What does the average person know about Babylon? Probably they’ve heard the phrase “whore of Babylon.” They also know of them as villains from the Bible for bringing one of God’s punishments to Israel. Maybe they’ll remember something about Hammurabi’s Code of Laws from history class, or playing Civilization if they like video games.
There’s so much more to Babylonian civilization. That’s true even if you limit the scope of your analysis to the Amorite Dynasty. They were the first dynasty of the empire, and this particular dynasty lasted from 1894 BC to 1595 BC. They came to an end more than a millennium before Babylon became one of history’s villain figures for eons by destroying Israel around 586 BC, so even the hardcore Abrahamic faithful can find these particular people interesting without guilt.
10. Math Pioneers
Many people don’t find it particularly exciting for someone to be good at geometry, trigonometry, and algebra. Yet these are some of the most significant contributions that the Babylonian Empire made to civilization. This is firmly established because they were considerate enough to record their mathematical tables on clay tablets known as cuneiform, which were used as teaching aids for elite students.
What’s more, First Dynasty Babylonians were able to do something with advanced mathematics that the majority of students today have never been able to: find practical applications for it. They were able to design and aim cutting edge siege equipment for their era, which was invaluable for conquering such rivals as the Akkadian Empire. It also found use in portioning limited arriable land and for maximizing agricultural yields. Indeed, they were so celebrated for their math accomplishments that a particular cuneiform known as Plimpton 322 was speculated in 2017 as potentially offering a superior trigonometry model to those in common use today, though in August 2017 Scientific American aggressively threw some cold water on that notion when they told everyone “don’t fall for [the] hype.”
9. The Sometimes Bewildering Code of Laws
As implied earlier, Hammurabi, the sixth king of the dynasty, is best known for codifying a system of laws. Since he reigned from 1792 to 1750 BC, his code of laws predates the Ten Commandments of Moses by centuries. Curiously, existing clay tablets of his code date to long after. You’ve probably heard that it contains a law that a successful surgeon was to be paid 10 shekels, but if the patient died the surgeon was to lose a hand. As it happens, that’s by no means the most alien law to modern thinking.
For example, one of Hammurabi’s laws basically said that if someone were found guilty of burglary, after they were executed their body was to be buried on the premises of the home they had broken into, which seems at least a bit of a hassle for a family that just went through such an ordeal. If no burglar was caught, essentially the community became the household’s insurance provider as the homeowner was to declare their losses under oath and then the community was to collectively compensate them. Another law said that if the wife of a soldier taken prisoner during the war had children with another man after her house ran out of food, she then had to return to her husband if he came back, but the paramour had custody of the children.
While it’s understandable that it was punishable by death to be a construction worker in a building that collapsed and killed a homeowner, it’s perhaps less understandable that if, in a collapse, the child of the homeowner died, that meant the construction owner’s child was to be put to death. In neither case were they to be buried at the site of the collapse, even though that seems much more appropriate than burying a burglar there. It was also punishable by death to be a female tavern keeper where a band of thieves met, while no stipulations stated that the tavern keeper had to be a knowing accessory to the crime.
8. The Overlooked Codifier of the Empire
There is a tendency to go overboard in giving Hammurabi credit for Babylon’s success as an empire, with some acting as if the empire took a nosedive immediately after he stepped down. This might seem supported by the fact that literally dozens of cities rose up in rebellion, comprising pretty much everything Hammurabi had conquered. As it happened, while he is much less famous than his father, Samsu-iluna did a commendable job of his own keeping his father’s realm intact during his reign from 1750 to 1712 BC.
When pretty much every major city in the Southern Region of the empire rebelled, it initially caught Samsu-iluna off guard, but he rallied quickly. Within two years, he had put down the rebellion and made allies of rival kings, such as Rim-Anum of the major city of Uruk. Ironically, it was the arrival of a great enemy of the Babylonian Empire that aided him greatly. The Kassites invaded the south and what had once been an opposition population in large part turned into a mass of refugees for Samsu-iluna to take in. Not that Samsu-ilana was particularly merciful: In putting down the rebellion and driving out the Kassites, the infrastructure of the Southern regions were damaged to an extent where they were never fully repaired during the First Dynasty. In all, 26 enemy kings were put down by Samsu-iluna. While Hammurabi had invaded and beaten the leaders of these regions, it was his much-overlooked son who showed that the First Dynasty would last as a major power for the region.
7. The War Dam
While the situation was much more stabilized by the time Samsu-iluna’s son Abiesh took the throne, he had rebellions of his own to deal with, and in one case, he adopted a solution that would seem millennia ahead of its time. During the 19th year of his reign, having routed the rebel armies of the Elamites, Abiesh desperately wanted to capture an enemy king that was said to be from “Sealand.” Instead of relying on an army, Abiesh turned to engineering. He had the Tigris River dammed so that the enemy’s escape route was disrupted by flooding.
Surprisingly, while the Babylonians were successful in altering the flow of one of the two major rivers that made Mesopotamia the Fertile Crescent it was, history records that he didn’t capture the king he was after. That’s an astonishing level of embarrassing honesty as far as official records go. As his very materialistic and indirect solution to a military challenge implied, the surviving records of Abiesh imply that he concerned himself more with supply chains and goods, such as grain shipments and pack animals for cities in need, and his success in those fields goes to show that his failure to capture an enemy king by no means indicated his reign was a failure overall.
6. The Forgotten Father
While Hammurabi’s successors by no means deserved to be overlooked in the way they largely have been by historians, his predecessors weren’t exactly slouches either. Hammurabi’s father, Sin-Muballit, took the throne for the city-state of Babylon in 1748 BC, and the argument could be made that he was the first ruler of the First Dynasty, since he was the first to declare himself King of Babylon. He faced the dynasties of Larsa and Isin, which had long been enemies of Babylon.
