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Citation for Babylon

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"Babylon." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East. Ed. Eric M. Meyers, Evelyn Klengel-Brandt, Susan I. Schiedel. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. Jan 23, 2022. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/opr/t256/e120>.


"Babylon." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East. , edited by Eric M. Meyers, Evelyn Klengel-Brandt, Susan I. Schiedel. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/opr/t256/e120 (accessed Jan 23, 2022).


site located on the bank of one of the branches of the Euphrates River, 90 km (59 mi.) southwest of Baghdad, in modern Iraq (32°33′ N, 44°26′ E). Babylon, as the name of a city and as a cultural concept, was transmitted to European culture through the Hebrew Bible and Greek and Roman authors. Christian cultures have used the concept of the Tower of Babel and the story of its destruction as synonyms for human arrogance and the punishing hand of God. Interest in rediscovering Babylon was primarily awakened by the biblical stories, on which numerous artistic representations of the Tower of Babel were based. The name Babel was associated with a large hill in the northern part of the ruined city of Babylon. The hill always linked the site with biblical Babylon, although the identification of the tower was strongly contested.

The name Babylon is traced to babil(a), a pre-Euphrates name (i.e., neither Sumerian nor Akkadian) and is interpreted as a place name. The designation was understood in the Sumerian period as ká-dingirra, first attested for the Akkadian king Sharkalisharri (2217–2193 BCE), who mentions two temples in the city. Presumably, this Sumerian spelling was used as a folk etymology, just as the Semitic Bab-ili has been translated as “gate of God.” Beginning with the old Babylonian period, the spelling tintirki was also used. This probably had the same meaning as the other spellings or was a synonym. The spelling Babylon, still customary, was taken from the Greek name for the city.

History of Research.

Some Islamic authors preserved the memory of Babylon; however, they knew little more than the name and a few almost legendary events. The scholar Ibn Hawqal, who probably visited Babylon in the tenth century, described it as a small village. In Jewish tradition, Babylon was the city hostile to God in which the Jews had been held captive. These memories as well as an interest in the Jewish communities still living there brought Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela to Babylon twice, between 1160 and 1173 (M. N. Adler, ed., The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela, London, 1907). He, like most later travelers, was primarily interested in the site of the tower described in the Bible. He mentions the ruins of the palace of Nebuchadrezzar and identified the tower ruins at Birs Nimrud/Borsippa as the biblical tower. Between 1573 and 1576, the German physician Leonard Rauwolff visited Babylon and described conditions there (Rauwolff, Itinerarium oder Raysbüchlein, Lauingen, 1583); ruins in ῾Aqar Quf (actually ancient Dur Kurigalzu) were the remains of the tower. [See ῾Aqar Quf.]

Toward the end of the sixteenth century, John Eldred, a merchant, who had a similar interpretation, described the tower (probably ῾Aqar Quf) and its construction (see R. Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation, London, 1589). The earliest detailed investigation was carried out by the Italian noble Pietro della Valle, who went to Babylon In 1616 while traveling in the Near East (Viaggi, Brighton, 1843). He considered the ruins of Babel to be the tower and provided measurements and a description. Della Valle brought the first bricks inscribed with cuneiform writing from Babylon and Ur to Europe, but they provoked no interest. When the famous traveler Carsten Niebuhr visited Babylon In 1765, he was prepared for the city by the reports of Herodotus, and expected that the city covered a huge area. He therefore believed that the ruins in Borsippa were the Babylonian tower (Niebuhr, Reisebeschreibungen nach Arabien und andern umliegenden Ländern, Copenhagen, 1774).

Of later travelers, only a few will be mentioned here. Abbé de Beauchamp, the papal vicar general who went to Babylon In 1780 and 1790, reported on the wholesale looting of baked bricks by the inhabitants of the surrounding areas (J. de Beauchamp, “Voyage de Bagdad à Bassora le long de l'Euphrate,” Journal des Scavans, Paris, 1785; “Mémoire sur les Antiquités Babyloniennes qui se trouvent aux environs de Bagdad,” Journal des Scavans, Paris, 1790). Local inhabitants described how walls with pictures made from glazed bricks as well as statues had been discovered during the looting. Beauchamp noted the existence of massive inscribed cylinders but was unable to obtain one. He dated the coins found in Babylon according to comparisons with examples from the Parthian period. With respect to identifying the Babylonian tower, he debated between the ruins of Babel and Borsippa. A resident of the East India Company, Hartford Jones Bridge, who visited Babylon briefly, succeeded in obtaining several bricks and the large stone inscription of Nebuchadrezzar II that became known as the East India House inscription.

