Chapter 19

Gardeners, Artisans, and a Centenarian Priestess

By the mid-seventh century bce Harran, in Syria, had been an important place for longer than anyone could remember. No doubt the people living there sometimes came across tablets from almost 2,000 years before, when Harran had been within the kingdom of Ebla, or from 1,200 years before, when it had provided a rest stop for the caravans of traders and donkeys traveling from Ashur to Kanesh in Anatolia with their loads of textiles and tin.

The main temple in the city, the Ehulhul (which means “the house which gives joy”), had stood on the same spot at least since the time of Hammurabi of Babylon a thousand years before, and probably long before that. The temple was dedicated to the moon god Sin, who was the patron deity of Harran and was worshiped along with his divine family: his wife, the goddess Ningal (also called Nikkal), his son Nusku, and his daughter-in-law Sadarnunna. The other great temple to Sin was, of course, in Ur, near the Persian Gulf, where priestesses had taken care of the moon god and his estates for thousands of years. But Ur was very far away from Harran, more than 1,100 kilometers (680 miles) to the southeast. To travel from Harran to Ur, one had to follow first the Balikh River south to the Euphrates, and then the Euphrates River downstream almost to its mouth. For the Assyrians, it was Harran that was Sin’s home. During the reign of Esarhaddon, the moon god of Harran had become one of Assyria’s most important deities, and this continued to be true in the reign of his son Ashurbanipal.1

A major road from the Assyrian capital of Nineveh to Carchemish in Syria passed right through Harran, and another road led southwest from Harran to Damascus. Harran helped link the major cities of the Neo-Assyrian Empire to one another, and, even though it lay 500 kilometers (310 miles) from Nineveh, it was considered a thoroughly Assyrian city. It had been part of the empire throughout most of the Middle Assyrian period in the Late Bronze Age, and had been brought back into the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the ninth century BCE.2 You may remember that a conspiracy against Esarhaddon had hatched there when a girl prophet claimed to speak for the god Nusku, and Harran was also where Esarhaddon had received his prophecy of world domination. Later, in fact, Esarhaddon had died there when he was on his way to Egypt. Ultimately, Harran proved to be one of the final strongholds of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, even after Nineveh was lost. We’ll come back to that later in this chapter.

In any event, Harran, like Aleppo, Damascus, and a number of other cities in the region, has been occupied for so many thousands of years that the remains from ancient times are deeply buried and have not been recovered. Somewhere beneath the modern streets and buildings lies the Neo-Assyrian city. But archaeologists haven’t reached it.

Adad-guppi’s Early Life

In Harran, in 649 BCE, the twentieth year of the reign of King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (668–630/627 BCE), a person was born who would change history, someone who lived to grand old age and experienced, and brought about, incredible changes in the Near East. This was a baby girl named Adad-guppi. In a world where life expectancy at birth was about thirty-five, she ended up living for an astonishing 102 years, dying in 547 BCE. Near the end of her life, she wrote a short autobiography (or, more likely, one was written for her by her son after her death), which is how we know about her.3 This chapter will cover her tumultuous century. Most of it is not directly about Adad-guppi, but over her lifetime she had a surprising number of connections to the major events that took place.

Adad-guppi seems to have been appointed as a high priestess of the moon god Sin in his temple at Harran. It’s unclear why she was chosen for this role, but in her autobiography she described herself as “a worshipper of Sin, Ningal, Nusku, and Sadarnunna, my gods, for whose divinity I have cared since my youth.”4 Centuries after the poet Enheduana devoted her life to the moon god (then called Nanna), priestesses still took on some of the most vital responsibilities when it came to human relationships with the gods. Young Adad-guppi was stepping into a venerable role, one that her community depended upon. They would have trusted her to keep the gods provided for.

Adad-guppi was thirty-nine years old before anything dramatic happened to her, according to her autobiography. She spent those first decades of her life devoted to the gods, not just the moon god and his family but to all the great gods. She wrote that “I . . . have been piously devoted all my lifetime to Sin, Shamash, Ishtar, and Adad, who are in heaven and in the nether world.”5 At some point she married a high Assyrian official or a prince, about whom we know very little,6 and she had one child, a boy named Nabu-na’id.

Harran was a sacred place to the Assyrian kings; with regard to the gods it was second only to Ashur, and its priestesses and priests were among the elite of the empire. Harran’s people had once been exempted from taxes, but at some point that privilege had been taken away. About sixty years before the birth of Adad-guppi, King Sargon II (722–705 BCE, father of Sennacherib) had decided to reinstate it. He wrote in an inscription that “I restored the exemption (from obligations) of (the city) Baltil (i.e., Ashur) and the city Harran, [which] had fallen into oblivion [in the distant past], and their privileged status that had la[psed].”7

In order to be sure to implement this policy fairly, King Sargon II, with typical Mesopotamian thoroughness, commissioned a census to list all the properties and families in Harran that, from then on, would be exempt from paying taxes and other obligations.8 Fifteen tablets from this census were found by archaeologists in the capital of Nineveh, listing 101 families, almost all of them tenant farmers.9 Originally the full census would have included many more people. Like an ancient Near Eastern version of the British Domesday Book, the census reveals details about these workers and their families that are otherwise invisible.10 The lives of tenant farmers would have changed little by Adad-guppi’s time. So we’ll pause for a moment to visit the farms and vineyards around Harran to understand more about the world in which she lived.

Se’-idri and His Family: Tenant Vineyard Gardeners

One of the men interviewed for the census was named Se’-idri.11 He worked as a gardener and lived with his family in a house outside Harran,12 where they tended a plot of land planted with 5,000 grapevines. Their house would have been built of mudbrick, modest in size, and probably situated out in the hilly countryside, surrounded by the vineyard that the family managed. Like almost all the farmers and gardeners surveyed in the census, his land didn’t belong to him. Se’-idri and his family worked it on behalf of a landowner. The family paid a proportion of the crop each year to their landlord, but the rest was theirs to keep, to trade, or to sell, so that they could afford all the other expenses of their lives. There was a crucial difference in their situation when compared with farmers who paid a fixed rent. It’s true that in a year with a good harvest, Se’-idri’s family had to pay more to the landowner than usual, but in a bad year, paying that same percentage resulted in a much lower rent. They could survive without having to go into debt in order to pay the landowner his portion. Owner and tenant both tightened their belts if the crop was poor, but when things were good, both benefited from Se’-idri’s careful maintenance of the vines and treatment of the grapes.

The family was listed in the census like this: “Se’-idri, gardener, Nashuh-idri, his son, adolescent; 1 woman; 1 daughter, adolescent: a total of 4 people.”13 Unlike in some earlier eras, women and girls were rarely named in the Neo-Assyrian census records. Generally, the names of men and adolescent boys were the only ones considered to be important enough to write down. Nashuh-idri was the only boy in the family who was living at home during the census, but he may have had older brothers.

A scholar named Galil Gershon has used the Harran census to examine the lives of families in the lower stratum of Assyrian society, and he notes that most sons probably left their parents’ home and the lands they had been working when they reached adulthood to become tenants on other lands and to take on their own gardening or farming obligations.14 Once a man had his own land tenancy, he could afford to marry and have children. There was no shortage of land at the time; if anything, the Assyrian government faced a shortage of farmers for the land available to be cultivated.15 (This was another driving force behind mass deportations: a keen desire on the part of the government to get potential farmland cultivated and to extract taxes from the farmers.) So Se’-idri and his wife might well have had other sons who lived and worked on lands nearby. Since the census doesn’t list the fathers’ names of almost any of the residents, there’s no way to know.

