Archaeologists from the Saudi Heritage Commission discovered a remarkable ancient artifact while exploring a fertile archaeological site in northwestern Saudi Arabia, the Commission has announced . While walking through ruins near Al Hait, which is located in the Hail region, they found a basalt stone face that had been inscribed with the name and image of Nabonidus , the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
Nabonidus ruled the second incarnation of the Babylonian Empire, and its legendary capital Babylon, which ruled over much of the Arabian Peninsula, from 556 BC to 539 BC. The archaeologists say it is clear that the rock face was inscribed at some point during his reign, possibly even at the king’s direction.
At the top of the stone, an engraving of Nabonidus shows the ancient king holding a scepter. Above and to his front, there are four symbols that had spiritual meaning to the people the Babylonians: a serpent, a flower, a bird, and a crescent-shaped image of the moon. Below these engravings were 26 lines of cuneiform text, which experts are currently busy decoding.
The latter is the longest cuneiform inscription found anywhere on Saudi soil, Commission representatives say. Once fully deciphered, it could provide some fascinating details about Nabonidus’s life and reveal more about his impact on the sixth century BC Arabian Peninsula.
Lions following on the hunt: a patterned wall that once stood in the Neo-Babylonian capital of Babylon, which Nabonidus ruled over. ( radiokafka / Adobe Stock)
Nabonidus’ Historical World: Fadak and Mesopotamian Culture
In ancient times, the site where the inscribed rock face was found was known as Fadak. The area around Fadak in northwestern Arabia was occupied from at least the first millennium BC to the early Islamic era (the seventh and eighth centuries AD).
Archaeologists have discovered some impressively preserved structures, ruins, and artifacts at this site, allowing them to learn more about several historical eras on the Arabian Peninsula. Their findings include other rock drawings and inscriptions, early Islamic writings found on the stone faces of mountainsides, and assorted castles, forts, and stone walls. They even found water storage facilities, showing the effort that went into making a desert area comfortable and habitable.
The lands of Saudi Arabia in ancient times were controlled by small kingdoms and city-states, rather than a large, unified kingdom. But there were strong cultural ties between the Arabian Peninsula and various Mesopotamian and Near Eastern states. Finding a dedication to Nabonidus at Fadak confirms this connection, while reaffirming the special relationship that existed between the last Babylonian king and the peoples and land of Arabia.
Nabonidus, king of Babylonia; slab in the British Museum. (British Museum / CC BY 3.0 )
Who Was Nabonidus and What Was His Connection to Ancient Arabia?
During the time of Nabonidus, parts of the northern Arabian Peninsula were incorporated into the Neo-Babylonian Empire . In fact, it was Nabonidus himself who was responsible for this development.
The great Mesopotamian civilization he led extended from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. From Nabonidus’s perspective, it made perfect sense to conquer and occupy territory on the Arabian Peninsula, since its northernmost lands lay just to the south of the heart of the Neo-Babylonian Empire (its spectacular capital city of Babylon was located along the Euphrates River in what is now Iraq).
When Nabonidus chose to annex part of the Arabian Peninsula, he may have had more on his mind than creating a buffer on his capital city’s southern side. Four years after ascending to the kingship, Nabonidus suddenly left Babylon and settled in the Arabian city of Tayma . He left his son Belshazzar behind to act as his representative in the capital, which allowed him to maintain a great deal of control over developments in the empire.
Relief of Ashurbanipal, who ruled as king of Assyria 669–631 BC. Nabonidus emulated elements of Ashurbanipal and his dynasty, the Sargonids. Some historians believe that Nabonidus was a descendant of Ashurbanipal, or Ashurbanipal’s father Esarhaddon. (Carole Raddato / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
There has been much speculation about why Nabonidus chose to rule from exile. Nabonidus was a religious reformer, and many believe he left to avoid intrigue at the hands of Babylonian clergy and their elite supporters, who may have been hostile to his interest in changing traditional spiritual practices.
It seems Nabonidus was an ardent worshipper of the Babylonian moon god Sîn . This deity was an ancient one indeed, having originated in Sumer in the third millennium BC. Texts recovered from other archaeological sites suggest Nabonidus wanted to increase the influence of Sîn in the Babylonian pantheon of gods, while decreasing the influence of Marduk, the patron deity of Babylon and the empire’s most revered and honored god. Nabonidus’ preferences would have been highly controversial, to be sure, and could explain why he chose to rule his empire from a safe distance from 552 BC to 543 BC.
Nabonidus finally felt secure enough to return to Babylon after nine years of rule in exile. Once there, he escalated his religious reforms by rebuilding a temple devoted to Sîn known as Ekhulkhul. This temple was constructed in Nabonidus’s place of birth, the city of Harran, which was located to the north of Babylon (in what is now modern-day Turkey). This city quickly rose to prominence as the center of Sîn (moon god) worship following Nabonidus’s rebuilding of the temple. Nabonidus would have tried to move the empire’s capital to Harran if he’d had more time.
But the fate of Nabonidus and his Neo-Babylonian Empire was sealed in 539 BC. In this year the Persian forces of Cyrus the Great invaded Babylon and seized control of all of the empire’s territory. With his reign permanently ended, Nabonidus lived out the remainder of his years as a closely monitored guest of the Persian state.
Nebuchadnezzar (1795) by William Blake. The painting depicts Nebuchadnezzar II as nude and mad, living like a wild animal. The story of Nebuchadnezzar II’s madness originally referred to Nabonidus. (William Blake / Public domain )
The Lasting Legacy of Nabonidus
Tayma is located about 160 miles (260 kilometers) to the north of Al Hait (ancient Fadak). It is possible that King Nabonidus may have visited the area at some point during the nine years he spent living in the region, although proof of such a journey is currently lacking.
Whether Nabonidus physically traveled to Fadak or not, his time in the area was definitely impactful. The latest discovery complements previous archaeological finds related to Nabonidus, which have included a number of inscribed images and messages on stone faces or obelisks, uncovered at sites along the pathway between Tayma and Al Hait. This newest discovery might not be the last, as future archaeological expeditions will be seeking further evidence of Nabonidus’s influence on ancient Arabian culture.
Top image: Inscription on one of the basalt rocks depicting the Babylonian king Nabonidus holding a scepter in his hand. Source: Saudi Heritage Commission
By Nathan Falde