The Strange Tomb of Babylonian Queen Nitocris

Long after her death, Queen Nitocris of Babylon slapped the hand of a Persian king while serving up a lesson on greed. I would have loved to work her story into my novel Quest for Gryphon Gold, but as it had no place there, I’ll share it with you here.

Setting sun casts a golden glow over ancient Babylon, highlighting the ziggurat and glinting off the Euphrates River
Babylon in its splendor

This mischievous lady was queen of Babylon in the 6th century BC. Daughter of famed King Nebuchadnezzar II, she was riding the crest of her power around 550 BC. At the time, she was married to Nabonidus, the last ruler of Babylon.

In that same year, Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, was taking a first step towards carving out his empire by conquering the Median Empire. Next he would set his sights on the Lydian Empire and eventually the Neo-Babylonian.

Nitocris was both ambitious and clever. According to renowned Greek historian Herodotus, she implemented a number of diversions of the Euphrates, making it more difficult to navigate and improving its potential usefulness in defense of the city.

She also had a stone bridge constructed that crossed the Euphratesa practical improvement as the river cut the walled city in half. Herodotus also claimed that Nitocris ordered construction of an artificial lake basin outside the city. (BTW: The site of the queen’s bridge has been uncovered by archaeologists.)

Perhaps the queen’s most engaging contribution to history was her tomb. Wishing to perpetuate her name after death, she had arranged for her tomb to be built above one of the many gates of Babylon. Engraved on the outside of it was an inscription that said in essence: If one of the rulers of Babylon after me is in want of money, let him open my tomb and take however much he likes. But if he is not in need, he should beware and under no circumstances open it.

Babylon fell under Persian rule in 539 BC. The queen’s tomb went undisturbed until Persian king Darius the Great came to the city around 520 BC.

According to Herodotus, the tomb was a source of tremendous aggravation for Darius. First, its epitaph was tantalizing and encouraged its plunder. Second, Darius could not walk under the gate because he could not walk under a corpse. Finally, he ordered the tomb to be opened so that he might take possession of Queen Nitocris’ treasure.

Imagine his annoyance at finding nothing but the body of the dead queen and this finger-wagging rebuke: If you had not been insatiable after gold and eager for shameful gain, you would never have violated the asylum of the dead.

The clever queen had the last word and, if she was still hanging around in spirit, a good laugh.

Darius Opens the Tomb of Queen Nitocris

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