Likewise, the couple may also have had older daughters who had already left home to get married. A woman in the census was identified by the name of her husband (not even by her own name, let alone those of her parents), so there would be no way to know if any of the other women in the census was a daughter of Se’-idri and his wife. The daughter who was still at home was adolescent, like her brother Nashuh-idri, and her parents probably were already making plans for her future marriage. Boys were more commonly listed than girls in census households. In fact, only 40 percent of the children listed in the census families were girls. This was not for any unsavory reason such as female infanticide. Overall, males and females were equally represented in the census. The lower number of teenage girls than boys in individual households was probably because women generally married at a younger age than men.16 A boy in his late teens might still be living at home with his parents, but a girl of the same age had probably married and moved away.

Surprisingly, Se’-idri’s household of four people wasn’t a small one. Four was the average size of a household of tenant farmers in the Harran census.17 Their family was also typical in the fact that Se’-idri had just one wife. It seems that none of the Harran tenant farmers was married to more than one woman.18 Throughout ancient Near Eastern history, polygamy was rare, except among the upper classes. Even then, a man generally only married a second wife if his first wife had been unable to have children. Kings could have multiple secondary wives, but even a king had only one queen.

One might assume that ancient Near Eastern people lived in extended families full of aunts, uncles, grandparents, nieces, and nephews—after all, the concept of family was so pervasive and elemental in their world. Allied kings were “brothers” (even when they weren’t), adult siblings witnessed one another’s legal contracts and expected support from one another, and even the gods were related to one another by complicated family ties. But only about one in twenty of the lower-stratum households of this era included anyone outside the nuclear family—perhaps an unmarried aunt or a grandmother.19 Presumably, if the elderly parents of Se’-idri or his wife had still been alive, they would have lived with one of their adult children. For example, a household listed a few lines before that of Se’-idri on the same tablet included “Ahunu, gardener; his mother: a total of 2 people.”20 But Ahunu’s mother was unusual. Most poor people died long before reaching old age; very few lived to see their grandchildren.21 Only a fraction of the (already tiny) number of extended families who lived together included more than two generations—adults and their children. Although richer people seem to have lived longer (if they survived childhood diseases), Adad-guppi’s lifespan of 102 years must have seemed so long as to be almost incomprehensible.

The property occupied by Se’-idri’s family is described as follows: “5,000 stalks of (grape) vine; 1 house; 1 vegetable garden.”22 The garden was a common feature of many houses; the family would have used it to grow the vegetables they enjoyed for their meals.

The Mesopotamians had a fondness for all kinds of onions and garlic, and their meals were also flavored with herbs such as cilantro and mustard. These would have grown well in the garden, alongside greens such as arugula, lettuce, and cress; root vegetables like radishes, beets, and turnips; and legumes, including beans, chickpeas, peas, and lentils.23 Stews were popular, such as one called Tuh’u. The ancient recipe reads as follows: “Leg meat (probably lamb or goat) is used. You prepare water. You add fat. You sear. You fold in salt, beer, onion, arugula, cilantro, Persian shallot, cumin, and red beet, and [you crush] leek and garlic. You sprinkle coriander on top. [You add] kurrat (a type of leek) and fresh cilantro.”24 Obviously the cook was expected to know the quantities and the cooking times, but modern chefs have experimented and come up with an excellent version of this dish, which they recommend serving with steamed bulgur, chickpeas, and naan bread (which is very similar to Mesopotamian flat bread).25 The recipe is just as delicious without meat. In fact, Se’-idri’s family probably didn’t eat a lot of meat, since they don’t seem to have owned sheep or goats (and even if they had, the animals would have been more useful alive than eaten).

Cooking was the responsibility of women and girls; Se’-idri’s unnamed wife and daughter might well have cooked wild birds and fish for protein. The family didn’t manage any barley fields, so the large amounts of grain that every family consumed, in the form of bread, beer, and porridge, must have been supplied by another farmer or family member, in exchange, perhaps, for the grapes or wine from their vineyard.

Se’-idri’s vineyard, with its 5,000 vines, was a relatively small one. The average number of vines in a vineyard in the census records was 11,000. Most of the grapes that the family harvested probably went to make wine.

Mesopotamians had been drinking wine for millennia, but it could not be produced in Babylonia, where the weather was too hot and dry for the vines. There, wine represented an expensive import.26 Back in the eighteenth century BCE, the king of Mari had boasted of his ice house and the iced wine that he served guests, and, around the same time, wine mixed with honey was used as a treatment for a bad cough.27 But the vast majority of references to alcoholic beverages in that era were to beer.

In the first millennium BCE, the Assyrian rulers, who had acquired a taste for wine, had expanded the wine-growing region of their empire right across the foothills that surrounded northern Mesopotamia, from Iran to northern Syria and southern Turkey—including the areas near Harran where Se’-idri’s family managed their vineyard. Some of the wine was for local consumption, not just by people but also by gods in the temples. Adad-guppi would no doubt have offered local wines in her libations to the god Sin.

But a lot of wine made its way to the capital city of Nineveh. Sometime between 645 and 635 BCE, at the same time that Adad-guppi was a child in Harran, King Ashurbanipal of Assyria commissioned a relief sculpture for his palace showing himself seated with his wife, Queen Liballi-sharrat, under a grape arbor (see Fig. 19.1). They were depicted drinking what must have been wine, from shallow cups, to the accompaniment of music played by a harpist.28 (Somewhat alarmingly, the head of Ashurbanipal’s recently defeated enemy, the king of Elam, was shown hanging from the branch of a nearby tree, breaking the serene mood a little.)


Fig. 19.1 Gypsum relief showing King Ashurbanipal of Assyria and Queen Liballi-sharrat in a garden, attended by women, with the head of the defeated Elamite king hanging from a tree. From the North Palace at Nineveh, 645–635 bce. (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

So Se’-idri’s family and the other vineyard gardeners around Harran probably found a good market for the grapes they grew. And thanks to Sargon II’s proclamation and the census, none of them had to pay taxes.

Ashurbanipal of Assyria: Scholar and War Leader

King Ashurbanipal, in the middle of whose reign Adad-guppi had been born, was the son of the perpetually worried Esarhaddon. It’s worth noting here that Ashurbanipal’s name is so similar to that of Ashurnasirpal II that the two kings are easily confused. But they were very different men. Their reigns were more than 200 years apart, as distant from one another as the administrations of the American presidents George Washington and George H. W. Bush.

Unlike many of his predecessors, there was a side to Ashurbanipal that was scholarly and contemplative. He boasted not just that he could read and write, but that he also engaged in academic debates with diviners and scribes and could read ancient scripts. He sometimes had himself depicted in relief sculptures with a stylus tucked into his belt. This was true even in a lion hunt scene, as though, after killing the lion, he might have been inspired to sit down and write a few lines about it.29 His wife Libbali-sharrat was also literate. At one point, before her husband became king, she received a letter from her sister-in-law (a daughter of King Esarhaddon), reprimanding her for neglecting her studies: “Why don’t you write your tablet and do your homework?”30 It was unusual for a king to claim to be a scholar, and even more unusual for a royal couple to both show an interest in mastering cuneiform. Ashurbanipal was passionate about it.

