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Ancient Babylonia, Index

Ancient Babylon

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Historically and ethically, Babylonia was the product of the union of the Acadians and the Sumerians. At the outset of this history stands the figure of Hamurrappi (Hammurabi c. 2123-2081 BC), the conqueror and lawgiver through a reign of forty-three years. Under him, the petty waring states of the lower Tigris-Euphrates valley were forced into unity and peace, and disciplined into order and security by a historic code of laws.

The famous Code of Hamurrappi (Hammurabi) was unearthed at Susa in 1902, engraved on a diorite cylinder which had been carried from Babylon to Elam about 1100 BC:

When the lofty Anu, King of the Anunnaki and Bel, Lord of Heaven and Earth, he who determines the destiny of the land, committed the rule of all mankind to Marduk; ... when they pronounced the lofty name of Babylon; when they made it famous among the quarters of the world and in its midst established an everlasting kingdom whose foundations were firm as heaven and earth -- at that time, Anu and Bel called me, Hamurrappi, the exalted prince, the worshipper of the gods, to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, enlighten the land and to further the welfare of the people.

Hamurrappi, the governor named by Bel, am I, who brought about plenty and abundance; who made everything for Nippu and Durilu complete; ... who gave life to the city of Uruk; who supplied water in abundance to its inhabitants; ... who made the city of Borsippa beautiful; ... who stored up grain for the mighty Urash; ... who helped his people in time of need; who establishes in security their property in Babylon; the governor of the people, the servant, whose deeds are pleasing to Anunit.

The Code of Hamurrappi is of a composite and heterogeneous character. It mingles the most enlightened of laws with the most barbarous punishments, and sets trial by ordeal right next to elaborate judicial procedures. Yet, taken as a whole, the two hundred eight-five laws, arranged in a somewhat haphazard order, form a law code more advanced that of the Assyrians, a thousand years later.

This famous law code was only one of Hamurrappi's accomplishments. At his command a great canal was dug between Kish and the Persian Gulf, thereby irrigating a large area of land, and protecting the cities of the south from the destructive floods which the Tigris had the habit of birthing.

He built temples and forts. At Babylon, he constructed a huge sanctuary for Marduk and his Wife. They were the national deities.

From taxes imposed on the people, he financed the forces of law and order, and had enough left over to beautify his capital. Palaces and temples went up frequently. A bridge spanned the Euphrates to let Babylon spread itself along both banks of the river. Ships manned by ninety plied up and down the river.

Babylon at this time was on of the richest cities the world had ever known up till then. Its people were Semitic, with dark hair and features. Most men wore beards. Both sexes had long hair. Both men and women wore perfume. The common dress for both sexes was a white linen tunic reaching to the feet. Women tended to leave one shoulder bare. Men would often wear a mantal and robe with their tunic. As wealth grew, the people developed a taste for color, dying their garments red on blue or blue on red in stripes, circles, checks and dots. Men wore turbans, carried walking sticks, and wore seals to sign their letters and other documents.

But this same wealth which generated a high civilization also contributed to its decline, inviting stronger arms and hungrier mouths to invade.


Eight years after Hamurrappi's death, the Kassites, a mountain tribe to the north of Babylonia invaded the land, plundered it, retreated, and raided it again and again. Finally, they settled down in it as conquerors and rulers. They were a non-Semitic people, perhaps Indo-European.

The Kassites ruled for six hundred years. It was during their rule that the Amarna letters were written in which the kinglets of Babylonia and Syria, having sent modest tribute to imperial Egypt after the victories of Thutmose III, beg for aid against rebels and invaders, and quarrel about the value of the gifts that they exchange with the disdainful Amenhotep III and the absorbed and negligent Akhenaten (Echnaton). It may have been during this time, too, that the Israelites invaded Canaan (a scenario dependant upon an early dating for the Exodus, which is not widely assumed likely).

At long last the Kassites were expelled, but disorder continued in Babylonia for another four hundred years under a series of obscure rulers with long names that you don't want to know, until the rising power of Assyria in the north stretched down and brought Babylonia under the power of the Nineveh kings.

When Babylon rebelled, Sennacherib destroyed it nearly completely; but then his successor Esarhaddon restored it to prosperity.

