The Babylonians

By Tim Lambert

The area that is now Iraq was once divided into city-states. One of them was called Babillu. (It was known to the Greeks as Babylon).

For centuries Babylon was an unimportant city. However, under the famous leader, Hammurabi (C. 1792 BC-1750 BC) Babylon rose to greatness.

However, after his death, it declined and in C. 1595 BC a people called the Hittites from what is now Turkey invaded Babylon. The Hittites then withdrew but they left Babylon in a state of disorder. A race called the Kassites stepped into the vacuum and conquered Babylon. For centuries Babylon was ruled by Kassite kings but under them, it flourished again.

Then after 900 BC, a race called the Assyrians rose to greatness. They conquered a huge empire and came to dominate Babylon. Finally, in 729 BC the Assyrian ruler Tiglath-Pileser made himself king of Babylon.

However, the Babylonians resented Assyrian rule and they rebelled several times. Each time the Assyrians crushed them but in the 620s BC, civil war began among the Assyrians. The Babylonians seized their chance. They formed an alliance with a people called the Medes and in 612 BC they captured and destroyed Nineveh the Assyrian capital.

However, the Babylonians then began to conquer the provinces of the old Assyrian Empire. They quickly created their empire, the Neo-Babylonian Empire.

Yet the new Babylonian Empire was short-lived. In 539 BC the Persians captured Babylon and brought their empire to an end.

Hammurabi was a brilliant general who conquered many of his neighbors and built the first Babylonian Empire.

Hammurabi is also famous as a lawgiver. His code of laws was carved in stone and a copy survives. The laws were extremely harsh by modern standards. If a surgeon operated and caused the patient’s death his hand was cut off. If an architect built a house and it collapsed and killed the owner the architect was put to death.

Ordinary people in Babylon lived in simple huts made from sun-dried mud bricks. However, if the owner was wealthy they might have an upper story.

The rich lived in palaces with central courtyards. The walls were decorated with painted murals. There were even bathrooms with pipes for drainage.

The main crops in Babylon were cereals such as barley. Pulses such as beans, lentils, and chickpeas were also important. So were dates. The Babylonians also ate cucumbers and lettuce. They kept goats, sheep, and cows for milk, cheese, and leather as well as for their meat. The Babylonians also fished and caught locusts. However, as in all pre-industrial societies, meat was expensive and the poor rarely ate it. Ordinary people in Babylon drank beer but the rich drank wine.

Although Babylon and the surrounding area were agriculturally rich they lacked minerals such as copper, tin, timber, and precious stones. They were imported and grain and textiles were exported.

Babylonian Religion

The Babylonians were polytheists. (They worshiped many gods and goddesses). They also believed that famine, disease, and suffering were caused by demons. People carried amulets to protect themselves from evil spirits.

Hammurabi made his god Marduk the chief god. Others were Ishtar the goddess of love and war, Shamash the sun god, Sin the moon god, and Nabu the god of scribes. Divination was also important to the Babylonians. They believed that the gods decided the fate of the world and that human beings could find out their plans. The Babylonians invented astrology. Babylonian priests also practiced divination by examining the livers of sacrificial animals.

The Babylonians also had a version of the flood story. In their version, the gods decided to send a flood to wipe out the human race. However, they warned a good man called Utnapishtim to build a boat. Utnapishtim survived the flood. Afterward, he sent out birds but they could not find dry land. However, finally, he sent out a raven, which did not return showing the floodwaters were receding.

The Babylonians did believe in an afterlife. However, they were very pessimistic. They believed the abode of the dead was a dismal and gloomy place.