His father Esarhaddon had employed (or forced) a number of scribes, like the Babylonian captive Kudurru, to copy tablets for his collection, and Ashurbanipal took this a step further. He wanted a copy of every important literary work produced in the empire for his library—and his scribes set about fulfilling this goal with meticulous care. When British excavator Austin Henry Layard and Iraqi scholar Hormuzd Rassam uncovered Ashurbanipal’s palace at Nineveh during the mid-nineteenth century, they found thousands of these tablets. Most of them were beautifully written on tablets made of very fine clay, often in extraordinarily minute and precise handwriting. The scribes often signed the tablets and even included notes about where they had encountered breaks in the original that they were copying from.

As for the works included in the library, Ashurbanipal’s main concern seems to have been with texts that he and others could consult to help him understand the will of the gods as he ran the empire. In some cases, the library included multiple copies of the same work. The shelves were lined with myths, epic poems, hymns, medical texts, ritual programs, and divination records, along with long lexical texts and dictionaries of the type that scribal students learned in school. Vast numbers of oracles had been kept and copied, listing questions that had been posed to the gods, along with the gods’ responses (as seen, for example, in the livers of sacrificed animals or in patterns of smoke or oil). Alongside these were records of natural events that had been interpreted as omens, and what each represented as a message from the gods. The library also included archival tablets, such as letters, contracts, and administrative documents.31 It was the largest library yet accumulated and, remarkably, it was one of the first collections of cuneiform tablets ever found. This was as though some future archaeologists were to discover the US Library of Congress during their first excavations in North America. Ashurbanipal didn’t create his library for us, but it has been enormously helpful to historians.

On the other hand, you will not be surprised to hear that Ashurbanipal was also a war leader, like his father Esarhaddon and pretty much all the Neo-Assyrian kings before him. The decapitated Elamite king’s head hanging from a tree during Ashurbanipal’s wine party was not the kind of garden decoration you would expect from a man interested only in his library.

He had inherited a complicated relationship with both Elam and Babylonia. His father Esarhaddon and grandfather Sennacherib had more difficulties in those regions than in any others. We need to go back in time for a moment in order to understand what Ashurbanipal was facing with regard to his southern province. During the early seventh century BCE, King Sennacherib had been confronted with repeated rebellions in Babylonia and had campaigned there six different times, eventually appointing his eldest son to rule as Babylon’s king. The Babylonians were unimpressed with this development; they kidnapped the Assyrian prince and gave him over to the Elamites, who almost certainly executed him. A Babylonian then claimed the throne, denouncing Assyrian rule. Sennacherib was furious; in his desire for vengeance for the death of his son he ended up ignoring Assyria’s long tradition of respect for Babylonia and venting his rage on the whole land.

After a war against the Elamites and Babylonians, Sennacherib laid siege to the city of Babylon for fifteen long months, during which time the Babylonians must have increasingly realized that they had run out of options. In 689 BCE the city finally fell, after which the Assyrian troops went on a rampage of murder and destruction, killing people, rich and poor, most of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion against Assyria. Untold numbers of Babylonians died. The Assyrians defied the usual sacred rule of respecting the temples and gods of other lands. As Sennacherib put it, “The hands of my people laid hold of the gods dwelling there and smashed them; they took their property and goods.” Read that again. The Assyrians had smashed the statues of the Babylonian gods, the very images in which the gods lived. These were the Assyrians’ gods, too. The frenzy of violence incited the troops to actions that no one on either side could later justify. It’s interesting to note that here, for once, Sennacherib didn’t claim that he committed the destruction himself. Perhaps recognizing just how egregious the crime had been, he claimed that it was his people who smashed the gods, not him.32 I doubt this would have made any difference to the Babylonians; they would still have blamed the king for the unforgivable desecration.

He continued, “I destroyed the city and its houses, from foundation to parapet; I devastated and burned them. I razed the brick and earthenwork of the outer and inner wall (of the city), of the temples, and of the ziggurat; and I dumped these into the Arahtu canal.” Worse yet, he tried to make the city uninhabitable by inundating it with water: “I dug canals through the midst of that city, I overwhelmed it with water, I made its very foundations disappear, and I destroyed it more completely than a devastating flood.”33

The Assyrians even captured the statue of Marduk, the state god of Babylonia, from his home in the Esagil temple, and, like Tukulti-Ninurta I centuries before, apparently took him away to the city of Ashur.34 All of this, to put it mildly, did not endear the Babylonians to their Assyrian overlords.

Later, after the murder of Sennacherib, his son Esarhaddon inherited a toxic situation in the south. He attempted to assuage Babylonian feelings by rebuilding many of the structures that his father’s army had destroyed in Babylon, but Marduk was still missing from his home, and many festivals, most notably the New Year’s Festival, could not be conducted until the god returned.

Esarhaddon decided to solve the Babylonian problem by dividing his empire in two, so that, after his death, his son Ashurbanipal would assume the throne as king of Assyria, and another, older, son named Shamash-shumu-ukin would serve as king of Babylonia. But this plan, ultimately, did not work. Although Shamash-shumu-ukin did finally return the statue of Marduk to Babylon, and the early years of the brothers’ joint reign were uneventful, they were never really equals. Ashurbanipal controlled much more land, and he made sure that Shamash-shumu-ukin had less power than him. Shamash-shumu-ukin’s hands were increasingly tied—he needed his brother’s permission to do any number of things, and Ashurbanipal took charge of several building projects that definitely should have been his brother’s to direct.

In the spirit of Sasi and the other men who had conspired against Esarhaddon, Shamash-shumu-ukin secretly plotted against his brother Ashurbanipal. His plot found wide support. He convinced leaders from all across the Neo-Assyrian Empire and beyond to side with him, from Amurru in the west, to Gutium and Elam in the east, to Arabia in the south.35 By 652 BCE, civil war had broken out between the brothers and their respective allies, and by 650 the exhausted city of Babylon was once again under siege, this time by Ashurbanipal’s forces. Perhaps the hungry, desperate Babylonians wondered why the battles, sieges, and destruction always took place in their land, never in Assyria. The siege of Babylon continued for two years, until 648 BCE, when Shamash-shumu-ukin died in a fire and Ashurbanipal’s army entered Babylon unopposed. This was within a year, as it happens, of Adad-guppi’s birth in Harran.

For the next twenty years, relations between Assyria and Babylonia finally calmed, though the Babylonians certainly weren’t about to forget how they had been treated. And they can’t have missed the fact that, after almost three centuries, the Neo-Assyrian Empire was beginning to show signs of weakness. Ashurbanipal may have been victorious over Babylonia, as well as over the Elamites and the Arabs, but he had been unable to maintain control in Egypt. People must have realized that it was, therefore, at least possible to successfully rebel against Assyria; the god Ashur was not always, inevitably victorious. Hope might well have stirred among the peoples under Assyrian domination.

For some reason, documents simply dry up toward the end of Ashurbanipal’s reign, and it’s unclear how and even exactly when he died. He was succeeded by one son, Ashur-etel-ilani, who ruled for about four years, and then by another, Sin-shar-ishkun, who took the throne in 624 BCE and who, over the course of his ill-fated reign, witnessed the collapse of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

The End of the Assyrian Empire

In 626 BCE, during the short reign of Ashur-etel-ilani, a former general in the Assyrian army named Nabopolassar (626–605 BCE) seized power in Babylon and led yet another Babylonian revolt against Assyria.36 This one was ultimately successful. At this point, Adad-guppi was twenty-two years old and certainly, by now, serving as Sin’s devotee or priestess in Harran. Her city was still within the Assyrian Empire, but perhaps some people there were rooting for Nabopolassar, whose rebellion was taking place far to the south. She mentioned in her autobiography that she lived through the reign of the Assyrian king Ashur-etel-ilani, but she didn’t list his brother Sin-shar-ishkun at all. Instead, she noted that, after the reign of Ashur-etel-ilani, she lived through twenty-one years of the reign of Nabopolassar of Babylon. Maybe her allegiance had already shifted to support the Babylonians, or maybe, by the time the autobiography was written, she felt obliged to mention the Babylonian conqueror from the beginning of his reign, long before he controlled Harran.