The rise of the Medes weakened Assyria and with their help, Nabopolassar liberated Babylonia, set up an independent dynasty, and after his death (Aug. 15, 605 BC), bequeathed this second Babylonian kingdom to his son, Nebuchadnezzar II -- the Nebuchadnezzar of Daniel (Daniel was taken captive to Babylon during the summer of 605 BC).

Nebuchadnezzar was to become the most powerful ruler of his time in the Near East; he was the greatest warrior, statesman, and builder of all the Babylonian monarchs after Hamurrappi himself.

When Egypt conspired with Assyria to reduce Babylon to a vassal again, Nebuchadnezzar met the Egyptian hosts at Carchemesh and almost annihilated them Palestine and Syria then fell under his dominion and Babylonian merchants controlled the trade that flowed across western Asia from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean.

Nebuchadnezzar spent the money collected in tolls, tribute, and taxes in the beautification of his capital and to keep the priests happy. He resisted the temptation of most conquerors to be ever conquering; except for the occasional need to remind subject peoples that they were still subject, he mostly stayed home, focussing his attentions on making Babylon the unraveled capital of the Near East, and the largest and most magnificent metropolis of the ancient world. It is not surprising that he admired the city and asked "is this not the great Babylon that I built?"

Herodotus, who saw Babylon a century and a half after Nebuchadnezzar was dead, described it as "standing upon a spacious plain", surrounded by a wall fifty-six miles long, so wise that a four horse chariot could be driven along the top. The wall enclosed an area of two hundred square miles. Compared to the Old City of Jerusalem, surrounded by a wall and enclosing an area of one square mile, Babylon is enormous. Compared to a major modern city, it is of course not so impressive.

Through the center of Babylon flowed the palm-fringed Euphrates, busy with commerce. Most of the buildings of Babylon were brick, since stone was rare in Mesopotamia. But the bricks were not bare. Rather, they were faced with enamled tiles of blue, yellow, or white, which were adorned with animal and other figures in glazed relief. Almost every brick recovered from Babylon bears an inscription announcing: "Built by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon."

The most prominent building in Babylon was the ziggurat, rising in seven stages of gleaming enamel six hundred fifty feet into the air. It was crowned with a shrine containing a massive table of solid gold, and an ornate bed on which each night, some woman slept to await the pleasure of the god (or his representative).

South of the ziggurat stood the gigantic temple of Marduk, chief deity of Babylon. Around and below this temple the city spread itself out in narrow, winding streets, alive with traffic and bargains, and smells of garbage and humanity. Connecting the temples were asphalt covered bricks overlaid with flags of limestone and red beccia. Over this the gods could pass without muddying their feet. This broad avenue was flanked by walls of colored tiles on which stood, in low relief, one hundred twenty brightly enamelled lions. At one end of the Sacred Way, as it was called, stood the Ishtar Gate, a massive double portal of tiles, adorned with enamelled flowers and animals. Six hundred yards north of the great ziggurat rose a mound called Kasr, on which Nebuchadnezzar built the most imposing of his palaces.

Nearby, supported on a succession of superimposed circular colonnades, were the famous Hanging Gardens. Nebuchadnezzar is reported to have built them for one of his wives, the daughter of Cyaxares, the King of the Medes. This princess, so the story goes, unaccustomed to the hot sun and dust of Babylon, pined away for the green of her native land. So, Nebuchadnezzar made this beautiful and lush garden to ease her homesickness.

The topmost terrace was covered with rich soil to a depth of many feet, providing space and nourishment not mearly for various flowering plants, but for large trees. Hydraulic machines, manned by slaves, carried water from the Euphrates to the highest tier of the gardens. There, seventy-five feet above the ground, in the cool shade of tall trees, and surrounded by exotic shrubs and fragrant flowers, the women of the royal harem walked unveiled, secure from the common eye, while in the plains below, the common man and woman plowed, wove, built, carried burdens and reproduced their kind, unable to partake of the luxury afforded kings and their wives.


The government in Mesopotamia never succeeded in establishing such economic order as that which the pharaohs achieved in Egypt. Commerce was harassed with a multiplicity of dangers and tolls. The merchant did not know which to fear more: the robbers that might attack him along the road, or the towns and baronies which exacted heavy fees from him for the privilege of using their less than safe roads.

