The empire of Hammurabi: 18th century BC

Babylon is just one among many small kingdoms in Mesopotamia when Hammurabi becomes its ruler in about 1728 BC. He defeats his rivals in the region, and establishes a society based on the rule of law (famous also for the skill of its Astronomers and Mathematicians). By the end of his reign the whole of Mesopotamia is under central control for the first time since the empire of Sargon, 500 years earlier.

The society over which Hammurabi presides is vividly reflected in the famous code of laws, the Code of Hammurabi, which towards the end of his life the king orders to be inscribed on a stele, or upright stone pillar - the only way, at the time, of publishing them.

Troublesome neighbours to the north: 16th - 7th century BC

Babylon is destroyed in about 1531 BC by invaders from the northwest, the Hittites (local dates are controversial at this time - see Chronology of the Near East ). But Babylon re-establishes itself a century later under the rule of intruders from the northeast. These are the Kassites, who have been gradually moving into Mesopotamia from the mountainous regions of Iran. They maintain a stable society for three centuries - from the 15th to the 12th.

Meanwhile a region to the north of Babylon has been growing in power. Its centre is Ashur, the capital city from which the Assyrians take their name. In the 7th century BC the Assyrians, under Sennacherib, overwhelm the Babylonians.

The revival of Babylon: from 625 BC

Sennacherib appals many in Mesopotamia by his brutal destruction, in 689, of the ancient city of Babylon. This act leads to prolonged unrest, occasional periods of outright rebellion and, eventually, to devastating revenge.

In 625 Nabopolassar, a Chaldean, establishes a new dynasty in Babylon (it is variously described by historians as Chaldean or Neo-Babylonian). Nabopolassar attacks Assyria, allying himself with the Medes - eastern neighbours of Assyria, and technically one of their vassal states. In 612 Nineveh is captured and destroyed after a three-month siege. This brings to an abrupt end the story of Assyria. It will be absorbed, eventually, in the Persian empire.

The dynasty of Nebuchadnezzar: 7th - 6th century BC

The Medes are content with the regions to the north and east, so this final Babylonian dynasty becomes the controlling power of the whole of Mesopotamia. Nabopolassar is succeeded by his son Nebuchadnezzar in 605.

Nebuchadnezzar, in a reign of more than forty years, gives Babylon its period of greatest fame. He is prominent in the Bible as the ruler who destroys Jerusalem and carries off the Jews into their Babylonian captivity. And he features in the list of the Seven Wonders of the World, as the creator of the Hanging gardens of Babylon.

The successors of Nebuchadnezzar on the throne of Babylon are less effective. They have the misfortune to be close neighbours of the greatest empire-builder to have emerged by this stage in history.

Cyrus the great rules in Persia from 550. He spends his early years campaigning northwest, deep into Turkey. Not until 540 does he turn his attention to Babylon; in October 539 his general enters the city unopposed. Many in Babylon (including the Jews in captivity) welcome the Persians as liberators, and Cyrus ensures that local religious customs are observed. But mighty Mesopotamia is now a Persian province.

The end of Babylon: 3rd century BC

Babylon's final claim to fame is an accidental one. Alexander the great dies here, in 323 BC, after a banquet.

The city's end directly relates to the Greek conquest of this region. In 312 BC Seleucus founds a new Mesopotamian capital city, Seleucia, further to the north and on the Tigris rather than the Euphrates. Much of the building material is brought from Babylon, which becomes a forgotten city until excavated in the 20th century. But at all times there has been an important city in this region where the two great rivers come closest together. Seleucia is followed, in it turn, by Ctesiphon on the opposite bank of the Tigris. And from the early days of Islam this has been the site, a few miles further up the Tigris, of Baghdad.