Reading History #8: Babylon of Hammurabi

Copyright @2017 Robert M. Shurmer

Come, let us make something whose name shall be called a sanctuary. When Marduk heard this, his face shone brightly like the day and he said: ‘So shall Babylon be, whose construction you have desired. Let it’s brickwork be fashioned, and call it a sanctuary.’ The Annunaki wielded tools and for one year they made bricks for it. And they established there an abode for Marduk, Enlil, and Enki. (Enûma Eliš)

Babylon’s Hazy Origins

Babylon. Anyone who follows sci-fi will recognize the name. Babylon 5 is an earth-controlled city, a massive O’Neill Cylinder (look it up) commissioned in the year 2256, that functions as a diplomatic hub for five dominant civilizations. The plot revolves around the social and political interaction among these civilizations in the aftermath of a war that nearly exterminated humans due to communication failures at the point of first contact (in short, assumptions proved disastrous). The Babylon 5 station, described as the “last, best hope for peace,” was built to foster peace through diplomacy. The television series remains one of the more successful sci-fi programs ever produced. Though nearly twenty years old, it still stands up as a genre masterpiece. But why the name? What did the creators know about the historic Babylon that moved them to name this space-station drama after an ancient city in the desert of Iraq?

The city of Babylon stood for three thousand years and its name still resonates globally as a byword for the wealth, power, cosmopolitanism, and, for some, the malevolence of the mega-city. I recently saw the graffito ‘welcome to Babylon’ scrawled across a wall in downtown Washington, DC, a sign that the name still carries weight as a cultural/political signifier of authority and oppression. Similar identifications have been made with other cities throughout history. London, for example, has carried a certain taint of authoritarian dread since the construction of the forbidding Tower Castle in 1068. Early horror writers evoked its name to connote demonic doom and gothic gloom: “London loomed up before me,” wrote Arthur Machan in 1922, “wonderful, mystical as Assyrian Babylon, as full of unheard-of things and great unveilings as any magic city in the Eastern tale.”1 A more contemporary social commentator declared pop culture the new Babylon, imperial consumer of so much art and intellect. “It is our imperial sex theater, supreme temple of the western eye. We live in the age of idols. The pagan past, never dead, flames again in our mystic hierarchies of stardom.” 2 Whether as slave master, purveyor of magic, or sex theater, Babylon still manages to tap into some deep Jungian archetype.

However, the origins of the city are hazy at best and even archaeological remains do not help much for understanding its earliest history. We are left, as historian Paul Kriwaczek wrote, with only “oblique hints and incidental references” made by others. 3 The city certainly did not exist before the era of Sumerian kings; it is not mentioned as one of the places fought over by the numerous fighting Akkadian kings. Babylon comes blazing, fully-formed, into the light of history only when the Amorites, a foreign people who were part of the immigrant waves that brought down the Akkadian Empire, establish imperial rule from the city and transform it into one of the mightiest and most famous of all ancient cities.

Though we need to be careful when reading religious texts as sources of history, and the Bible does provide a great deal of insight into the history of the ancient Near East. But there are assumptions and motivations in play too. Judeo-Christian tradition, in fact, has been the prime mover of Babylon’s sinister reputation, so we need to be especially careful with our sources. The name Babylon, for example, appears 294 times in the King James Version of the Bible. Hebrew Scripture (a.k.a. the Old Testament) first mentions the city of Babylon as the residence of Nimrod, “the mighty one on earth,” great-grandson of Noah (Gen.10:10) who rebuilt cities. According to the Book of Genesis, Nimrod started his kingdom with the cities of Uruk, Babylon, Akkad, and Nippur, which suggests that he carved out some sort of state that looks a lot like the nucleus of the early Akkadian kingdom. The source, in essence, has put a name to one or more of the unknown Mesopotamian rulers that reestablished political authority following a series of disasters that destroyed the earlier Sumerian cities c.2700 BCE. What happened exactly is uncertain, but the first Sumerian civilization collapsed and many of its cities destroyed by water and fire; the ‘event’ appears in the Bible as the Flood. We get a sense of the level of destruction from a contemporary poem: “Ur is destroyed, bitter is the lament. The country’s blood now fills its holes like hot bronze in a mold. Bodies dissolve like fat in the sun. Our temple is destroyed, the gods have abandoned us, like migrating birds. Smoke lies on our city like a shroud.” As this poetic lament indicates, Mesopotamia was generally in a bad way during this era. It should be no surprise, then, that much later texts might associate a ‘new city’ with a return to stability and physical reconstruction.