It was safer, where possible, to take the great national highway, the Euphrates, which Nebuchadnezzar had made navigable from the Persian Gulf all the way to Thapsacus.

The Babylonians had no coinage, but even before Hamurrappi they used, besides barley and wheat, ingots of gold and silver as standards of value and mediums of exchange. The metal was unstamped and had to be weighed for each transaction.

Loans were made in goods or precious metals, at a very high rate of interest, even worse than most modern credit card rates: twenty percent for loans of gold or silver and thirty-three percent for loans of goods to be repaid in kind. Although there were no banks, certain powerful families carried on from generation to generation in the business of lending money. They were, in some respects, like modern loan sharks.

Babylonia was essentially a commercial civilization. Most of the documents that have survived are business related: sales, loans, contracts, partnerships, commissions, exchanges, agreements, promissory notes, etc. They apparently were prospering, and they were filled with the spirit of materialism.

On a darker note, slavery was an important part of Babylonian life (as it was for most nations through the eighteenth century and even into the nineteenth century AD). Slaves were acquired from captives taken in battle, slave raids carried out upon foreign states by marauding Bedouins, and from the reproductive enthusiasm of the slaves themselves. Slaves were inexpensive, running the equivalent of twenty to sixty-five dollars for women and fifty to a hundred dollars for men. Most physical labor was performed by slaves; female slaves, of course, were used as breeders and sex objects.

Slaves and whatever property they might have belonged entirely to their masters. A slave might be sold or pledged for debt; he might be put to death if his master simply thought him or her less valuable alive than dead. If a slave escaped, no one could legally harbor him or her and there were usually nice rewards posted for his or her capture.

Kings and Priests of Babylon

The power of the king was limited by the law, the aristocracy, and the clergy. The king was the agent of the city's god. Taxation was in the name of that god, and the money went into the treasuries of the temple.

The king became king when he was invested with royal authority by the priests. All the glamor of the supernatural hedged about the throne and made rebellion a colossal impiety which risked not only life, but also the eternal soul.

The wealth of the temples grew from generation to generation, as the rich shared their dividends with the gods. The kings, feeling a special need for divine forgiveness, built temples, equipped them with furniture, food, and slaves, deeded to them great tracts of land, and assigned them an annual income from the state. The concept of separating church and state was not even imagined and would have been dismissed as idiotic if ever broached.

Poor as well as rich turned over to the temples as much as they thought profitable of their earthly gains. As the priests could not directly use or consume this wealth, they turned it into productive or investment capital. Unsurprisingly, much of the agricultural, manufacturing, and financing of Babylonia became the pervue of the priests.

Not only did they have huge land holdings, they held vast quantities of slaves and controlled hundreds of paid laborers. These people, slave and free, were put to work at various trades ranging from the performance of music to the brewing of beer.

The Gods Themselves

Who were the divinities of this empire? An official census of the gods late in the ninth century placed their number at around 65,000. You will not be required to memorize all of them for the exam. Why so many gods? Every town had one, as did most professions and daily tasks.

The gods were derived from the Sumerian pantheon. Transcendence was not a pronounced part of the Babylonians' concept of deity. Rather, immanence dominated. Most of the gods lived on earth in the temples, had large appetites for food and drink, and made nocturnal visits to pious women, giving them unexpected children.

The oldest gods in the Babylonian pantheon were the astronomical deities:

1. Anu -- the immovable firmament

2. Shamash -- the sun

3. Nannar -- the moon

4. Baal -- the earth, into whose bosom all Babylonians returned upon death.

Additionally, each family had its own household gods, to whom prayers might be said and to whom libations were poured each morning and evening. Every individual had a protective deity to keep him or her from harm and to give him or her joy; this concept, of course, passed ultimately into the Zoroastrian (a Persian, dualistic religion) concept of guardian angels, which then passed on to popular Christianity's concept of guardian angels.

The multiplicity of gods created some confusion, and so periodically reform movements would simplify the system by interpreting minor gods as forms or attributes of major deities, thus reducing the total number of divine beings. In this way the chief god of the city of Babylon, Marduk (a sun god), was turned into the chief of all Babylonian deities.

