne and assert his authority with no apparent problem.
However, Nabonidus did remove important cultic statues and their attendants from southern Mesopotamia and brought them to Babylon. A number of contemporary inscriptions indicate that these statues and their priests were brought to Babylon just before the Persian attack that brought Cyrus to power. According to the Nabonidus Chronicle:
"In the month of [Âbu?], Lugal-Marada and the other gods of the town Marad; Zabada and the other gods of Kish; and the goddess Ninlil and the other gods of Hursagkalama visited Babylon. Till the end of the month Ulûlu all the gods of Akkad—those from above and those from below—entered Babylon. The gods of Borsippa, Cutha, and Sippar did not enter."
However, Nabonidus' motive in bringing these gods to the capital may not have been to take them hostage, but to ensure that they and their retinue received proper care and protection. In this theory, as Cyrus and his army made their way toward Babylon, Nabonidus gathered the traditional gods of Sumer and Akkad into the capital in order to protect them from being carried away or destroyed by the Persians.
Regardless of his motives, however, his actions exposed him to the criticism of his enemies. Thus, when Cyrus entered Babylon, one of his first acts was to demonstrate his piety before Marduk and his support of the local cults, simultaneously denigrating Nabonidus as unfit to rule. He thus returned the images to their places of origin, affirming in the Cyrus cylinder that he did so in obedience to the command of Marduk, while accusing Nabonidus of having offended the gods by bringing them to Babylon:
As for the gods of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus, to the wrath of the Lord of the gods, brought to Babylon, at the command of the great Lord Marduk I (Cyrus) caused them to dwell in peace in their sanctuaries, (in) pleasing dwellings."
This is confirmed by the Babylonian Chronicles, which indicate that, "The gods of Akkad which Nabonidus had made come down to Babylon, were returned to their sacred cities."
Various accounts survive describing the fall of Babylon during the reign of Nabonidus. According to the Cyrus cylinder, the people opened their gates for Cyrus and greeted him as a liberator. Herodotus says that Cyrus defeated the Babylonian army outside the city, after which he instituted a siege of city. When this took too long, he diverted the Euphrates, so that his troops could march into the city through the river bed. Xenophon agrees with this, but he does not mention the battle. Finally, Berossus agrees that that Cyrus defeated the Babylonian army, after which Nabonidus fled to nearby Borsippa. There he hid, while Cyrus took Babylon and demolished its outer walls. When he turned toward Borsippa, Nabonidus soon surrendered himself.
More helpful is the Nabonidus Chronicle, which is a part of the Babylonian Chronicles—terse, factual accounts of historical events, considered to be reliable, although not very detailed. This text has the following to say on the taking of Babylon by Cyrus:
In the month of Tašrîtu, when Cyrus attacked the army of Akkad in Opis on the Tigris, the inhabitants of Akkad revolted, but he massacred the confused inhabitants. The fifteenth day [October 12], Sippar was seized without battle. Nabonidus fled. The sixteenth day, Gobryas [Ugbaru], the governor of Gutium, and the army of Cyrus entered Babylon without battle. Afterward, Nabonidus was arrested in Babylon when he returned there.
Through these data, the following reconstruction may be proposed: When Cyrus attempted to march into southern Mesopotamia, he was met by the Babylonian army near Opis. In the ensuing battle, the Persians were victorious, after which they carried out a massacre. The nearby city of Sippar, wishing to avoid a similar fate, surrendered without a fight. Meanwhile, Nabonidus and his forces retreated to establish a line of defense near the Euphrates. However, Cyrus did not attack the main force of the Babylonian army, but sent a division south along the Tigris to take the capital by surprise. This plan worked: the Persian forces reached Babylon undetected and caught the city unawares, meeting only minor resistance. King Nabonidus, unaware that the city had fallen, was captured while attempting to return to the capital.
Nonetheless, it took Cyrus himself almost a month before he proceeded toward the city. As many Babylonian officials, as well as the Babylonian administrative system, stayed in place after the transition of power, it has been surmised that this time was spent on negotiations with representatives from the city. Finally, Cyrus went to Babylon, where he could now have his triumphant entry to the cheers of the people.
Accounts by Berossus and others mention that Nabonidus' life was spared, and that he was allowed to retire in Carmania. This conforms with other accounts indicating that Cyrus the Great was known for sparing the lives of the kings whom he had defeated when it served his purposes.
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.
|King of Babylon
Cyrus the Great (Persian Empire)
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