Babylonian Empire

The most powerful state in the ancient world (18th century BC)

Babylonian Empire during Hammurabi

The ancient city of Babylon can be traced to modern day Iraq, around 90 kms southwest of Baghdad. The Babylonian Empire was considered to be the most powerful state in the ancient world. A series of conflicts between the Amorites and the Assyrians followed the end of the Akkadian Empire giving rise to the powerful city state of Babylon.

The city of Babylon was the capital of the Empire and appeared first in the history after the fall of the Third Dynasty of Ur. However Babylon remained a small territory until the reign of its sixth Amorite ruler, Hammurabi, an efficient ruler that took Babylon into a different scale of power.

City of Babylon

The rise of Babylonia

King Hammurabi of Babylonian EmpireAround 2000BCE to 1900BCE, Mesopotamia was in a constant state of war among the city states. Not a single city state rose to control it entirely. During this confusion, a group of people known as the Amorites entered Mesopotamia and took over. Amorites were Semitic people like the Akkadians and spoke a Semitic language.

This particular group of people developed a central government to control their lands which was previously under Akkad and Sumer. The king, believed to be the God by the Amorites, had tremendous power. Heavy taxation was imposed on the people that had to be paid without fail. The city states had no local power. For over a century, Babylonia was ruled by several native Babylonian kings.

Babylon rose under the power of Hammurabi, the sixth king of Babylonia. Over the next few years, Babylonia was in a series of war with the people from the northwest and the east as Hammurabi attempted to expand his kingdom. War became a means to expand its territory and to build a large population. The larger the population, the larger was the tax money that could be collected from its people. Another reason of the war was to protect Babylonia from invaders.

Hammurabi: The King of Babylon

Code of HammurabiHammurabi is known as one of the most impressive ruler of the Ancient Middle East. He is remembered most for the law he created popularly known as the Code of Hammurabi. This code is also one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length. He declared himself not only the ruler of Babylon but of the areas surrounding Babylonia too. Hammurabi skillfully used coalition and became more powerful than his predecessors. Nevertheless, after 30 years of his rule, he gave definite expression to the idea of ruling all of Southern Mesopotamia. The military power under Hammurabi was well disciplined.

The king of Babylon built a great palace in Babylon and several temples. His main contributions in agriculture were the canals. Everyone in his kingdom followed the same law which was laid out in detail. Military power and a strong belief system in God made Babylonia a powerful empire. During his reign, the south Mesopotamian god Marduk rose to supremacy and the honor was transferred to Babylon. The city of Babylon came to be known as the holy city and all legitimate rulers of southern Mesopotamia were crowned here.  Hammurabi turned a minor administrative city to a major city.

Babylonian Culture

A three layer wall surrounded and protected the city of Babylon. The inner wall measured around 200 feet deep while the third layer was protected by a moat. Entry to the city was through gates adorned with figures of bulls and dragons. Every city in the Babylonian Empire was surrounded a vast area for farming and raising livestock.

Babylon the capital city of Babylonian Empire was also the religious and trade centre. People of the city prayed at temples dedicated to Marduk, Ishtar, Ninurta and other Babylonian divinity.

Babylonians were very precise in laying out their cities. The city had a group of men who worked as surveyors to mark boundaries, measure land and record change of ownership. An average house included several small rooms while wealthier families had larger homes. Each house had separate bedrooms, washrooms and a main living room. Palaces and homes of the upper class had separate washrooms for bathing too. Lower walls had glazed bricks and a layer of bitumen coated the floors for water proofing.

Hanging Garden of BabylonThe Hanging Garden of Babylon is considered among the finest examples of architecture of the ancient world. It was a combination of seven man-made structures which was a raised and terraced garden believed to have been built as a gift to King Nebuchadnezzar’s wife. The hanging garden of Babylon was an attempt by the king to recreate the lush green mountains to compensate for his wife’s original homeland. The gardens measured around 400 feet square and were 80 feet high.

Babylonians used an advanced number system. Babylonians developed a set of mathematical tables to help people with calculations.

