The celebration of Sin, the move to Arabia, the emphasis on the relationship between Syria and Babylonia, are all elements aimed at pleasing the ‘audience’ in Harran, but difficult to accept in Babylonia.
‘The operation of Sin, greatest of the gods and goddesses, nobody knows it, since from distant days it came not down to the land, wherefore the people of the land saw it indeed, but wrote it not on a tablet and set it not down for days to come: that you, Sin, lord of the gods and goddesses, dwellers of the heavens, came from the heavens in front of me, Nabonidus king of Babylon. I, Nabonidus, the lonely one, who have not the honour of being a somebody, and kingship is not within me, but the gods and goddesses prayed for me, and Sin called me to the kingship. In the ninth season he caused me to behold a dream saying this: “Quickly restore the E-hul-hul, the temple of Sin in Harran, and I shah give you all the lands.”
But the sons of Babylon, Borsippa, Nippur, Ur, Uruk, Larsa, the administrators and inhabitants of the Babylonian cities, acted wickedly and offended his divinity, they knew not the terrible wrath of the Moon-god, king of the gods. They disregarded his rituals and dedicated themselves to impious and disloyal discourses. Like dogs, they devoured one another, they brought fever and famine in the midst of them. He (Sin) decimated the people in the land, he made me leave my city of Babylon, and led me to Tayma, Dadanu, Padakku, Hibra, Yadihu, as far as Yatribu. Ten years I went about amongst them, and did not enter my city Babylon.
At the word of Sin, king of the gods, lord of the lords of the gods and goddesses, dwellers of the heavens, they accomplished the word of the Moon-god, Sin, and made Shamash, Ishtar, Adad, and Nergal guard my safety and life. In a single year, in the month of Nisan and the month of Teshrit, the people of Babylonia and of Syria the produce of the plains and of the sea received. In all those years without ceasing, Adad, lockkeeper of heavens and the netherworld, at the command of Sin waters of rain gave them to drink, even in the rigour of summer, in the months of Sivan, Tammuz, Ab, Elul, and Teshrit, so that they brought their property and possessions in peace before me.
At the word of Sin, Ishtar, lady of battle, without whom hostility and peace exist not in the land, and a weapon is not forged, placed her hand over them (the Babylonians); the king of Egypt, the Medes, the lands of the Arabs, and all hostile kings, for peace and good relations sent messengers before me. Regarding the Arabs [eternal enemies] (?) of Babylonia, ever ready to plunder and capture its wealth, at the word of Sin, Nergal shattered their weapons and all of them he bowed down at my feet. Shamash, lord of the oracle, without whom a mouth is not opened and a mouth is not shut, accomplishing the command of the Moon-god, the father who created him, made the people of Babylonia and Syria, whom he had committed to my hands, (to be) of true mouth and heart with me, so that they kept guard for me, they accomplished my command in the seclusion of tracts far distant and roads secluded which I travelled.
After ten years the appointed time arrived on the day in which the king of the gods, the Moon-god, had predicted, namely, the seventeenth day of the month of Teshrit, (the day) which is called the ‘day in which Sin is favourable’. (A hymn to Sin follows.)
Before that day, my consultations with the diviner and dream interpreter never ceased, but wherever I slept, my dreams were confusing; until the word became true, the time arrived, the right moment predicted by Sin arrived. Then, I sent a messenger from Tayma to Babylon, my seat of lordship. When they saw him, the Babylonians brought gifts and offerings before him; the kings of the neighbouring lands came up and kissed my feet, and those far away heard it, and feared his great godhead. The gods and goddesses who had escaped (from Babylon) returned back and brought their blessings. In the oracle of the diviner the organs were disposed favourably for me.
I made my subjects as far as the most distant lands live in wealth and abundance, and I took the road to my own land. The word of his great godhead I observed, without being negligent: I let summon the peoples of
Babylonia and Syria, from the border of Egypt on the Upper Sea as far as the Lower Sea, whom Sin, king of the gods, had committed to my hands. The E-hul-hul temple of Sin anew I built, I finished its work. I led in procession Sin, Ningal, Nusku, and Sadarnunna from Shuanna (Babylon), my royal city, and with joy and gladness I made them enter (the E-hul-hul) and dwell in their lasting sanctuary. Generous libations before them I poured out and I multiplied gifts. Thus, I filled the E-hul-hul with joy and brought pleasure to the heart of its (priestly) personnel. I accomplished the command of Sin, king of the gods, lord of lords, dwelling in the heavens, whose name surpasses that of the other gods in heaven: of Shamash, who is his brightest (peer), of Nusku, Ishtar, Adad, and Nergal, who accomplished the command of the Moon-god, their surpasser.’