Claudius James Rich, who knew Near Eastern languages and was interested in the cultures of antiquity, was in Baghdad as a resident of the East India Company. Beginning In 1811, he undertook the first systematic investigation of the area of the ruins, took measurements, and presented the results of his investigations in Memoir on the Ruins of Babylon (3d ed., London, 1818), which also contained drawings and plans. In this work, he describes the still visible walls of the city as well as the ruins on the individual hills, which he calls by their Arabic names. In his search for the Babylonian tower, he investigated the ruins of Babel, which was also called Mudshelibe by the inhabitants. There he discovered burials with small objects. Noteworthy among the objects he took back to England were some cylinder seals, now in the British Museum.

The English painter Robert Ker Porter went to Babylon In 1818 and was quite enchanted with its ruins. In a book that was very well received by the British public, he wrote about his impressions and illustrated them with romantic views of the ruins. He too was searching for the Babylonian tower, which he identified with Birs Nimrud. Like many of his predecessors, Porter adopted Herodotus's estimate of the city's size. In an area of the ruins at Kasr that contained pillars, scientist J. S. Buckingham believed that he had found the remains of the hanging gardens described by Greek authors. In the following years there was a considerable increase in knowledge concerning the ruins of Babylon. An officer employed by the East India Company, Robert Mignan, carried out some small excavations in Babylon, in the course of which he was able, among other things, to find an inscribed clay cylinder in situ. The English geologist William Kennett Loftus, who later became known for his excavations at Uruk/Warka and Kutalla/Tell Sifr, began his work in Babylon In 1849. However, he soon came to consider the work futile, rejecting the identification of individual mounds with buildings mentioned by Herodotus.

After Paul Émile Botta and Austen Henry Layard had initiated the first genuine excavations in northern Mesopotamia, the latter went to Babylon, In 1850, to begin archaeological investigations there. He began digging the mound of Babel where he found many, probably late, burials. He was unable to establish a clear picture of the construction in the huge ruins and uncovered only insignificant small objects. The situation was similar at the hill of Kasr, which the inhabitants of the villages had already thoroughly searched for baked bricks. Layard described the fragments of glazed bricks he discovered without recognizing their significance, and he mentioned the monumental basalt lion that had already been noted by other visitors. In the course of his investigations on the mound of Amran ibn Ali, he discovered some clay bowls with Aramaic inscriptions that he considered to be the work of the Jews taken to Babylon. Because of the paucity of the results, Layard soon decided to end his investigations. A collection of antiquities, mostly seals and inscriptions, found its way into the British Museum through Layard. [See the biography of Layard.]

A larger expedition under the leadership of the Frenchman Fulgence Fresnel, together with the Assyriologist Jules Oppert, arrived in Babylon In 1852. They found numerous inscriptions, especially on bricks. They were interested in the glazed and relief-bearing fragments of bricks in Kasr and tried to explain them. Fresnel and Oppert believed that the remains of the “hanging gardens” were hidden in the hill of Amran ibn Ali and that the mound of Babel was the grave of Belus (Bel, “Lord,” was a title used for the highest god, Marduk). Oppert also busied himself with the mound of Homera, without, however, recognizing its significance (i.e., that the remains of ancient buildings might be from the Tower of Babel). His excavations of the ancient pier on the Euphrates, which he identified through the inscriptions of Nabonidus, were important. In 1853, using trigonometric measurements and observations, Oppert published the first relatively detailed map of Babylon. For the most part, the small objects the expedition discovered were lost while being transported on the Euphrates.