Wool was abundant and was used in making garments. Clothes were produced in large looms. Both men and women wore long tunics and shawls which were cut from one long piece of material.

Babylonian Society

The Babylonian society has three distinct social classes. At the very top of the society was the royal family such as the king, queen, prince and the princesses and the nobles. The upper class included all the property owners and wealthy people. Priest and priestesses of the temples and military leaders were also included among the upper class. Upper classes were expected to pay taxes on their wealth and participate in military activities. One became a member of the upper class by matter of birth however rising into this class was also possible. The middle class consisted of craftsmen, artisans, farmers and other skilled workers.

The lowest class was the slaves. Slavery was an established practice in Mesopotamia. People of defeated land became slaves while other became slaves because they were guilty of crime or owed money. Temple slaves were slightly different. In the event of a crop failure or during drought, families gave away their children to temple to become slaves.

Trade and Economy

Goods for daily use arrived in the markets every day. Caravans arrived with spices, stone, copper and gold. Traders brought marbles, iron and precious metals. Babylonians sold their pottery, leather goods, jewelry, clothes and food by setting up market stalls. Goods were mostly exchanged through a barter system. In a later stage, people became using metals as currency.

Agriculture was another main economy. Majority of the land was farmed for the king or the local temple. It was through the temple, that grains were distributed to the local people. Economy of the Babylonian Empire supported many other occupations. Skilled traders and craftsmen could earn a living in the city. Babylonians were experts in casting metals

Religion and myths

Marduk Babylonian DeityBabylonians believed in thousand of gods, out of which only a few were worshiped by the people in everyday life. Babylonians gods were called upon to help them in their daily lives. On the other hand, they believed that natural disaster such as floods, droughts, failure of crop etc. were punishments from God. Marduk, the patron god of the city of Babylon became the most important god.

Temples were visited frequently by the people of the Babylonian empire to make sacrifices in order to help them with their problems. Babylonians temples were not just worship places but homes for gods. Many festivals and celebrations were held to celebrate the blessing of gods. The most important festival for the Babylonians was the New Year Celebration which was an 11 days event.

Babylonians believed in life after death. Hence, dead people were offered with many gifts which they could take them into the afterlife. Burials either took place in a public cemetery or under the floors of their houses. Babylonians also believed strongly on the myth of its creation which was recorded on seven clay tablets. One of the earliest Babylonian legends was that of Adapa, the first man. Cuneiform tablets recorded such mythologies. Babylonian culture left a remarkably clear feature much of which can be traced in the Old Testament of Bible

The fall of the Babylonian Empire and the rise of Neo-Babylonian Empire

Babylonian Empire fell apart after the death of Hammurabi. Babylonia dwindled in size to a point that it was easily defeated by the Hittites. The Kassites followed them and renamed the city of Babylon as Karanduniash. The Assyrians followed the Kassites in dominating the region. The city was completely destroyed by the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib. His son however assassinated the King and rebuilt the city to its former glory. The city which was already an established centre of learning and culture continued to influence its many conquerors.

The Neo-Babylonian Period marked the end of Babylonian Empire in Mesopotamia when the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, invaded Mesopotamia from the east. The retreat of the Assyrians in to the north western Mesopotamia made room for the rise of the Neo-Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar, the king during this period was as much a builder as a destroyer. He rebuilt old religious monuments which were destroyed mostly in war and improved canals carrying water from the Euphrates. He surrounded Babylon with a double wall to protect his people.

Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and captured its citizens. He took them to Babylon. This time is referred to in Jewish history as the Babylonian Captivity. The city was looted, and the palace and temple were completely destroyed. The destruction of the temple which had been the central religious institution for the ancient Jews was a heavy blow.

The Neo-Babylonian Empire continued after the death of Nebuchadnezzar II and continued to play an important role in the region. However, the empire fell to the Persians under Cyrus the Great. Under Persian rule, Babylonia flourished as a centre of art and education. Cyrus and his successors held the city in great regard and made it the administrative capital of their empire.



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