The Babylonian priesthood presents a different point of view in a text written at the time of Cyrus, when Nabonidus was already defeated. This text summarises all the complaints against the Babylonian king. In essence, the text was an apologetic statement of the conqueror of Babylon, Cyrus, and an accusation against the overthrown king Nabonidus. The accusations are mainly religious and cultic, focusing on the introduction of Sin’s cult and divine image, which were not part of the Babylonian tradition and were described as grotesque. Nabonidus was accused of having failed to celebrate the New Year festival in Babylon because he was too busy restoring the E-hul-hul. He was also accused of being an ignorant king unable to read, write, or understand rituals, and of interpreting omens the way he wanted. Moreover, the text provides a political accusation, namely, that he had abandoned Babylon to rule from Tayma, in Arabia. In Tayma, Nabonidus allegedly killed its king and citizens and rebuilt the city almost as a rival Babylon.
If the first years of Nabonidus’ reign were spent consolidating his power in the centre and restoring temples, in the following ten years the king indeed moved to Arabia (551—541 bc). He left his son Bel-shar-usur (the biblical Belshazzar) to rule in Babylon. The move to Arabia coincides with Cyrus’ victory over Astyages, marking the transition from Median to Persian rule. It is therefore possible that Nabonidus’ move was a reasonable reaction to this political change. It has been suggested that this move to Arabia was meant to mobilise the western half of the empire (Aramean and Assyrian) with the addition of an Arabian component. This was necessary because the eastern half of the empire (the Babylonian and Chaldean half) was unreliable due to the above-mentioned religious problems. It has also been suggested that the transfer of the court to Tayma constituted a more secure position than Babylon. However, if these were Nabonidus’ intentions, they completely failed. On the eve of Cyrus’ attack, Nabonidus had to return to Babylonia. He was forced to (rather ineffectively) resist the attack with Babylonian troops and not with the (rather utopic) Aramean and Arabian forces of the west.
It is clear that Nabonidus’ transfer to Tayma marked a separation of the king from Babylon and Mar-duk’s cult, and it was seen as such by the Babylonians themselves. The king may have followed a religious path that remains unknown to us, but he clearly showed an attention towards the political and economic rise of Arabia. The latter had previously played a marginal role in the Near East and was considered a land of elusive nomads. Nabonidus found several thriving cities in the Hejaz, from Tayma itself (where current excavations have shown its remarkable size) to Dedan, Khaybar and Yathrib (Muhammad’s Medina). All these centres were ruled by local kings and had a stable population. These cities were important for the control of caravans travelling from Yemen to Syria. Nabonidus therefore made sure to control a substantial section of this journey, expanding close to the Yemenite centres and eliminating intermediaries. In this sense, Nabonidus’ move, far from being an anti-Persian defensive strategy, appears as an active strategy in the opposite direction. In other words, it appears that Nabonidus underestimated the gravity of the developments taking place in the north, focusing instead on expanding towards the south.
When indicating the many years that the king stayed in Tayma, the Babylonian Chronicle implicitly emphasised the fact that the New Year festival was not celebrated. Unsurprisingly, then, as soon as the king returned to Babylon (in his seventeenth regnal year), his first concern was to celebrate the festival. However, the situation quickly deteriorated: the Persians, who in the previous years made several efforts towards expansion, intervened once again. Ugbaru (Gobryas in Greek), governor of Gutium (the chronicle here uses an archaic term), led the Persian troops and won a battle in Opis, at the Tigris crossing. Without encountering any opposition, he then conquered Sippar and Babylon. Soon after the conquest, Cyrus arrived and was welcomed as a liberator, while Nabonidus was captured. The king’s most visible intervention in Babylon was predominantly cultic. It is attested both in the chronicle and the Cyrus Cylinder (mentioned above). Despite the fact that the invading ‘Gutians’ (namely, the Persians) entered the Esagila, they did so unarmed and did not interrupt the ritual calendar of the city. Cyrus proclaimed that he followed Marduk’s will, acting as the restorer of those traditional cults that Nabonidus had subverted. Babylon was neither destroyed nor sacked, but was only annexed to the rising Persian empire, becoming one of its main centres. The end of an entire world thus happened with a sense of continuity and great care in concealing the progressive loss of status of the city whose decline in power would only become evident later on.