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The city of Babylon remains as monumental in fame and infamy as it once was in size. In the ancient world it was the greatest of all capitals, renowned for its marvels; not only the hanging gardens but also its huge city wall (89 kilometres long, according to Herodotus, and wide enough for a four-horse chariot to do a U-turn) and the gigantic stone obelisk of Queen Semiramis featured on early lists of the Seven Wonders of the World. To seal its legendary status, Alexander the Great made it briefly the centre of his empire and died there in 323 BC.

Its darker reputation it owes to the Bible. It was by the waters of the Euphrates at Babylon that the Jewish captives brought back by King Nebuchadnezzar after the sack of Jerusalem in 587 BC sat down and wept; the Tower of Babel (Babylon) was raised and tumbled there; it was in Babylon that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were thrown into the fiery furnace; the divine finger that appeared during Belshazzar's Feast wrote its warning on a Babylonian wall; and above all it was the reviled, decadent city of the Book of Revelation: "Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth."

Neither fame nor infamy, however, was enough to save it. The city fell, not in a biblical cataclysm, but slowly drifting into the Mesopotamian sands as it was superseded by other cities and other civilisations after the Persian conquest of 539 BC. Its daunting buildings were mined for their inexhaustible supply of high-quality bricks that were reused in the local villages and in nearby Baghdad. The site faded from the record until archaeologists in the 19th century began to excavate it.

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