Nebuchadnezzar, as well as being an alternative name for Woolly Days, is probably more well known as a name for several Babylonian Kings. It was also the name of a black butler in Jules Verne’s novel Mysterious Island, the name of a hovercraft in the Matrix series as well as being a phenomenally supersized champagne bottle capable of holding 15 litres of bubbly. Saddam Hussein gave that name to a division of his republican guard. In its Italian form, Nabucco, it is an opera by Giuseppe Verdi. But of all the Nebuchadnezzars it is King Nebuchadnezzar II (alternatively Nebuchadrezzar or more properly still Nabuchodonosor) who has the highest historical acclaim.
He was the best known of the Chaldean rulers of Babylon and his reign lasted almost fifty years from 605BC to his death in 562BC. His main claim to fame was the building of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. He had the gardens built in 600BC to cheer up his homesick wife Amyitis from Medes (Medes is in modern Iran, whereas Babylon is in Iraq.) The gardens did not hang as such. The name is a mistranslation from the Greek word ‘kremastos’ which means ‘overhanging’ as in the case of a terrace or balcony.
Babylon, situated on the Euphrates River some 50km south of Baghdad, was the world’s first metropolis. The Babylonian kingdom and Babylon the city flourished under the rule of the famous King, Hammurabi (1792-1750 BC). Hammurabi is renowned as a law-giver. His code was the first known set of city regulations and definition for the organisation of a complex society. Babylon was, at many times, the largest city of the ancient world and probably the first city to achieve a population in excess of 200,000. Hammurabi’s dynasty lasted until 1595BC. Babylonia’s flat terrain made it easy for armies to invade. Wild mountain men from Persia called Kassites ruled the kingdom for a mere 600 years. It then became an Assyrian vassal state for another 200 years.
Nabopolassar was the first king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. He revolted after the great Assyrian king, Assurbanipal, self-styled “King of the World” died in 627 BC. Nabopolassar conquered the Assyrian capital, Nineveh, after a three-month siege in 612 BC. The Assyrians regrouped and allied themselves with the Egyptians to rejoin the war. In 605 BC an exhausted Nabopolassar died and the reigns of power passed to his son Nebuchadnezzar II (Nebuchadnezzar I was a Babylonian king 500 years earlier). The name means "May (the god) Nabu protect the son (crown)."
In the same year Nebuchadnezzar defeated the combined Assyrian-Egyptian army at Carchemish which finally gave him the Assyrian Empire. The victory also ended ancient Egypt’s role as a significant power. Among the Egyptian provinces he inherited was Palestine. Through this conquest, we know most about Nebuchadnezzar as he plays a prominent role in the Old Testament Book of Daniel. The book revolves around the figure of Daniel, an Israelite who becomes an advisor to Nebuchadnezzar. The Jewish state under Zedekiah rebelled against the Babylonians and were punished by a mass deportation.
Daniel records how Nebuchadnezzar now set himself the task of rebuilding the city of Babylon. He was a civic engineer building canals, aqueducts and reservoirs. He also expanded the empire defeating the Cimmerians, Scythians and putting down several rebellions in Palestine and Phoenicia. Daniel also describes how the king became acquainted with the Hebrew religion and the Jewish God Yahweh. The king’s mental incapacity for 7 years is known only from the Bible, since such misfortunes were rarely recorded by court officials. Some have described this incapacity as lycanthropy "the change of a man into a wolf".
Nebuchadnezzar recovered from his wolfman phase, and died aged 83 or 84 after a reign of forty-three years. He was succeeded by his son bearing the delightful name Evil-merodach (also known as Amel-Marduk). Nebuchadnezzar left a huge physical legacy. Archaeologist Sir H. Rawlinson said of him “nine-tenths of all the bricks amid the ruins of Babylon are stamped with his name.”
2,500 years later, the legend of Nebuchadnezzar was invoked by Saddam Hussein. Saddam described himself as Nebuchadnezzar's successor. He owned a replica of Nebuchadnezzar’s war chariot and had himself photographed standing in it. Saddam has compared himself to many other historical figures, but his preferred heroes are Nebuchadnezzar and Saladin. Of all the Iraqi empire-builders of antiquity only these two ever captured Jerusalem.