Adad-guppi would have heard stories about the constant battles and sieges taking place in Babylonia and would have realized that the Assyrian king Sin-shar-ishkun, unlike his father and great-grandfather, was proving unable to stop the rebellions. Fourteen years after the civil war began, long-awaited and almost unbelievable news spread across the lands of the Neo-Assyrian Empire: Nineveh had fallen. Nabopolassar had been able, at last, to move the battles and sieges out of Babylonia and into Assyria itself. A group of people called the Medes, who lived in western Iran, had joined in the attack on Assyria a couple of years before. It was the Medes who managed to conquer the city of Ashur in 614 BCE, and the alliance they formed with Babylonia proved to be fatal for Assyria. After a siege of just three months, the combined armies were able to conquer Nineveh in 612 BCE. The Assyrian capital hadn’t been built for defense; perhaps when Sennacherib had enlarged and rebuilt Nineveh as his capital no one had envisioned a time when it would even need to be defended. Assyria had fought innumerable offensive, aggressive wars, but almost never defensive ones. For hundreds of years no war had reached the center of Assyria, because its military had been unmatched.

Excavations all across Assyria have revealed just how violently the invaders attacked the main cities. Assyrian palaces burned, tombs were looted, and other buildings torn down. This was the moment when Sennacherib’s face was chiseled from his relief sculptures in his former palace. Copies of Esarhaddon’s supposedly divine treaty of succession, identifying his sons as his heirs, were smashed to pieces. The treaties had been set up in temples, where the Assyrian king had required his subjects to worship them as divine objects; now they lay on the floor, nothing more than piles of broken clay. The Medes had even thought to bring the copies of the treaty from their own temples so that they could be vengefully destroyed in the temple to Nabu in the city of Kalhu.37 The treaty had no power as a divine object once it had been smashed. The curses Esarhaddon had included would no longer work.38

According to a later text by the Babylonian king Nabonidus, it was the Median forces, not those of the Babylonians, who did all the major damage, especially to Assyrian temples:

The king of the Umman-manda (Medes), who was impudent (i.e. without reverence for the holy) destroyed their sanctuaries. He also desecrated the cultic rites of all the gods of Assyria and the cities of the territory of the land of Akkad (Babylonia) that had rebelled against the king of the land of Akkad and had not gone to his assistance. He spared no one. He utterly laid waste their cult centers.39

The Babylonian king would never have done these sacrilegious things, according to Nabonidus: “The king of Babylon, the creation of Marduk, to whom blasphemy is abhorrent, did not lay a hand on the cult of any of the gods, (rather) he wore the unkept hair (of mourning), slept on the ground.”

The Assyrian king Sin-shar-ishkun died with the fall of Nineveh and it might have seemed, in 612 BCE, that the Neo-Assyrian Empire was over. But one last man, probably a son of Sin-shar-ishkun, claimed the Assyrian throne.40 He chose, as his capital, Adad-guppi’s city of Harran and set up an Assyrian government in exile there. By doing so, in a way he put a target on Harran. The Babylonians and Medes arrived two years later and by 609 BCE they had taken control. The Neo-Assyrian Empire was at an end. Adad-guppi wrote that “Sin, the king of the gods, became angry with his city (i.e. Harran) and temple and went up to heaven, the city and the people inside it became ruins.”41 The statue of Sin, along with those of Ningal, Nusku, and Sadarnunna, must have been taken out of their temples in Harran at this time, and either taken to Babylon or, more likely, destroyed by the Median attackers.42 They “went up to heaven,” as Adad-guppi put it.

In the minds of the Mesopotamians, this was an act akin to murder. The gods were immortal, but they needed their original statues in order to dwell on Earth. A new statue could not simply be fashioned, set up in the temple, and thereby become the god. The bodies of the gods were gone and could not be recovered. A new statue could only be made if an image of the old one existed and could be replicated,43 after which specific rituals had to take place to bring the god’s presence back into his or her new image.

An eerie silence fell over Assyria after this. Suddenly, no one was writing anything there. At least, no one was writing in cuneiform.44 It’s possible that some documents were written in Aramaic, on papyrus, but they have left no trace. Excavators find almost no evidence for people living on in the once-great cities, which became ghost towns. Skeletons of people killed defending Nineveh were left beneath the rubble, unburied. The cities of the Assyrian heartland seem to have been abandoned, mourned by almost no one. The Babylonians took control there,45 but faced no more resistance.

When the Neo-Assyrian Empire fell in 609 BCE, Adad-guppi was about thirty-nine years old. Her son Nabu-na’id must have still been a child.46 Mother and son faced the same fate that had been suffered by so many conquered leaders and officials during the Neo-Assyrian Empire: they were removed from their home and taken as captives to the city of their conquerors. In this case their destination was Babylon, capital of the new empire, known to us as the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and home to its king Nabopolassar.

In her autobiography, Adad-guppi described a trying time, during which she attempted to convince the moon god to return to Harran. She visited the shrines of her beloved gods in Babylon, where she “constantly sought out Sin, Ningal, Nusku, and Sadarnunna, worshipping their godheads.”47 Clearly, she was not imprisoned in Babylon, and she was given access to the shrines. Her status as a priestess of the god Sin must have been acknowledged by the Babylonian authorities. One can envision her, in the stillness of the shrine to the moon god (in her words), “continually beseeching Sin. Gazing at him prayerfully and in humility, I knelt before them. Thus (I said): ‘May your return to your city take place. May the black-headed people worship your great divinity.’ ”48 The “black-headed people” was a common term for all of humanity.

Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon: The King and His Capital City

The city of Babylon, meanwhile, found a new lease on life. Nabopolassar had won, the Assyrian authorities were gone, and the Babylonian king now ruled more than half of what had been the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The northern part of the empire, including Adad-guppi’s home city of Harran, was now ruled by the Medes.49 The people of the provinces might have hoped that they would become independent after Nineveh fell, but they discovered that this was not to be; they had traded one imperial power for another. And that was to be the pattern for centuries. One enormous empire after another ruled the entire Near East (and often quite a bit of the rest of Eurasia as well). For much of the sixth century BCE, the ruling empire was that of the Babylonians.

Just four years after the end of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, in 605 BCE, the Babylonian king Nabopolassar died, and the throne passed to his son, Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 BCE). The new king was already well known as a popular and respected general, and he went on to enjoy a long reign of forty-three years, a period that proved to be the height of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Strictly speaking, we should probably call him Nebuchadrezzar; there was no second “n” sound in his Akkadian name, Nabu-kudurru-usur. But Nebuchadnezzar is his name in the Bible, and, like all such names of Assyrian and Babylonian kings, this is just an approximation of what the Judean authors heard and not his real name at all.

