Auctions | April 10, 2014

Nebuchadnezzar II Babylonian Cylinder Sets World Auction Record at Doyle NY

On April 9, 2014, Doyle New York auctioned a rare and important Nebuchadnezzar II Babylonian cuneiform cylinder that set a World Auction Record for a Babylonian Cylinder. The price of $605,000 achieved by Doyle New York far surpassed the prior record of £264,000 (approx. $440,000) set in London in 2011. The cylinder sold to a bidder participating on the telephone.

The clay cylinder describes the rebuilding of the temple of Shamash in Sippar (modern Tell Abu Habbah in Iraq) by Nebuchadnezzar II and dates to the Neo-Babylonian Period, circa 604-562 BC. At 8 1/4 inches (20.8 cm) in length, it is the largest example to come to market in recent times and was estimated at $300,000-500,000. In 1953, it was sold through Dawson’s of Los Angeles. The price of $605,000 includes the Buyer's Premium; the hammer price was $500,000.

Nebuchadnezzar II
This is a remarkable written record in clay from the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (Nabu-kudurri-usur), the greatest of the later kings of Babylonia, who ruled from 604 - 562 BC. He was the second of the eleventh dynasty of Babylonian rulers (the dynasty termed Neo-Babylonian or Chaldean), which lasted until the capture of Babylon by Cyrus II of Persia. Nebuchadnezzar II was the eldest son and successor of the Chaldean king Nabopolassar (Nabu-apla-usur), the dynasty's founder. Nabopolassar had seized control of Babylonia from King Sinsharishkun of Assyria, in the process ejecting the Assyrian armies from Babylonia, in 616 BC.

Nebuchadnezzar himself defeated a combined force of the Egyptians (under the Pharaoh Necho) and Assyrians at Carchemish in an epic battle that consolidated his control over the region, and severely reduced the power of Egypt, which fell under his sway. That battle effectively finally extirpated the Assyrian empire, for almost two thousand years a major force in the region. He himself was an empire builder, one who waged successful campaigns against most of his neighboring states, including Phoenicia, Philistia, Judah, Ammon, Moab, and others, and in doing so acquired vast wealth and power.

The Cylinders and their Function
It was customary for the kings of Babylon to cement their relationship with the gods by the act of restoring their temples. These accomplishments were then recorded in cuneiform on clay cylinders (prepared by a court scribe) which were then buried in the foundations of the restored temples. The cylinders were enduring commemorations of the king's fealty to the gods. This very public act also helped create the appearance of legitimacy for the ruler with his subjects and vassals. As an example, the so-called Cyrus Cylinder, one of the greatest extant examples (now housed in the British Museum), extols Cyrus as a benefactor. It is noteworthy that he had attained the throne by deposing the Babylonian king Nabonidus, and he apparently believed that this and similar ritualacts would legitimizehis standing with both the gods and his subjects.


Nebuchadnezzar's Dream and Daniel
Portions of the Book of Daniel describe Daniel's experiences in the Court of Nebuchadnezzar. Of special interest is the story of the unwise courtiers (Daniel 2:1 - 49). The king was troubled by disturbing dreams or visions, and after one profoundly disquieting one, he demanded that the wise men of his court tell him both what he had dreamed, and its interpretation or face execution, an apparently impossible task. Daniel, then in exile in the court of the King, was the only man who (through divine intervention) could tell Nebuchadnezzar what his dream was, and explain its significance. As a result, Nebuchadnezzar lavished gifts on him, and set him above all other wise men (who were spared through Daniel's act), and made him ruler of the province of Babylon (at least, such is the Biblical version).

Nebuchadnezzar's dream was of a great figure, with a head made of gold, chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. The feet of the image were struck by a stone ("cut out, not with hands" the Bible states) and all was smashed and swept away by the winds, and only the stone remained. This curious and clearly mystical passage has been a source of considerable speculative interpretation far beyond the day of Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, with significant (and varying) elucidations coming from the Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of the Latter-Day Saints and other denominations.

The theme of Nebuchadnezzar's volatility is central to the fourth chapter of Daniel, which described Nebuchadnezzar's seven-year descent into madness, a theme vividly captured in William Blake's extraordinary color monotype of the mad king.

The Destruction of the First Temple
Both Biblically, and in the Babylonian Chronicles, it is recorded that Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem (in about 589 BC).  Zedekiah, who had been appointed tributary King of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar had revolted, and entered into an alliance with Egypt, in the person of the Pharaoh Hophra. The siege was especially brutal and "every worst woe befell the city, which drank the cup of God's fury to the dregs" [2 Kings 25:3]. When Nebuchadnezzar finally overran the city in 587 BC, Zedekiah's sons were put to death in front of their father, who was then blinded, and taken into captivity in chains until his death.

The culmination of the campaign was the destruction of the City and the Temple; the city was pillaged, and the population (that part that was not killed) was then carried into exile. Jerusalem was utterly razed by Nebuzar-adan, the captain of Nebuchadnezzar's bodyguard. The Temple of Solomon was destroyed, and the area was depopulated except for a few vinedressers and husbandmen [Jeremiah 52:16, "But Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard left certain of the poor of the land for vinedressers and for husbandmen"]. The Temple of Solomon was completely destroyed, and all of the ritual objects contained therein, including the fabled Ark of the Covenant, were lost.


The Hanging Gardens of Babylon
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Their location (or even their definite existence) has not been firmly established, but they have long been associated with Nebuchadnezzar II, largely as the result of the writing of Babylonian priest of Marduk, Berossus, quoted by the oft-reprinted historian Josephus (writing circa 37-100 AD). There are at least four other descriptions of the Gardens in the literature of Classical antiquity, yet (unlike the other Wonders) no archaeological evidence exists. It is possible that the Hanging Gardens of Nebuchadnezzar have been conflated with those created by the Assyrian King Sennacherib, may be symbolic, or that its site has yet to be found. The fact remains that the Gardens have held sway over both the popular and the scholarly imagination for almost two millennia.

The Ishtar Gate
At one point, together with the Walls of Babylon, the Ishtar Gate was considered one of the Seven Wonders. It was the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon, dedicated to Ishtar, and was constructed on Nebuchadnezzar's orders on the north side of the city in about 575 BC. Part of the Processional Way, the gate had walls with alternating rows of aurochs and dragons and was roofed in cedar. It exists today as a reconstruction, incorporating portions of the original, in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, though the vast construction there is just the front gate and surround; a double gate in form, the rear portion was too large to fit the Museum, and is today held in storage. Other portions of the gate are scattered between museums worldwide.