In the 13th year of his reign, Sin-Muballit defeated an attack from the city-state of Ur. Apparently no longer content for his city-state to simply hold its own, Sin-Muballit retained the initiative and struck out at the city of Isin. In the 17th year of his reign, he conquered it. He had two more years to reign and consolidate power, but it was he that set Babylon on the path to conquest that would make an empire of the city. It’s perhaps a bit understandable that his reign is so overshadowed, as he reigned a relatively modest 19 years and Babylon was not yet the sort of powerhouse that could afford to set down the details of the life of the king in clay yet.
5. Amorite Conquest
If you’re one of the rare list consumers who doesn’t skip intros, you probably noticed that the word “Amorite” was used to describe the first Babylonian Dynasty, and odds are you had no idea what it meant. Well, it turns out that Babylon became one of the largest and easily the most celebrated civilizations of Ancient Mesopotamia for a very surprising reason: A bunch of raiders needed to find a place to feed their horses.
The Amorites were a nomadic group from what today is Syria. Their chieftains led them into Mesopotamia in no small part looking for grazing land. While many surviving Sumerian accounts are dismissive of them for not even advancing enough to “know grain,” the primitives had the last laugh when they conquered the Sumerians and the Babylonians as well. This may sound similar to stories of the barbarians that sacked Rome early in its history, or the Mongols that created the largest empire in the world. The Amorites were different in that while they weren’t an agrarian society; they set down roots in the cities they conquered and reigned over them for centuries. It could be said that their hot-blooded nomadic tradition would turn the Babylonians into a people that would create one of the first empires, but since there were five kings between their conquest of Babylon and Babylon’s expansion into an empire, those must have been very recessive genes that caused that.
4. Greece Took Their Astronomy
Many people today associate ancient astronomy more with Greece than any other ancient empire. After all, all the constellations we know have Greek names, and the oldest astronomers we can name are individuals like Pythagorus. As it happens, while the First Dynasty was cursing future generations of students with trigonometry and algebra, they were also performing major innovations in astronomy, such as recording of the Transit of Venus during the reign of King Ammisaqda (1646-1626 BC).
It would be the conquest of Babylon by Alexander the Great that would spread huge amounts of information regarding astronomy throughout the Greek Empire, and with such speed that there was no question Babylon was the impetus. To be fair to the Greeks, they didn’t just copy then Babylonians’ homework. Centuries after Alexander’s conquest, geographers such as Strabo of Amasia would give detailed tributes to the astronomical (in both senses of the word) accomplishments of the Babylonians. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to give a constellation or two a Babylonian name, just to give them their due.
3. The Client Priesthood
When they weren’t trying to expand the empire, or more often trying to keep the existing parts of the empire in the fold by putting down rebellions, one of the main preoccupations of the First Dynasty was keeping the favor of the priests and paying tribute to Babylon’s most esteemed god, Marduk. As the approval of Marduk supposedly endowed the king of kings with his divine destiny, this largely amounted to tithing like mad. Even with all his military accomplishments, Hammurabi was particularly noted for buying their favor, though he was also noted for giving extremely strict laws for priests, such as making drinking by holy people a crime punishable by death. A number of kings bribed the priesthood to declare them immortal, but since this was so clearly not the physical reality, it tended to be done only by the most desperate monarchs.
With so much wealth pouring into them over the centuries, the Babylonian priesthood could think big. Not only were many grand temples built throughout the empire, but technological innovations emerged as well. Babylonian temples were among the first buildings in human history to incorporate columns into their design. This was more a practical decision than an aesthetic one, as the bricks used at the time were largely still crude. With it being a capitol offense for a building to collapse and kill someone, Babylonian construction workers had all the motivation in the world to be so careful.
2. State of the Art Statues
What is one of the defining features of a statue? Something so fundamental that it wouldn’t even occur to you as an aspect of a statue? In the case of the Babylonians, it was to be a freestanding three-dimensional structure. Before their masons came along, statues were bas reliefs, meaning that they were essentially two dimensional and extended from walls. Babylonians were the first to build them as separate structures and introduce a high degree of realism to them.
Babylonian stone carvers favored alabaster, diorite, and limestone. Since none of these materials were particularly abundant or easy to ship with the tools of the day, extremely skilled craftsmen were strongly favored over anything like mass production. Their empire was also early in decorating such containers as clay pots. With such a degree of artistic development, it’s little surprise that Babylon was famous for being perhaps the most beautiful city in the world, even centuries before the famed Hanging Gardens came and went.
1. Attack of the Hittites
While the Kassites to the East of Babylon inadvertently saved the First Dynasty for a time by disrupting the rebellion against Samsu-iluna, ultimately they also buried that dynasty too. In 1595, a Hittite army (from what’s now Turkey) under Mursulius I invaded Babylon and sacked the capitol. While the Hittites did not have the inclination to stay and consolidate power, they had weakened Babylon enough for the Kassitites to exploit the power vacuum, and reign over Babylon for nearly five centuries, which was actually a fair deal longer than the First Dynasty could.
Yet even as they were being conquered, the Amorites had a surprising degree of influence over the Kassites. The religions of Babylon didn’t just remain in place, they actually spread into the Kassites. Indeed, the first king of the Kassite Dynasty, Agum-Kakrime, waged war against the Hittites and was said to have retrieved a statue of Marduk that the Hittites had stolen. It was perhaps one of the greatest victories that a dynasty ever scored from beyond the grave.
Dustin Koski talks about another dead empire in the supernatural comedy novel he co-wrote with Jonathan “Bogleech” Wojcik, Return of the Living.