Nebuchadnezzar II probably imagined himself to be ruling at the start of a long period of Babylonian dominance of the Near East, and he wanted a capital city to match his empire’s greatness. In many ways, Nebuchadnezzar modeled his kingdom, and his very sense of what it meant to be a king, even of what a state could be, not on the Neo-Assyrians but on his predecessors in his own region—the Babylonians of Hammurabi’s era, and the Sumerians of the Early Dynastic period, in what was already the very distant past. Hammurabi had lived 1,200 years before Nebuchadnezzar. Unlike the Neo-Assyrian kings, Nebuchadnezzar had no interest in glorifying his military deeds in inscriptions and relief sculptures.50 He didn’t use the warlike titles of the Assyrian kings. Instead he emphasized his reverence for the gods, his humility, and the order he brought to his kingdom.51 He “put the land in order, and made the people prosper.” He also, like Hammurabi, promoted justice: “From the people, I drove away the criminals and villains.”52

His father Nabopolassar had begun embellishing Babylon, and Nebuchadnezzar was determined not just to complete his father’s projects but to go far beyond what had been planned. A whole new building program was to be developed, encompassing the entire city. We have seen this so often, from the temples of the Eanna in Uruk 3,000 years before, to the ziggurats constructed by the kings of the Ur III dynasty, to Untash-Napirisha’s new capital city in Elam, to three different new capital cities in Assyria during the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Every time, the relevant kingdom devoted phenomenal amounts of wealth, natural resources, manpower, and engineering expertise to create the most impressive structures imaginable.

Nebuchadnezzar went all out. Over the course of his long reign he (or rather, thousands of workers, under his direction) doubled the size of the city to 800 hectares (1,977 acres), so that it was bigger even than Nineveh (see Fig. 19.2). It was, as far as we know, the largest city in the world at the time (though the population is difficult to estimate because much of the area inside the walls remains unexcavated).53 He surrounded it with a double city wall, 18 kilometers (11 miles) long, with a street running between the inner and outer wall. This double wall was later deemed one of the wonders of the world by Greek authors. Beyond it, he commissioned the construction of a moat, 80 meters (262 feet) wide.54


Fig. 19.2 Plan of Babylon in the time of King Nebuchadnezzar II, early sixth century bce. Key: A – Euphrates; B – Ishtar Gate; C – Palace; D – Processional Way; E and F – Esagila temple complex of Marduk (E – ziggurat, F – temple) (based on Oates 1979, 148, Fig. 100).

Another of the supposed wonders of the ancient world was the Hanging Garden of Babylon, but there is no contemporaneous evidence for its existence; the Greek historian Herodotus did not mention it when he visited, nor, sadly, was it found during excavations in Babylon (though not for lack of trying). Historian Stephanie Dalley has proposed that this might be because of a dramatic mix-up: perhaps later Greek and Roman writers confused Babylonia and Assyria (which was not uncommon for them) and the Hanging Garden had in fact been in Nineveh, where Sennacherib’s engineers had constructed and developed an irrigation system for remarkable gardens on manmade terraces, which he proudly depicted in reliefs on his palace walls.55 These would truly have been a technological wonder at a time when plants grew only on the ground, not several stories up, on top of a building.

Notwithstanding the missing Hanging Garden, everything about the city of Babylon inspired superlatives. Nebuchadnezzar II had the immense royal palace completely rebuilt in baked brick (marked as C in Fig. 19.2), with more than 250 rooms arranged around five courtyards. By the end of his reign, Babylon’s main gateway, the Ishtar Gate (B in Fig. 19.2), stood 15 meters (49 feet) high. With its new façade of glazed blue bricks, it seemed almost to be built out of solid lapis lazuli, a shining blue vision. Gleaming lions strode along the walls of the main processional way (D in Fig. 19.2), created out of glazed bricks and molded in relief, brightly colored and seemingly ready to step right out from the walls. The Esagila temple (E and F in Fig. 19.2), home to Marduk, was dominated by its rebuilt ziggurat (E in Fig. 19.2), the base of which extended for about 91.5 meters (300 feet) on each side. It rose in six giant steps, with a shrine to Marduk on the top that was covered in glazed blue bricks.56

A century later, Herodotus proclaimed Babylon, as it had been transformed by Nebuchadnezzar, to be the most impressive city he had ever seen. He wrote that “in magnificence there is no other city that approaches to it.”57 This remarkable place was where Adad-guppi and her young son Nabu-na’id had been brought to live. For four decades, corvée laborers, deportees, and slaves must have been working in all parts of the city pretty much all the time in order to realize Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. How could one not be caught up in the excitement?

Washermen, Weavers, Goldsmiths, and Perfume-Makers

Adad-guppi, however, seems to have taken no pleasure in this renaissance for Babylon. She was in mourning. Sin’s image was gone from Harran’s Ehulhul temple, which had itself been tragically destroyed in the fighting. She doesn’t seem to have blamed the Medes for destroying the image of the god, or the Assyrians for making Harran a target of the attackers by setting up their capital there. Instead, she attributed Sin’s disappearance to the moon god’s own anger. Her job, as she saw it, was to calm him and to find a way to convince him and his divine spouse to return. She started by depriving herself of luxuries. “In order to appease the heart of my god and my goddess, I did not put on a garment of excellent wool, silver, gold, a fresh garment,” she wrote. “I did not allow perfumes (or) fine oil to touch my body.”58 To show her devotion, she was going to live as an ascetic. “I was clothed in a torn garment. My fabric was sackcloth.” She devoted herself entirely to the deities, apparently in the forms of their Babylonian statues: “I proclaimed their praises . . . I stood their watch. I served them food.”59

The list of the luxuries that Adad-guppi renounced reveals a lot about how she had lived in Harran before her world changed: wearing fine clothes made of “excellent wool,” adorning herself with jewelry, and using perfume and fine oil for her skin. Since she was a high priestess, her clothing may have resembled that of Ashurbanipal’s queen, Liballi-sharrat, which you can see in the relief of the royal couple sitting under the grape arbor, sipping wine (see Fig. 19.3).


Fig. 19.3 Close up of Queen Liballi-sharrat of Assyria from the garden scene, North Palace at Nineveh, 645–635 bce. (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Her robe would have been made of a length of wide cloth that she wrapped around herself, somewhat like a sari; the borders were decorated with four strips of delicate embroidery and a fringe. Libbali-sharrat’s gown was decorated all over with small circles, probably gold disks. There were parallels for this. Fortunately for us, the pillaging troops who brought an end to the Neo-Assyrian cities failed to find four royal tombs when they were ransacking everything in sight. These tombs lay hidden under the floor of the palace in Kalhu.60 They were excavated by Iraqi archaeologists between 1985 and 2001 and proved to be the burial places of several queens of Assyria, still with their treasures intact. Some of the women wore clothing that would have sparkled with small gold appliqués.61

Libbali-sharrat wore a dress with three-quarter-length sleeves (also decorated with many rows of patterns, probably in bright colors) underneath the wrapped garment and, on her feet, slippers that covered her toes. Elaborate jewelry adorned her wrists, neck, and ears. The queen’s hair was shoulder-length and carefully arranged, and on her head was a “mural” crown, shaped like a city wall. This crown would probably not have been an option for a priestess like Adad-guppi; it seems to have been reserved for royalty.62 Interestingly, the small mural crown eventually transformed into the stereotypical pointed crown—the type that children now draw to indicate a king. Adad-guppi probably wore a headband of some kind, in place of a crown; almost every high-ranking Assyrian did so.

Behind the formal attire of queens and eminent women, helping to create it, one has to imagine innumerable artisans, craftsmen, and laborers, many of them in the direct employ of the palace or temple. In the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian administrative and legal records we can even learn some of their names and the nature of their work.

