The 4,300-year-old city of Babylon has been named a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO committee. The ancient city in modern-day Iraq is now mainly an archaeological ruin. But since the earliest days of settled human civilization, dynasties have risen and fallen in the city on the Euphrates River.
King Hammurabi wrote his famous code of laws in Babylon. In fulfillment of God’s prophecy, Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar sent his vast army to Jerusalem to bring the Jews back as slaves.
Some say Alexander the Great, who conquered most of the known world, died in Babylon in 332 B.C.
Dozens of Iraqis gathered at the Ishtar Gate to celebrate their city’s new status. The blue-enameled brick structure was the main entrance into Babylon. It was dedicated to Ishtar, the region’s pagan goddess of fertility and war.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee is organized by the United Nations. It exists to preserve examples of human culture that have made significant contributions in education, science, art, and the advancement of civilization. The vote to include Babylon in the World Heritage Site list came years after the Islamic State group damaged numerous historical sites in Iraq. Those included the cities of Hatra, Nimrud, and Mosul—which stood near Ninevah of the biblical book of Jonah.
Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi described the vote as a victory for Iraq’s historical impact. He referred to his nation’s ancient civilizations as “a lighthouse to the world.” It is true that Babylon was renowned for its cultural contributions—especially in art and architecture. But in the Bible, Babylon is remembered both literally and symbolically as the seat of God’s enemies.
The same culture that produced the Hanging Gardens—one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—also violently pursued the Israelites. The Assyrians intended to wipe God’s people from the face of the Earth. The Babylonians took them into captivity. The same culture worshiped many false gods. It built structures to appease those gods and to glorify mankind.
UNESCO stated that Babylon’s “outer and inner-city walls, gates, palaces, and temples are a unique testimony to one of the most influential empires of the ancient world.”
That is worth remembering. But the most influential empire the world has known is one of a suffering servant-king, who puts His enemies under His feet. He calls His faithful from every nation using Babylon as an example of the unholy life believers must reject. “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.” (Revelation 18:4-5)
Iraq in the Bible
The United Nations is drawing attention to the historic ruins of ancient Babylon. Just look at all the other history that took place in what is now Iraq:
• The Garden of Eden was perfect for the world’s first people, Adam and Eve. (Genesis 2:8-14) Some scholars think the Garden of Eden was located in what is now the southeastern tip of Iraq. They guess this based on the rivers named in the Bible which flowed from Eden.
• The Tower of Babel glorified man, not God. Genesis 11:1-8 says the tower was made of bricks and tar on a plain in Shinar. That was between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, below the modern city of Baghdad. The site of the tower has never been found. But digs have uncovered other towers built of brick and tar. Some were temples dedicated to false gods.
• Genesis 11:27-32 tells us that Abraham was born in Ur around 2166 B.C. The ancient city of Ur was located on the Euphrates River in what is now southern Iraq. Its ruins can be found near the modern-day city of Nasiriyah. Ur was an important city in Sumerian civilization.
• Rebekah, wife of Isaac, was from Nahor. In Genesis 24, Abraham sends his chief servant to go to his home country, Ur, to find a wife for his son. While there’s no way of knowing for certain, it is likely that Rebekah came from what is now Iraq.
• God sent Jonah to preach to Nineveh in about 785 B.C. Nineveh was in today’s northern Iraq. Since the mid-1800s, archaeologists have been digging in its ruins. Nineveh was on the east side of the Tigris River near modern-day Mosul. In Jonah’s time, Nineveh was the most important city in Assyria.
• The northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. This was a punishment for breaking a covenant with the Lord. (2 Kings 18:11-12) Those conquests started in 740 B.C. They lasted 20 years. At that time, the Assyrian Empire was centered in what is now Iraq. Assyrians controlled what we now know as the Middle East. Israel’s northern tribes were taken into captivity. They never returned to Israel.
• In 605 B.C., the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, captured Jehoiakim, king of Judah. Judah was the southern kingdom of Israel. Jehoiakim was taken to Babylon. So were others, including Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. The stories found in the book of Daniel—the lions’ den, the fiery furnace, and the handwriting on the wall—all took place in Babylon. The remains of Babylon are in Al Hillah, Iraq, about 55 miles south of Baghdad.
• The prophet Ezekiel was taken captive in Babylon in 597 B.C. While in Babylon, he told of God’s judgment on Israel. He also offered hope. He said the exiles would someday return to Judah. This prophecy came true in 539 B.C. when Babylon was conquered by Persia. Exiles began returning to Judah the following year.
• The Bible tells us only that wise men came “from the east.” (Matthew 2:1) They may have come from the area that now makes up Iraq. If they came from somewhere farther east, such as Persia, they might have traveled through what is now Iraq on their way.