Following a brief excavation In 1854 by the diplomat and orientalist Henry Creswick Rawlinson and his assistant George Smith, the British Museum commissioned Hormuzd Rassam, a sometime British vice-consul from Mosul, who served as an assistant to Layard, to reopen excavations in Babylon In 1876. The agreement included the transfer of the finds to England. Rassam arranged with the Arabs who were digging for bricks and antiquities in the ruins that he would pay them for all significant finds. In the course of his excavations, numerous clay tablets came to light, including business contracts of the house of Egibi and a clay cylinder concerning the capture of Babylon by Cyrus of Persia. Rassam also investigated the portion of Babylon lying on the left bank of the Euphrates where he found a series of cuneiform tablets. The plundering of the ruins of Babylon continued to increase; in addition to the baked bricks, the locals also took stone monuments, which they burned for gypsum. In 1887 the British Museum sent Wallis Budge, who later was keeper of Egyptian and Western Asiatic Antiquities at the museum, to Babylon to seek an end to this practice. He reached an agreement with some of the native dealers, according to which all the clay tablets, seals, and significant small objects found were to be sold to the British Museum (the extraction of bricks would be tolerated). The destruction of the ruins did not end, however, and many important buildings were so thoroughly destroyed it was later impossible to identify their ground plans.


In 1897–1898 a group of German researchers was sent to Mesopotamia to find a ruined site suitable for excavation. One of the members of the group was Robert Koldewey, to whom the direction of the excavation in Babylon was finally entrusted. From 1899 to 1914, the German excavations were carried out year-round with a smali team, among whose members were Walter Andrae, Friedrich Wetzel, Oscar Reuther, and Georg Buddensieg. Some of the excavations goals were to uncover the city plan, to investigate Babylonian architecture, and to identify definitively the Babylonian tower (the Tower of Babel). [See the biographies of Koldewey and Andrae.]

One primary result of the excavation was the exposure of the layers of the Neo-Babylonian period, which document the time of Nebuchadrezzar and his dynasty. Because of the high level of the groundwater, the deeper layers of the Old Babylonian period could be reached only rarely. The periods of Achaemenid, Seleucid, and Parthian settlement were verified partially through excavation and by means of numerous surface finds. The plan in the Neo-Babylonian period reveals how strongly fortified the city was, with an outer ring of walls altogether 18 km (11 mi.) long. The fortifications consisted of an inner and an outer circuit of walls made of baked bricks and supplemented by a strong embankment and a moat. Herodotus had mentioned the unusual thickness of the walls and their circumference, which he gave as 120 stadia long (about 95 km or 59 mi.)—this contributed to many later errors in interpretation. The outer wall includes Nebuchadrezzar's summer palace, which covers the northern part of the mound of Babel. The inner circuit of walls forms a wide rectangle whose perimeter is 8,150 m; the Euphrates divides it into unequal halves.


BABYLON. Figure 1. Reconstruction of the Ishtar Gate of Nebuchadrezzar II. Pergamon Museum, Berlin. (Foto Marburg/Art Resource, NY)

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BABYLON. Figure 2. Detail of an enameled tile and ceramic brick bull from the Ishtar gate. Period of Nebuchadrezzar II, 605–562 BCE. (Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY)

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It has been shown from inscriptions that the construction of the city walls dates back at least to the Neo-Assyrian period. Eight of its gates were located and partially excavated. Most of them are known by name on the basis of descriptions of the city transmitted in cuneiform. The network of streets was laid out in accordance with the wind directions (northeast, northwest, southeast, southwest). The most famous of the city's gates, because of its relief decoration in brick, is the Ishtar Gate, which has been partially reconstructed in the Vorderasiatisches Museum in Berlin (see figure 1). In this powerful double gate, reinforced with bastions, a number of construction phases could be demonstrated, all of which probably belong to the Neo-Babylonian period. They are distinguished by the techniques used to decorate the walls. The first phase is decorated with figures of animals molded in relief in unglazed brick; the second has figures formed by glazed brick that are not in relief. The third construction phase, raised 15 m above the surrounding area on an embankment, is decorated with glazed figures of snakelike dragons (mušḫuššu) and bulls molded in relief (see figure 2).