In truth, it was most likely Sargon, who first constructed the city of Babylon as a small satellite city near his capital at Akkad. There are faint glimmers of the old Sumerian attitude in the stories about Nimrod. Hebrew sources assert that as part of the building projects undertaken in his new city, Nimrod commissioned the construction an immense tower (a ziggurat?) that was water-tight and higher than anything previously built. A great-grandson of Noah, presumably understood the necessity of making his most important buildings sturdy and tall enough to withstand the greatest of flood-stage waters. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who was well aware of the ancient texts on the subject, tells us this about Nimrod’s project:

It was built of burnt brick, cemented together with mortar, made of bitumen, that it might not be liable to admit water. When God saw that they acted so madly, he did not resolve to destroy them utterly, since they were not grown wiser by the destruction of the former sinners; but he caused a tumult among them, by producing in them diverse languages, and causing that, through the multitude of those languages, they should not be able to understand one another. The place wherein they built the tower is now called Babylon, because of the confusion of that language which they readily understood before; for the Hebrews mean by the word Babel, confusion…So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. (Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, Book One, Chapter 5)

So once again an angry god destroys what man hath built. In the morality story of the Bible, the linguistic confusion that settled upon the diverse peoples of the city (origin of the modern word ‘babel’) is punishment for presuming to erect super-monuments to our own greatness. There are consequences to overstepping human limits seems to be the lesson here. But the story also tells of a city of spectacular architecture, populated with diverse peoples from different regions, people who spoke a variety of languages, all living together, somewhat peaceably it seems, in a new-style city which had been built as the administrative center for a new state. Records from the period of the Amorite invasions, the time when the Biblical Abraham was living in the city of Ur, back up this characterization.

The city of Babylon was likely a smallish backwater town prior to about 2000 BCE, when an Amorite strong-man established his residence there and began throwing his weight around. Little concrete information is known about the early Amorites except that they were aggressive conquerors and that they assimilated into the existing Sumerian culture of the region they conquered. An abundance of baked-clay records exists from the earliest part of the era now termed Old Babylonian (c.2000-1595 BCE) that reveal lots about the emerging super-powers of the period. Many of these texts are diplomatic communications among rulers of the larger states and regional players of the era, including the king of Babylon. Warlords whom we only know by the cities they controlled — the king of Qatna, the king of Ekallatum, the governor of Mari, the overlord of the confederation of Larsa-Isin-Urm — bicker with each other over trade deals, berate their lazy sons for favoring women over war, exchange demands, threats, and invitations, and generally demand to be taken seriously by other rulers. 4 The names and situations could have easily been written into any script for Babylon-5.

By 2000 BCE, many of these regional kingdoms had been taken over by Amorite rulers. Once the Amorites established supremacy over Mesopotamia, they, like Sargon before them, sought a location suitable for handling the administration of an empire, one that by 1800 BCE stretched across the entire region of northern Mesopotamia. Amorite kings of Babylon continued to extend their authority from their residence on the Euphrates River and, importantly, issued official propaganda that moved the city to the center of the old Mesopotamian religious stories (as you know from studying the Enuma Elis). Under the Amorites, Babylon, meaning ‘gateway of the god’, became one of the largest and most important cities of the ancient world. This, of course, did not happen overnight, but by the reign of King Hammurabi (c.1750 BCE) Babylon had certainly emerged as a cosmopolitan mega-city, the administrative and economic center of a great empire.

Hammurabi’s name stands out from all other Babylonian rulers because 1) his conquests pushed the frontiers of the kingdom further than earlier kings in Babylon, to what is today eastern Syria and Turkey and western Iran, and because 2) his support of education has left us a massive collection of texts, providing us with a great deal of insight into the workings of Babylonian society. From about 1800 BCE, our historical vision becomes much clearer simply because we have more surviving written records, both public and private. While, like most kings, Hammurabi supported large public works projects and probably had a hand in renovating the Esagila, the temple complex in Babylon dedicated to Marduk, the literary remnants of his age remain more significant than any of his ‘high towers.’ The most enduring artifact from the entire period of Old Babylonian rule is the code of laws that Hammurabi put into writing and displayed publicly in the cities of the empire.

Because of their supposed close relationship with the gods, kings could deliver messages from the heavens. It was widely accepted, and still is today among many people, that authority itself derives from a god. (One of the truly revolutionary ideas propagated by the founder fathers of the United States was their insistence that government derived its authority from the people rather than by divine appointment.) Hammurabi claimed to have received his law code — known not surprisingly as Hammurabi’s Code — directly from the Sumerian gods. He tells us this in the prologue to his law code: Anu called me by name, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared god, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land. On the massive stone steeles used to promulgate his laws, Hammurabi is shown receiving the law from the sun-god Shamash, patron of justice, or from Marduk himself. While bits of earlier Sumerian laws exist, Hammurabi’s Code is the most complete ancient legal text known to us today.