The manufacture of textiles and clothing had continued to be a defining Mesopotamian art in the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods. Almost 2,000 years and about eighty generations after the weaving women in Lagash and Ebla had perfected their woolen fabrics, their successors still lived up to their high standards. Female weavers had always been attested in the records, along with men, as producers of such garments.63 Many of the same procedures that we encountered among earlier textile workers were practiced, but some changes had been made as well. Wool was still generally plucked from sheep and hair from goats, rather than being sheared.64 It was spun into thread and dyed, but the colors might have been brighter than in the past; the Neo-Assyrian scribes had words for wools that had been dyed in many shades of blue, purple, green, yellow, and red; red wool was mentioned the most often and seems to have been popular. Dyers used alum to set the colors.65 The textile workers also had a new type of fabric to weave, in addition to linen and wool. This was cotton, though it seems to have been rare. A fragment of it was found in the queens’ tombs at Kalhu,66 and, in recounting the wonders of his gardens and agricultural projects, King Sennacherib claimed that workers “picked trees bearing wool (and) wove (it) into clothing.”67 Since cotton wasn’t native to the region, it must have been imported either from South Asia or the Sudan. New styles of fabric had also probably been introduced; the royal weavers came from across the empire, even from as far away as Egypt.68

Weavers were organized into teams under a leader known (in rather military fashion) as the “cohort commander of the weavers.”69 One of these “commanders” in the time of Sennacherib was a man named Nabuti.70 Actually, we know the names of several weavers and “chief weavers,” and they were almost all men. They were mentioned not in association with their work, but often because they served as witnesses to legal contracts. One of the few named women from the textile workshops was a supervisor named Damqa.71

Royal weavers had access to wools and dyes from many different lands across the empire, and they were understood to be experts on the best raw materials. In one letter written by Sennacherib (before he became king), he mentioned that a shipment of red wool had arrived from one of the provinces. Some local merchants surveyed the wool and chose seven talents (190 kilograms or 420 pounds) of it that they thought good, but the emissaries from the province retorted, “Who do you think you are? You are not to make the selection. Let them take it over and let the king’s (female) weavers make the selection over there.”72 The female weavers clearly knew more about the quality of wool than did the merchants.

Creating the intricate borders on clothing was the work of high-ranking specialists, called “weavers of multicolored trim.”73 One such man, Urdaya, witnessed a contract for the sale of a house and was listed first among some very eminent witnesses, including the brother of the mayor and the chief shepherd.74 He was evidently an important person.

Clothes had to be washed, of course, and, to address this need, washermen ran successful businesses, serving the richest people in the Babylonian cities.75 The clothes that adorned the sacred statues of the deities themselves were laundered within the temples,76 but people working in temples (like others in the city) would have needed to have their clothes cleaned as well. Adad-guppi initially pledged to eschew new garments, but presumably she still had to have her clothes cleaned, no matter how simply she was living.77

Surprisingly, domestic slaves of the rich didn’t do the laundry for the households in which they worked. Washing clothes seems to have been a complicated and specialized process that was best left to professionals.78 So Adad-guppi would have hired a washerman (they were apparently all men) and set terms with him for a year. Once the agreement had been made, she would have followed millennia-old Mesopotamian legal practice and hired a scribe, brought in some reliable witnesses, and made sure that everything was set down in writing. Afterward, she held on to the contract, in case the washerman failed to complete the work. He presumably had a copy of the contract as well, in case she failed to pay him. Either one of them could have taken the other to court, and some contracts specified the fine that would have to be paid in that case.

For example, late in Adad-guppi’s life, a man named Ina-teshi-etir had a business in which he would “clean and whiten the whites” of a Babylonian family for one shekel of silver per year.79 Several contracts specified this same amount, which seems to have been the going rate for washermen, and this was true for decades,80 though some were willing not just to clean the whites but “all the laundry and whites” for the same price.81 Other clients paid the washermen in barley or dates, rather than silver. Some contracts also specified the turnaround time for bringing the laundry back. A tailor who also did washing wrote that “I will clean the dirty clothes by the 10th day of the month . . . and return them.”82 Dealing with “whites” was a big concern. One contract required that the washerman “will make the whites really white.”83

The washermen came from several different classes in society: enslaved, free but without family names, and free with family names (only people of higher status used family names). The washerman Ina-teshi-etir had a family name; he was described as “son of Iddina of the Hulamishu family.”84 All the washermen, no matter what their status, engaged with their clients in much the same way, drew up similar contracts, and were paid about the same amount, but their businesses might have varied in size.85 A washerman would have needed at least 12 shekels of silver per year to support a family, so each man must have had at least 12 clients.86

Adad-guppi’s jewelry, when she lived in Harran, might also have resembled that of Queen Libbali-sharrat. Jewelry of the Neo-Assyrian period was astonishing in its craftsmanship. The royal women buried in Kalhu had been provided with jewelry of extraordinary quality for use in the afterlife: necklaces, earrings, fibulas, finger rings, bracelets, collars, pendants, anklets, and crowns (see Fig. 19.4). The goldsmiths incorporated patterns of granulation, micro-mosaics, gold basketwork, chains, openwork, and several other techniques, all on a miniature scale, in order to create their masterpieces.


Fig. 19.4 Examples of Assyrian bracelets from the Nimrud royal tombs, ninth century bce. (Barry Iverson/Alamy Stock Photo)

Some of the earrings worn by the queens were composed of gold crescent shapes with dangling conical objects looking a little like pine cones.87 They look exactly like the ones worn by Libbali-sharrat when seated under the grape arbor. The goldsmiths would have been highly trained and, as a result, regarded as higher in status than many other types of artisans.88 Although the items of jewelry in the tombs at Kalhu were manufactured a couple of centuries before Adad-guppi’s lifetime, as a high-ranking priestess she might well have owned similar items.

Goldsmiths in Neo-Assyrian times often worked professionally for a temple or palace, but they could also be hired privately to make jewelry for elite clients.89 When she was a priestess in Harran, Adad-guppi probably would have been provided with jewelry by the temple goldsmiths, who were considered to be consecrated to the god.90 In Neo-Assyrian palaces as well, the goldsmiths were singled out in the records as directly serving the royal family; they were considered some of the most important of all craftsmen.91

The “perfumes” and “fine oil” that Adad-guppi gave up using in Babylon were probably one and the same thing—perfumes at the time were oil-based. The oils were scented with such substances as lavender, rosemary, pine, anise, coriander, juniper, and cinnamon.92 They were largely made by women,93 and their manufacture might have been controlled by the Babylonian palace.94

Several years after Adad-guppi had arrived in Babylon, during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, a scribe created a list of people receiving rations of sesame oil from the palace. It included rations provided for six women described as perfume-makers.95 The oil was allocated to their supervisor, a man named Nabu-dur-maki. Individuals from across the known world appear on the same tablet along with the perfume-makers, apparently because they were all receiving rations from the palace. There were carpenters and desert patrolmen from Ionia (Greek Asia Minor), messengers “of Daradani,” a courtier from Egypt, captives from Elam and Cilicia, 126 people from Tyre, a gardener, an alphabetic scribe, and even a “warden of monkeys.”96 It’s a safe guess that the perfumers might also have been foreign to Mesopotamia, even though the text doesn’t say so specifically.97 In fact, an Egyptian perfumer is known from another, earlier document.98

For Adad-guppi, personal luxuries were in her past. She had renounced such things and presented herself to the god in sackcloth, unadorned.

