As published in Strata in the July/August 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review
While the Cyrus Cylinder has been making its rounds on an international exhibition circuit,a another cylinder of a famous Mesopotamian emperor has recently been brought to the public eye. One of Nebuchadnezzar’s cuneiform cylinders was auctioned off on April 9, 2014, by Doyle New York, Auctioneers and Appraisers for $605,000. The purchaser of the cylinder has requested to remain anonymous. Unfortunately, his anonymity may make it difficult for further scholarly study of the text.
BAR readers are familiar with the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar (technically, the neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II), who infamously destroyed the First Temple and carried the Judahites in exile to Babylon. In the Book of Daniel, the Jewish seer Daniel interprets the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2; 4:1–27), and it is this same Nebuchadnezzar who throws Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the fiery furnace for refusing to bow to the golden statue that he set up (Daniel 3).
The 8.25-by-3.25-inch cylinder that was recently auctioned details how Nebuchadnezzar restored and rebuilt several temples in the city of Sippar, 37 miles north of Babylon. One was the temple of Sippar’s patron deity, the sun god Shamash who was the god of justice. The other was the temple of Ninkarrak, the goddess of healing.
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Nebuchadnezzar describes how he searched among the ruins of Shamash’s temple, which was named E-barra (also E-babbara), and found the old cornerstone, over which he constructed the new temple:
E-barra, the radiant abode of the gods, the dwelling place of Shamash, the Judge, which had long ago fallen into disrepair in Sippar; which no previous king had built, Shamash the Lord ordered me, the Ruler, His favorite, to rebuild. I found its old cornerstone and took notice of it. Over its old cornerstone I laid its foundation. I erected E-barra as it was of yore and completed it. I caused it to shine like the bright day.
Sippar was an old city with a long history; it had been occupied as early as the Uruk period in the fourth millennium B.C.E.—more than 2,000 years before Nebuchadnezzar ascended the throne in Babylon! It was revered as a cult center— one of the oldest and most important in all Mesopotamia.
To show their loyalty to Sumerian—and then Babylonian—culture and religion, kings would improve and rebuild the sacred temples of Sippar.
Why was it important for Nebuchadnezzar to show loyalty to Babylonian culture and religion? He was Babylonian after all, wasn’t he?
Although he was a king of the neo-Babylonian empire, Nebuchadnezzar II was actually Chaldean. Even in the Bible, Nebuchadnezzar is identified as “the Chaldean” (Ezra 5:12).
As Bill T. Arnold explains,b in the days of Nebuchadnezzar, southern Babylonia was not a single, homogenous ethnicity but rather was composed, in addition to the native Babylonians, of Arameans and Chaldeans. The native Babylonians (or Akkadians) were “native only in that they had not recently migrated to southern Mesopotamia,” whereas both the Arameans and the Chaldeans were newer transplants. Both the Arameans and Chaldeans were West Semitic peoples who had moved into southern Babylonia only at the beginning of the first millennium B.C.E.
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In the ninth century B.C.E., the Neo-Assyrian empire led by Shalmaneser III conquered Babylonia. In the eighth century, a Chaldean came to the throne in Babylonia in resistance to Assyrian rule. While his reign was short-lived, it set the stage for the Neo-Babylonian empire (also called the Chaldean Dynasty), which was established by Nebuchadnezzar’s father, Nabopolassar, in the seventh century. Under Nabopolassar’s leadership, the Babylonians successfully toppled Assyrian rule.
Nebuchadnezzar’s reign was marked by extensive construction projects—as was his father’s reign—primarily in the public realm: fortifications, streets, temples, etc. He is especially famous for constructing the Ishtar Gate and for building a bridge that spanned the Euphrates, connecting both sides of Babylon. As the cylinder indicates, he also spent considerable resources to rebuild cult centers in Babylonia, like Sippar.
By doing this, not only was Nebuchadnezzar proving himself a Babylonian king, but he was also building a united Babylonian empire. Arnold explains, “Without doubt, the early motivation for such rebuilding was the need to unify all Babylonia administratively and religiously.” These elaborate construction projects would bring the Chaldeans, Arameans and native Babylonians together into a cohesive empire.
“Strata: Nebuchadnezzar Cylinder Goes for $605,000!” originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
a. Strata: Exhibit Watch: “Cyrus Cylinder Begins American Tour,” BAR, May/June 2013; “The First Declaration of Human Rights: The Cyrus Cylinder,” sidebar to David Ussishkin, “Big City, Few People,” BAR, July/August 2005.
b. See Bill T. Arnold, “Nebuchadnezzar & Solomon: Parallel Lives Illuminate History,” BAR, January/February 2007.
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