A processional avenue about 250 m long and 20–24 m wide, coming from the north, led to the Ishtar Gate. The street was surrounded on both sides by high walls that delimited an outlying fortress on the east and the so-called citadel of Nebuchadrezzar on the west. The lower portion of the wall is decorated with glazed brick molded in relief that depicts lions surrounded by rosettes. According to an inscription, the citadel situated north of the city wall was constructed during the reign of Nebuchadrezzar. The citadel complex and the processional avenue were both set on a 15-meter embankment. A series of older sculptures that did not originate in Babylon was found in the citadel, alongwith other artifacts, leading to the suggestion (now considered doubtful) that the rooms were a museum. The southern citadel lying inside the fortification walls dates back in part to the time of the Assyrian domination. It consisted of five large courtyard complexes that had served official and residential purposes. The throne room in the third courtyard had a 56-meter-long frontage decorated with stylized trees of life, rosettes, and a lion frieze of glazed bricks.

The center of Babylon was formed by the temple precinct Esagila, which contained the cult rooms of the chief god Marduk, of his wife, of Ea (god of water, wisdom) and Nabu (god of the scribal craft), and of other gods and goddesses. This precinct, which lies under the mound of Amran ibn Ali, was covered by more than 15 m of sand and rubble, so that only portions of it could be opened through tunneling. The temple precinct Etemenanki, lying to the north and surrounded by a temenos, houses the remains of the Babylonian tower, which had been sought for centuries. It was not until 1913 that the excavators, thanks to the low groundwater level at the time, succeeded in finding the building's mud-brick core, which was preserved to a height of only a few meters. The entire 15-meter-thick baked-brick facing had been looted. The tower itself, as the literary sources testify, had been torn down in the time of Alexander the Great with the intention of rebuilding it. It could be shown that the tower had covered a surface area of 91.48 × 91.66 m; it had consisted of six steps, each one set back from the one below it; on the top, as the seventh step, stood a high temple to the cult of Marduk. A monumental open staircase (51.61 m high and 9.35 m wide) and two side stairways led up the south side. The processional avenue coming from the Ishtar Gate, which was specially decorated for the ceremonial parade during the new year's celebration, ran to the southern corner of Etemenanki and then curved in the direction of the Euphrates, where a bridge (123 m long) crossed the river. Seven of its walled piers were documented. A few temples, including the Ninmaḫ Temple and the Ishtar Temple, were located in the city area and excavated. In the course of the reconstruction of the ruins of Babylon by the Iraqi Antiquities Administration, the temple of Nabu sa hare, which borders on the Etemenanki precinct and contained a large library, was uncovered In 1978.

Architectural History.

A description of the city of Babylon was compiled toward the end of the twelfth century BCE. Transmitted on numerous clay tablets it gives the names of ten city districts, eight gates, and at least fifty-three temples, as well as of numerous shrines and other buildings. Only a small number of these could be located and excavated. The history of the earlier settlements at Babylon is largely obscure and can almost only be reconstructed from literary sources. Sargon of Akkad is said to have destroyed Babylon in about 2340 BCE; two of its temples are known from the time of Sharkalisharri (c. 2270 BCE). Šulgi of Ur (2094–2047 BCE) carried off booty from Esagila during the course of a conquest of Babylon, which is so far the earliest mention of this temple.

The rise of Babylon, which also brought great architectural changes, began with the Amorite dynasty at the beginning of the second millennium BCE. Excavations in the ruins of the Merkes (inner city) uncovered several residential buildings, from which Old Babylonian documents were recovered. The year names of the kings of Babylon give evidence of the existence of city walls, gates, a cloister district, and numerous temples, among them Esagila, as well as temples for Ishtar, Adad, Shamash, Nanna, Enlil, Marduk, and other gods and goddesses. The center of Old Babylonian Babylon was surrounded by walls and was concentrated in the inner city; additional districts, among them the so-called eastern new city, were annexed.