Jehoiakin of Judah: Exiles in Babylon

That oil ration list that included the perfumers is of interest for another reason, because it reflects something else that was happening in Babylon: the city had become incredibly cosmopolitan. All those people from Elam, Egypt, Tyre, Ionia, and so on were living side by side in the city. They had arrived as deportees (like Adad-guppi), or immigrants, mercenaries, or traders, some of them employed or supported by the king’s court, some not. Presumably they encountered one another in the hallways and streets, talked with one another, and, in the process, learned about one another’s cultures. Curiously, though, in its physical structures, Babylon itself remained stubbornly Babylonian. Archaeologists found little evidence of influence from outside. No temples to gods from other lands seem to have been constructed there.99

Several people on the oil ration list were described as “Ya’uda,” which was the Akkadian spelling of “Judean.” Eight of the Judeans were unnamed, one was named Ur-milki, and one was actually their king, Ya’u-kinu, which was the Akkadian spelling of the biblical king Jehoiakin. This is not the only document that listed oil rations for him; three others have also been found. One reads “1 seah (of oil) to Jehoiakin, king of J[udah]. 2½ qu to 5 sons of the king of Judah. 4 qu to 8 Judeans.”100 This represented a substantial amount of oil, and probably meant that Jehoiakin was using his rations to provide for his household as well as himself. The date was preserved on one of the tablets; it was written during Nebuchadnezzar II’s thirteenth year.101 Each time, the female perfume-makers were listed on the same tablets. They seem to have belonged to the same administrative unit in the palace as the exiled Judeans.

Finding references to Jehoiakin and other Judeans living in Babylon during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II is not a surprise. The Babylonian Chronicles and the biblical book of 2 Kings both explain how the Judeans got there. Early in his reign, Nebuchadnezzar II ran into difficulties with the provinces at the very western edge of his empire, along the Mediterranean coast. In earlier times, these lands had rebelled against their former overlords, the Neo-Assyrian kings, and, finding themselves once again being asked to pay tribute to a very distant emperor, they rebelled again. You remember how the people of Judah had anticipated help from Egypt during the reign of Sennacherib, when the Assyrians laid siege to Lachish? They did the same thing this time. At first, Egypt came to their aid. In 601 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar’s fourth year on the throne, according to Babylonian records, he led his troops to the west where they “marched toward Egypt. The king of Egypt heard (of it) and sent out his army; they clashed in an open battle and inflicted heavy losses on each other.”102 This doesn’t sound much like a victory for Babylon; the Levantine kings could continue to hope that they could successfully change allegiance.

Nebuchadnezzar II made the same march with his troops two years later, during his sixth year on the throne, and this time he fought in Arabia as well as in the Levant. The army seems to have been more successful than before. Again, to quote Babylonian records, they “took much booty from the land of the Arabs, (also) their herds and divine images in great number.”103 But Egypt wasn’t mentioned again; the pharaohs had apparently given up in their attempt to take over control in the Levant.

Nebuchadnezzar’s seventh year, according to Babylonian records, was the decisive moment for Judah. In December 598 BCE, “The king of Akkad moved his army into Hatti land”—Hatti was by now the name used for the Levant, rather than for Anatolia—“laid siege to the city of Judah (Jerusalem) and the king took the city on the second day of the month Addaru.” This was March 16, 597 BCE. “He appointed in it a (new) king of his liking, took heavy booty from it and brought it into Babylon.”104 That’s all the detail provided in the chronicle; to the Babylonians, Judah was just another western kingdom that needed to be brought back into obedient vassaldom. Two sentences in the chronicle took care of it.

For the Judeans, though, the experience was much more traumatic than those laconic words suggest. As the author of 2 Kings put it: “Nebuchadnezzar himself came up to the city while his officers were besieging it. Jehoiakin king of Judah, his mother, his attendants, his nobles and his officials all surrendered to him.”105 After surrendering, Jehoiakin and the members of his court were taken away as prisoners. Along with much of the population of Judah—10,000 people in all—they were then deported to Babylon.106 The biblical author noted that “Only the poorest people in the land were left.”107 The author also enumerated the “heavy booty” that had been mentioned in the Babylonian records: “all the treasures from the temple of the Lord and from the royal palace” were seized, along with “all the gold articles that Solomon king of Israel made for the temple of the Lord.”108 These losses must have been devastating to the Judeans.

This was how Jehoiakin and his sons ended up in Babylon, receiving rations from the king alongside other foreigners in the court. The imprisonment of the Judean court seems to have been relatively benign, however. They were well provided for.

The Bible and the Babylonian Chronicles agree that, in the meantime, another king had been appointed to take over from Jehoiakin as the vassal king of Judah—his name was Zedekiah, according to the Bible. Nine years later, Zedekiah also rebelled and once again Nebuchadnezzar and his troops showed up in Judah. This time, his army besieged Jerusalem for eighteen months (though this isn’t mentioned in the Babylonian Chronicles). When the Babylonians finally succeeded in taking Jerusalem, they executed Zedekiah’s sons right in front of him, after which the Babylonian commanders blinded and imprisoned the Judean king. The Babylonian army looted all the remaining metal objects from the temple, and then burned down every major building in Jerusalem, including the temple. They “carried into exile the people who remained in the city, along with the rest of the populace.”109 With that, in the summer of 587 BCE, Judah “went into captivity, away from her land.”110

A similar sequence of events probably happened to any number of cities and kingdoms in the Neo-Babylonian Empire, and the same had been true during the Neo-Assyrian Empire. This particular conquest had a lasting impact on the world, however. The Judean people practiced a singular religion that was focused on the worship of one god, and that was unlike the faiths of the other peoples in the bustling city in which they found themselves. During their exile in Babylonia, the Judeans didn’t adopt the worship of Marduk or Nabu or any of the other gods of Mesopotamia, but held on to their belief in one god, and sought to understand their history by assembling the books that became the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament). Ultimately, of course, the Jewish faith became one of the world’s major religions and the earliest of the Abrahamic faiths, later giving rise to Christianity and Islam.

The stories told in the Bible about the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian kings provided most of what anyone knew about the ancient Near East for thousands of years, because the ancient cuneiform records had disappeared into the ground, and even those still visible could not be read. This is why we still refer to these kings by their biblical names—Sargon instead of Sharru-ukin, Sennacherib instead of Sin-ahhe-eriba, Nebuchadnezzar instead of Nabu-kudurri-usur, and so on. Even though the kings’ actual names were deciphered from cuneiform more than a century and a half ago, the tradition of using the more familiar biblical versions continues.

Jehoiakin lived in Babylon for the rest of his life, as did the other people in exile from Judah. Even the author of the book of 2 Kings acknowledged that Jehoiakin was treated well in the end, though the author’s timing of events differs from the evidence supplied by the tablets found in Babylon. The biblical author wrote that Jehoiakin was eventually released from prison, and that the Babylonian king “spoke kindly to him and gave him a seat of honor,” that Jehoiakin “for the rest of his life ate regularly at the king’s table,” and that “the king gave Jehoiakin a regular allowance as long as he lived.”111 The difference is that the Bible puts this release in the thirty-seventh year of Jehoiakin’s exile, after the death of Nebuchadnezzar, whereas the ration texts suggest that Jehoiakin’s “regular allowance” had been provided by Nebuchadnezzar all along.