Another deity of importance was Ishtar (also called Astarte by the Greeks and Asherah or Astoreth by the Jewish people). She was very similar to the Egyptian goddess Isis, the Greek goddess Aphrodite, and the Roman Venus. Herodotus writes of Ishtar:

There is one custom amongst these people which is wholly shameful: every woman who is a native of the country must once in her life go and sit in the temple of Aphrodite [that is, Ishtar] and there give herself to a strange man. Many of the rich women, who are too proud to mix with the rest, drive to the temple in covered carriages with a whole host of servants following behind, and there wait; most however, sit in the precinct of the temple with a band of plait string round their heads -- a a great crowd they are, what with some sitting there, others arriving, others going away -- and through them all gangways are marked off running in every direction for the men to pass along and make their choice. Once a woman has taken her seat she is not allowed to go home until a man has thrown a silver coin into her lap and taken her outside to lie with her. As he throws the coin, the man has to say, "In the name of the goddess Myllita" -- that being the Assyrian name for Aphrodite. The value of the coin is of no consequence; once thrown it becomes sacred, and the law forbids that it should ever be refused. The woman has no privilege of choice -- she must go with the first man who throws her the money. When she has lain with him, her duty to the goddess is discharged and she may go home, after which it will be impossible to seduce her by any offer, however large. Tall, handsome women soon manage to get home again, but the ugly ones stay a long time before they can fulfil the condition which the law demands, some of them, indeed, as much as three or four years. There is a custom similar to this in parts of Cyprus. (Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. Baltimore: Penguine Books, 1954, pp. 94-95)

Language and Writing

The language of the Babylonians was Semitic, making it not too difficult to learn. But the writing system, however, was something else entirely. Derived from the Sumerians, it is a nightmarish thing; the symbols stand for syllables or entire words, and worse, they are polyvalent, meaning that they can usually be read more than one way, depending on context, genre, and time period. Reading a Babylonian text is like trying to do a rebus. What's a rebus? Here's an example in English:


Putting this in normal English orthography, you would write: "I believe you are a great manager of men."

The Babylonian cuneiform writing system is a combination of signs, some of which are Sumerian logograms representing an entire Babylonian word; some are symbols representing a syllable within a word. And any one symbol can have a different sound or meaning simply depending upon the context, as in our example above, the "eye" could also stand for an eye, just as easily as it stands for an "I", and the "bee" could be the insect, a verb, or a part of some other word.

The End of Babylon

Nebuchadnezzar, after a long reign of victory and prosperity, after beautifying his city with roads and palaces and erecting fifty-four temples to the gods, became ill with a strange insanity. Thinking himself an animal, he walked on all fours and ate grass.

In the annals of Babylonia, his name disappears from the records for four years. It reappears for a moment, and then, in 562 BC, he died.

Within thirty years of his death, his empire crumbled to pieces.

Nabonidus, who held the throne seventeen years, much preferred archaeology to government, and devoted himself to excavating the antiquities of Sumer while his own realm went to ruin. The army fell into disorder; people were devoted to business, trade and pleasure, and forgot the art of war. The priests usurped more and more of the royal power. Babylon became ever richer, making it a tempting target for invaders. Unfortunately, they did not adequately protect themselves.

When Cyrus and the Persian Empire stood a the gates, the anti-clericals of Babylon connived to open the gates of the city to him and wealcomed his domination. Nabonidus' son, Belshazzar, left in charge of the Babylonian government was busy at the time the Persians came; he was having a party. The Persians crashed his party and killed him. The date: October 12, 539 BC. For two centuries thereafter, Persia ruled Babylonia as part of the greatest empire that history had known up to that moment.

Then Alexander the Great captured the Persian Empire, creating an even greater kingdom -- which lasted only briefly, until he drank himself to death at the age of thirty in the palace of Nebuchadnezzar. The date: June 13, 323 BC.

It was from Babylon that the Greeks brought to their city-states and then to Rome and ultimately us, the foundations of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, grammar, lexicography, archaeology, history, and philosophy. The Greek names for the metals and constellations, for weights and measures, for musical instruments, and many drugs, are translations -- and often, just transliterations -- of Babylonian terms.


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