Very little is known about the appearance of the city of Babylon during the time of the Kassite domination. Archaeological investigations were concentrated on some private houses and graves. The description in the texts of Tintir gives the impression that the general layout of the city seems to have been similar to that of later periods. The statue of Marduk that stood in the temple of Esagila was removed from Babylon as war booty and recaptured several times, first going to Ḫana in Syria, then to Aššur, and later to Susa. Opinions vary as to whether there was already a temple tower (or ziggurat) in the Old Babylonian period. Its earliest mention in a historical inscription, that of Sennacherib, who conquered Babylon In 689 BCE, says that he destroyed Esagila and the temple tower. The reconstruction of the holy structures followed under Esarhaddon (680–669 BCE) and Ashurbanipal (668–626 BCE). Presumably, the mud-brick core of the ziggurat dates from this period. Nabopolassar (625–605 BCE) and Nebuchadrezzar (605–562 BCE) completed the work.

After the conquest of Babylon by the Persian king Cyrus II In 539 BCE, the city was elevated to a royal residence; the royal fortresses were rebuilt as citadels, and under Artaxerxes II (404–359 BCE) an apadanalike pillared building with colorful decorative brickwork was constructed there in addition to a palace for the crown prince. Even the summer palace continued to be used up until the time of Alexander the Great. After a number of revolts, the city walls were razed and various buildings destroyed. In scientific research it was assumed over the years that Xerxes (485–465 BCE) had torn down the main staircase of the tower and destroyed the statue of Marduk; probably the Euphrates also changed its course at that time and flowed through the residential section of the city in a large curve. These assumptions were based on the descriptions of Herodotus. Recently, however, scholars have published many arguments against this thesis and it is doubtful that Herodotus really did visit Babylon and described his own impressions. Herodotus had written about the hanging gardens, which Robert Koldewey located on the northeast corner of the great southern palace (this identification also seems doubtful; today scholars propose that the gardens were located not in Babylon but in Nineveh). As noted above, Herodotus also gave an exaggerated depiction of the length and breadth of the city walls, which are also doubtful.

In 331, Alexander the Great entered Babylon as conqueror and wanted to make it the capital of his world empire. He provided for the care of the traditional holy sites and planned to rebuild the dilapidated tower. The entire upper part of the construction was pulled down and the rubble transported to the northeast of Etemenanki, where construction was begun on a Greek theater made from decorated bricks; this construction was continued in the Seleucid period. The holy area, Esagila, was cared for as the stronghold of the tradition; the summer palace and the citadel continued to be inhabited. To judge from the small objects found, parts of the city remained thickly settled and kept their Near Eastern character.

The conquest by Mithridates I (171–138 BCE) was the start of the three-hundred-year Parthian domination of Babylon, during which the city gradually declined. Nevertheless, the Greek theater was remodeled, Nebuchadrezzar's summer palace was transformed into a fortress complex, and residential houses were built on the citadel. With the founding of Seleucia, Babylon lost some of its importance; buildings in the residential sector were simple and poor. During the visits of the Roman emperors Trajan (115 CE) and Septimius Severus (199 CE), Babylon seems to have been deserted. During the time of the Sasanian domination, Babylon is said to have still been a residence and to have had a city wall, something yet to be proven. From written records from the ninth and tenth centuries it is known that Babylon was a provincial capital and that the administrative district bore the name Babel.


Significant large sculptures from Babylon are attested only in fragments. In addition to monuments from Mari (statues of princes), from Ḫalab/Aleppo (weather god stela), and Suhi (reliefs), which came to light in the so-called museum in the citadel, is the monumental statue of a lion standing over a man (rediscovered by de Beauchamp In 1784; see above), whose date and origin are debated. Valuable small finds came from graves from all settlement periods. Ceramics and pottery make up the largest body of finds, and these serve primarily to illustrate daily life. In addition to building inscriptions on bricks and cylinders, thousands of commercial and legal inscriptions have been found, as well as all sorts of historical, cultural, and astronomical inscriptions that date all the way into Babylon's late period (early second millennium BCE to third/fourth century CE). Much about Babylon can be gleamed from cuneiform inscriptions from other regions, as well as from texts written in Aramaic, Persian, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Babylon was more than a city or a state; it was a cultural center of the ancient Near East, a religious center, and a scientific center whose influence reached Europe.

[See also Babylonians; and Mesopotamia, article on Ancient Mesopotamia.]


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Evelyn Klengel-BrandtTranslated from German by Susan I. Schiedel

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