In October, 539 BC, in one of the most intriguing overthrows ever recorded, Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. It is a story of siege, military genius, attack by night and even treason. We are fortunate that two separate historians, Herodotus and Xenophon, recorded remnants of the story. We are also indebted to cuneiform records that both Cyrus and Babylonian scholars engraved in stone and to the biblical records in the books of 2 Chronicles, Daniel and Ezra. Bit by bit, a grand conquest is pieced together to reveal a most fascinating tale. A tale of a conqueror selected by the gods. A tale of a Babylonian king who dared to mock Yahweh, the one true God. A tale of a city of indescribable strength falling without a battle. A tale of God’s people set free. Join me as we witness the fall of Babylon.
the selection of a conqueror
Cyrus was a new kind of conqueror. Never had the world witnessed a victor who did not glory in violation. He didn’t rape, pillage or destroy. Instead, he released the commoners from the tyranny of their overlords, allowed them to worship their own gods and return to their chosen way of life. Because of this unique kindness Cyrus was known as the “friendly conqueror.”
More than a century before Cyrus was born the prophet Isaiah received a prophecy that named Cyrus as conqueror: “Who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd and will accomplish all that I please; he will say of Jerusalem, “Let it be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Let its foundations be laid.”’ This is what the Lord says to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armour, to open doors before him so that gates will not be shut” (Isaiah 44:28–45:1).
Cyrus was chosen by God, to set the Israelites free from bondage in Babylon, years before they were even taken captive. Yet, oddly enough, Yahweh is not the only god that is given credit for Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon. The priests of Marduk, the god of gods in the Babylonian pantheon, also wrote statements pertaining to Cyrus.
An inscription on the Cyrus Cylinder states that Nabonidus’ conduct offended Marduk and that the god searched through all the lands for a righteous ruler and, having found him,“Pronounced the name of Cyrus and declared him ruler of the world” (Larue, 72).
The selection process was complete. Cyrus was the one chosen to overthrow Babylon. But, how would the mighty walled city be taken?
strategy of attack
After conquering numerous other enemies, Cyrus faced his greatest challenge—the huge walled city, 24 square kilometres of Babylon. Xenophon records the following surmising of Cyrus, “But I am sure I cannot see how any one could take by storm, walls so massive and so high.”
Both Herodotus and Xenophon record that Cyrus resolved to lay siege on Babylon and wait until the people within the walls ran out of food. He was informed (perhaps by Gadatas and Gobryas—two defectors from Babylon) that the great city had more than 20 years of food supplies. Cyrus became frustrated, but then a plan came to him, perhaps from one of his advisers or perhaps from his own design. The walls were too thick to break. The gates were too strong. There was only one fathomable way to get in—the Euphrates River, which went through the middle of the city.
Years earlier, Babylon had been ruled by a queen named Nitocris. Because the city was bisected by the Euphrates River she wished to build a bridge from one side to the other in the middle of the city. In order to accomplish this goal, she first had to reduce the water level of the Euphrates enough to allow workmen to build the bridge. She devised a massive plan that would do the trick—an artificial lake far upriver into which the Euphrates could be diverted. It was done and the workmen were able to set the bridge’s foundation stones in the bed of the river.
The plan that came to Cyrus included a similar feat. The lake, now a marsh, having been closed off, would be reopened and the Persian army would wade into the city under the massive walls of Babylon. So Cyrus deployed half of his regiment to where the Euphrates entered the city and half to where it exited. He then took a small number of men to where the trench to the lake had, over the previous few weeks, been excavated and had them open the mouth of the trench into the Euphrates.
There was one fatal flaw in Cyrus’ plan. The walls of Babylon extended far upstream along the banks of the river. If the Babylonians witnessed the water level diminishing and saw the Persian army entering the river, they would gather along the walls and annihilate the Persians with a barrage of ammunition. Cyrus’ way of alleviating this problem was to wait for two important factors—darkness and drunkenness.
the night of attack
In the biblical book of Daniel an amazing story is recorded. Belshazzar threw a huge banquet for 1000 of his leading lords. Huge amounts of food and wine were consumed and the entire city was caught up in the celebration.
To demonstrate his power and security, despite the siege outside the city walls, Belshazzar called for the confiscated goblets from Yahweh’s temple in Jerusalem, had them filled with wine and joined with his lords, wives and concubines in drinking wine from these sacred vessels. Moments later a hand appeared and wrote on the wall. The message, “Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin,” was unintelligible to the leading scholars and astrologers in Babylon. The queen remembered Daniel and the way he had helped previous kings. Daniel was called in and, after berating Belshazzar for his blatant misuse of holy relics, he translated the handwriting on the wall:
“This is what these words mean: Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (Daniel 5:26-28).
Moments later, perhaps even while Daniel was explaining the divine message to the king, the Persian army waded under the walls and climbed the riverbank into the heart of Babylon. Thus, Cyrus’ men had no challenge to overcome in entering the great city.
Cyrus had given direct orders that none of the city folk were to be unduly harmed. The Babylonian traitors—Gadatas and Gobryas—led the army to the palace because they knew the city well. When they arrived, Belshazzar was killed while trying to defend himself.
A few days later, having completed the journey back from the lake, Cyrus entered Babylon and was greeted with open arms and much rejoicing by the Babylonian people. Liberation had arrived!
Every record referring to Cyrus’ interaction with subjected nations reveals a benevolent leader who held high the concerns of his new people.
And, as prophesied by Isaiah, Cyrus sent many Israelites back to Jerusalem with funds to rebuild the temple that had been decimated by Nebuchadnezzar. He also sent back the holy relics that had been stolen.
“However, in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, King Cyrus issued a decree to rebuild this house of God. He even removed from the temple of Babylon the gold and silver articles of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the temple in Jerusalem and brought to the temple in Babylon. Then King Cyrus gave them to a man named Sheshbazzar, whom he had appointed governor, and he told him, ‘Take these articles and go and deposit them in the temple in Jerusalem. And rebuild the house of God on its site.’ So this Sheshbazzar came and laid the foundations of the house of God in Jerusalem. From that day to the present it has been under construction but is not yet finished” (Ezra 5:13-16).
Babylon fell at the hand of Cyrus and his military cunning. Surely there is more to the story than we have access to today. Numerous records hold bits of the great conquest. While not all of the little details match up perfectly when comparing accounts, the major thrust is accurate: There was a Persian king named Cyrus and he overthrew Babylon without a fight.
From these various sources a great story is told. It is a story that reveals a man led by gods that he did not even claim to believe in—particularly the true God, Yahweh. It is a story that shows a king who thought differently from any leader before his time and saw the possibility of a kingdom of peace and freedom. It is a story that shows the fall of evil and the victory of good.
Babylon fell to an Old Testament parallel of the coming Conqueror—Jesus Christ. Much like Cyrus, Jesus has vanquished spiritual Babylon. Through His death we are set free.
Jesus allows His subjects to choose their own life path. He allows the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. He sets the captives free and rebuilds His holy temple in their hearts. He prepares for them a kingdom of peace and freedom. And one day, when Jesus enters today’s Babylon, those who are expecting Him will rejoice that their Liberator has come!
Herodotus, The Histories, Penguin Books, 1963.
Gerald A Larue, Babylon and the Bible, Baker Book House Company, 1969.
Xenophon, Cyropaedia, Vol 7, Harvard University Press, 1984. Translator: E C Marchant.