Hammurabi had a great deal more to offer his people than did the regional kings of the late Third Dynasty of Ur era. The size and importance of Babylon and the many cities that it controlled indicates widespread prosperity and substantial military power, but it all hung together because of an even more impressive and elaborate administrative and financial system. Babylonian scribes composed two-hundred and eighty-two individual laws for regulating how people living in close proximity can get along peaceably. The laws cover property disputes, social interactions, rights and responsibilities of groups, and various aspects of life within a city. What is particularly noteworthy about Hammurabi’s Code is how economic penalties, perhaps for the first time, were integrated into the system. Compensation was often given to the offended party or victim as a way to portioning out justice without recourse to private violence as retaliation. Sometimes the compensation was rather strict, demanding death or disfigurement in an attempt satisfy the crime by exacting equal punishment. ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’ is the line most people remember even today. The Law became a powerful tool for protecting the lives and livelihoods of people living cheek-by-jowl with large numbers of non-family members.

Some historians consider the reign of Hammurabi to be both the climax and the effective end of Mesopotamian civilization. The king sought to provide justice to his people, which meant protecting the poor and weak as well as the elites. Writing became much more widespread than ever before and private individuals could hire scribes to write letters and contracts when necessary. The king imposed taxes upon a society that possessed a rather sophisticated financial system, wherein some scholars even discern the rudiments of commodity futures and a bond market. 5 Advanced mathematics, certainly a boon to any financial system, and a scientific approach (based on observation and testing) to the natural world produced functional (i.e. not just quacks) physicists, astronomers, and physicians. Merchants behaved as independent operators rather than servitors of the king or temple. The military formed a special class of its own in support of the king and soldiers often owned land. And temple priests and priestesses, while still important culturally, no longer wielded much political or economic authority. 6

King Hammurabi had achieved great success as a conqueror, builder, and governor. He held unified a diverse population under a single language and cultural tradition that was state-directed and state-maintained. But while he was pulling the entire Mesopotamian region into the orbit of the mighty city on the Euphrates, the peoples on the fringe of his empire — particularly the Hittites and Kassites in the northern mountains — were developing their own traditions and managed to make important technological innovations that ultimately brought Babylon to its knees: iron weapons! By 1550 BC, the Babylonian Empire effectively ceased to exist because of incursions and in 1531 BC Babylon itself was sacked.

Here is one scholar’s version of how it went down:

There were five more kings after Hammurabi in the line of the First Dynasty of Babylon, each reigning for more than twenty years. Though Old Babylon lasted longer than the Third Dynasty of Ur, the great ruler’s successors saw the territory ruled from his capital shrink. Serious rebellions broke out during the reign of his son, and, though largely militarily successful when he took the field, he could not prevent important cities like Nippur slipping from his grasp. New peoples speaking new languages, Hurrians, perhaps originally from the Caucasus, and Kassites, from the Zagros Mountains, were penetrating the region and taking Mesopotamian territory for themselves.

Something else was happening too: in the heart of Mesopotamia people were on the move. Law could no longer protect the population. As government failed, transport links ruptured, and bureaucracy broke down, city life became unsustainable. Ur was largely deserted by its citizens; the priesthood of Uruk migrated way; people fled back to the countryside; the urban population fell to its lowest in a thousand years. Finally, as often before, the coup de grâce came from a completely unexpected source. A new player in history, the Hittite kingdom of central Anatolia, populated by uncultivated speakers of a barbarian Indo-European tongue, sent a force south down the Euphrates Valley on an extended razzia. Perhaps they took the Babylonian military by surprise. In any event, they sacked the city and brought its illustrious dynasty to an end. 7


Arthur Machen, Far Off Things. London: Martin Secker (1922), p. 64

Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York: Yale University Press, 1990.

Kriwaczek, p.174.

Kriwaczek, pp. 175-178.

Kriwaczek, p.183.

Starr, pp.46-47.

Kriwaczek, p.203.

Photo: ‘Babylon kino mitte’ by trash world. Berlin, 2013



Cylinder Seal from the Old Babylonian Period depicting the king making a sacrifice to Shamash. Formerly of the Charterhouse Collection, London.

Cylinder Seal from the Old Babylonian Period depicting the king making a sacrifice to Shamash. Formerly of the Charterhouse Collection, London.


King Hammurabi had achieved great success as a conqueror, builder, and governor.  He held unified a diverse population under a single language and cultural tradition that was state-directed and state-maintained.  But while he was pulling the entire Mesopotamian region into the orbit of the mighty city on the Euphrates, the peoples on the fringe of his empire — particularly the Hittites and Kassites in the northern mountains — were developing their own traditions and managed to make important technological innovations that ultimately brought Babylon to its knees: iron weapons! By 1550 BC, the Babylonian Empire effectively ceased to exist because of incursions and in 1531 BC Babylon itself was sacked

  1. Arthur Machen, Far Off Things. London: Martin Secker (1922), p. 64
  2. Camille Paglia
  3. Kriwaczek, p.174.
  4. Kriwaczek, pp. 175-178.
  5. Kriwaczek, p.183.
  6. Starr, pp.46-47.
  7. Kriwaczek, p.203.



3 responses to “Reading History #8: Babylon of Hammurabi

  1. how much are the holiday quizzes worth?


  2. Pingback: Homework for the Weeks of 7 and 14 Oct, 2013 | STA Cities and Civilization

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