Nabu-na’id: An Official Becomes King

Through all of this, Adad-guppi continued to pray to the moon god Sin, though perhaps she relaxed her ascetic strictures after a while. Meanwhile, her son Nabu-na’id received an education and trained to serve as an official.112 Historian Paul-Alain Beaulieu has drawn some fascinating conclusions about how his education may have had an impact on Nabu-na’id’s later career.113 The curriculum hadn’t changed a great deal since the Old Babylonian period when students had studied at schools such as the one in House F at Nippur. Nabu-na’id would have copied a lot of lists—lexical lists, lists of personal names, and syllabaries, among other things—and would have learned some basic mathematics.114 He then moved on to copying proverbs and, most important, a canon of five specific literary works, which all apprentice scribes in this period seem to have studied.115 They included a birth legend about Sargon of Akkad, a legend about Naram-Sin, and two letters that purported to be historical but were actually written much later. They all reinforced the idea that kings experienced their successes and their failures as a direct result of the extent to which they obeyed the gods’ commands, and several of them did so in the form of kings instructing others about the best way to rule.116 This was also a theme of the last of the classics that the students studied, one that is much more familiar to us: the Epic of Gilgamesh, the story of the ancient king of Uruk who went on a journey in search of immortality. He, like the other kings in the canonical school texts, ended up recognizing his dependence on the power of the gods and the futility of going against their wishes.

The Gilgamesh Epic that he read was similar to the one that we’ve already encountered, which was studied by scribal students in the Old Babylonian period.117 Sometime between 1300 and 1000 BCE, a new version of the epic poem had been compiled, one that, even today, remains stunning in its subtlety and wisdom. A scribe named Sin-leqi-unnini is credited with refining this classic Standard Babylonian version of the epic, but, like his fellow poet Homer, we know little about him. The epic was studied, copied, and translated into different languages. Writing out parts of it became a common assignment in scribal schools.118

After finishing his education, Nabu-na’id began working in Nebuchadnezzar’s administration and he became a career official, continuing in his position into the reigns of kings who succeeded Nebuchadnezzar. Adad-guppi took credit for her son’s success in obtaining the position. She wrote that “I have made Nabu-na’id, the son whom I bore, serve Nebuchadnezzar, son of Nabopolassar, and Neriglissar, king of Babylon, and he performed his duty for them day and night by doing always what was their pleasure.”119 Nabu-na’id, in turn, found some sort of official role for his mother, as she acknowledged: “He also made me a good name before them and they gave me an elevated position as if I were their real daughter.”120 By the time king Nebuchadnezzar II died in 562 BCE, Adad-guppi was eighty-six years old. But she was still going strong, and all this time she had been praying to the moon god Sin to “become reconciled with the temple Ehulhul, the temple of Sin in Harran,”121 and to return.

The three kings who followed the death of Nebuchadnezzar II all had short reigns. Nebuchadnezzar’s son Amel-Marduk ruled for two years (561–560 BCE) before being overthrown by that king’s brother-in-law Neriglissar (a general from an Aramean tribe, who was married to a princess, 559–556 BCE).122 He died after four years on the throne and in turn was succeeded by his son Labashi-Marduk (556 BCE), who ruled for, at most, three months. Labashi-Marduk was killed in a coup, led by a man named Bel-shar-usur. After forty-three years of stability, the Neo-Babylonian Empire had now spent more than six years in turmoil.

And this is where the political history in this chapter meets up with the tale of Adad-guppi, because Bel-shar-usur, the leader of the coup, was her grandson. He didn’t personally gain from overthrowing and executing Labashi-Marduk; instead he put his father Nabu-na’id on the throne. You may recognize this king better by the name that the Greeks later gave him: Nabonidus (556–539 BCE). His mother Adad-guppi was now ninety-five years old, according to her own reckoning. After a lifetime of service to the gods, she was suddenly the queen mother and finally in a position to have her dream realized: her son could authorize the creation of new statues of Sin and his divine family, and could commission the restoration of the Ehulhul temple in Harran.

King Nabonidus must have been at least sixty years old. It’s surprising that his son Bel-shar-usur (better known as the biblical Belshazzar) didn’t take the throne himself. He was probably in his thirties, a much more reasonable age for a new king. But Nabonidus claimed to have experienced a vivid dream in which Sin revealed that he was the one the gods wanted to be king. Dreams provided direct messages from the gods, as we have seen. “Sin called me to kingship,” he wrote in an inscription found in Harran. The kingship came with an order: “At midnight he (Sin) made me have a dream and said (in the dream) as follows: ‘Rebuild speedily Ehulhul, the temple of Sin in Harran, and I will hand over to you all the countries.’ ”123 His mother had a similar revelation, but in her telling, the elderly Nabonidus owed his position exclusively to her and her steadfast devotion to the god Sin. She wrote that “Sin, the king of the gods, looked with favor upon me and called Nabonidus, my only son, whom I bore, to kingship and entrusted him with the kingship of Sumer and Akkad, (also of) all the countries from the border of Egypt, on the Upper Sea, to the Lower Sea.”124

Once he was king, Nabonidus focused a lot of his attention on the gods, and especially on Adad-guppi’s patron god, Sin, just as she wanted. He set about the reconstruction of the Ehulhul temple in Harran and the re-creation of statues of the gods. Beaulieu has made the interesting point that the course of Nabonidus’s reign bore an uncanny resemblance to the ideal image of a king he would have encountered in the five canonical works from the school curriculum.125 He seems to have followed the advice of the literary versions of the kings, from Gilgamesh to Naram-Sin to Samsu-iluna, the supposed author of one of the letters the scribes studied. Naram-Sin advised in the mythical text to avoid warfare and live a contemplative life; Nabonidus did the same. He responded to the gods’ requests sent through dreams, as in one of the alleged letters between kings. And, as Samsu-iluna had requested in one of the fake letters, Nabonidus restored proper images of the gods to their rightful places and accused others (in his case the Babylonians) of misbehavior and desecration of the gods (in his case, the moon god Sin).126 His actions were often unpopular, but he may have felt that they were entirely in keeping with the behavior of kings in the past because he had learned these stories in school.

Adad-guppi’s Funeral

When Nabonidus had been on the throne for nine years, Adad-guppi finally died, at the age of 102. Before her death, another dream from Sin had reassured her that her life’s mission would be accomplished. “In a dream Sin, the king of all the gods, put his hands on me, saying: ‘The gods will return on account of you! I will entrust your son, Nabonidus, with the divine residence of Harran; he will restore and make Harran more (beautiful) than it was before! He will lead Sin, Ningal, Nusku, and Sadarnunna in solemn procession into the temple Ehulhul!’ ”127

What a life she had lived. From her days as a priestess in Harran, living in style and dressed in the finest of clothes, to witnessing the destruction of her city and of the gods she loved, to being deported to Babylon, to living as an ascetic in her new city, to taking an official position, and finally to seeing her son become king, it was a tale of grit and devotion. Was it true that Nabonidus became king because of her? It could be. He certainly felt absolutely compelled to restore the Ehulhul temple and its gods. And he gave her a funeral worthy of a woman of her power and influence. A postscript to her autobiography describes it. Nabonidus “laid her body to rest [wrapped in] fine [wool garments and] shining white linen. He deposited her body in a hidden tomb with splendid [ornaments] of gold [set with] beautiful stones . . . expensive stone beads, [containers with] scented oil.”128 In the last years of her life, she had certainly enjoyed all these luxuries, the same ones that she had given up for the gods during her early years in Babylon. She would continue to enjoy the use of them in the afterlife as well, content in the knowledge that Sin, “the king of the gods” (at least to her mind), would be receiving his appropriate recognition and veneration.

Her funeral lasted days. Nabonidus invited guests from across the empire to attend. For the first seven days they mourned, “heads hung low.” But after that, everyone present was provided with food and drink, fine oil, “chests with (new) attire,” and provisions for their journeys home. Everything seemed to be going just as the gods had willed.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!