Social Studies – Early Mesopotamia: The Babylonians
Mesopotamia refers to the region between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and what is now considered the Middle East. And lots of early civilizations developed in Mesopotamia.
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One of those was the Babylonians. The Babylonians became the dominant civilization in Mesopotamia after they conquered the Sumerians, and established their capital city of Babylon on the Euphrates River around 1750 BC.
So, Babylon was the capital, Babylonia was the nation state, or the whole cultural region that all were following the Babylonian rule. So, even though you say Babylonians, Babylon is the city – the capital city – but Babylonia was the nation state. That was the whole area that included lots and lots of cities. Now, Hammurabi – you may have heard of – was Babylonia’s most famous ruler.
And the Babylonian empire controlled all of Mesopotamia under his rule. He was able to help Babylonia and lead them to victory over lots of other cultures in that area, to where Babylonia was controlling all of Mesopotamia. There were no other cultures or nation states there. So, they were in control of that whole area between the Tigris and Euphrates River.
But, the Babylonian empire was very short-lived. It fell quickly after Hammurabi’s death. So, the people who were going to come after him were not as qualified to lead as he was, and they weren’t able to hold everyone together the way Hammurabi was able to. So, quickly, the cultures that had been conquered branched out and became their own cultures again. They didn’t want to stay into Babylonia’s rule, and once Hammurabi wasn’t there to keep a tight grasp on them, this whole Babylonian empire fell apart.
Now, Hammurabi is also famous for something else. He created the Hammurabi Code, which is a detailed set of 282 laws that were written out for all of Babylonians to follow. This is the first time that there was one set of laws to govern all of a culture in their laws, their religion, and their society. And there were laws in this Hammurabi Code that referenced religion, slavery, military service, trade, codes of conduct, and duties of workers. One example you may have heard of was “an eye for an eye.” In the Hammurabi Code, it said that if someone put someone’s eye out, then the person who would put someone’s eye out was required to lose an eye himself. It was eye for eye. Some of the laws were that quid pro quo, tit for that, but some of them were a little more complex, and they did cover a lot of different topics.
The Babylonians farmed using advanced irrigation techniques. So, everyone who came before the Babylonians had been working toward farming and staying in one place, the Babylonians had become even more advanced at farming and staying in one place. They had these advanced irrigation techniques. They used drains, they used canals, they used dikes. They were able to better irrigate their fields, and they were more successful and able to keep more people surviving and grow their culture as a result of that.
The Babylonians built their homes in massive temples out of mud brick, and this was due to their abundance of clay. They may not have had a whole lot in their region, but they have lots of clay so they could make these mud bricks. And they did build huge temples, and lots of homes and the cities got very big, especially Babylon. They also had pottery that was very pretty. They decorated with tiles, some of them had zinc or gold plating in them. Some of these homes and temples were very elaborate.
They had libraries in most towns and temples. Men and women learned to write and to read. So, it wasn’t just a male-dominated society. Men and women learned to read and write. And libraries were found in almost every town, and in the temples. So, this is a very literate society.
Sumerian was still used for laws in religion. You’ll remember the Babylonians conquered the Sumerians. So, Sumerian was still the language used for laws in religion, but Akkadian was the everyday language that people spoke.
They wrote about mathematics and astronomy, including a record of the variation and the length of daylight over a solar year. So, in winter, when the days are shorter, in summer, when the days are longer. This culture, the Babylonians were the first to write about that and note that. They also noted that other solar instances, as well as recording more about their mathematics. So, they were advanced in mathematics and astronomy as well.
They wrote about the practice of medicine. They had diagnosis, prognosis, physical examinations, prescriptions. So, they would look at someone, examine them, pay attention to their symptoms and try to diagnose them based on previous experience and previous examinations, and notes that they’ve taken, and then they would say if they thought this person was likely to survive. How long they were going to survive, what kind of prescriptions they could offer. And they would use bandages, creams, pills, and if there was nothing else they could do, they would try exorcisms, and try to exercise a curse out of someone if they thought that, “There must be a curse,” and then there was nothing that they could physically see that they would be able to help with their other prescriptions.
The Babylonians became known for their ziggurats, which were long, pyramid-like buildings that were used as religious temples. So, these were another one of these massive temples that they built. The ziggurats were a specific kind that looked kind of like pyramids.
And Babylon was eventually seen as the place of excess. So, remember, Babylon is their capital, but when you hear Babylon, you kind of think the whole Babylonian culture because the names are very similar. But Babylon was eventually seen as a place of excess luxury and arrogant power, which is kind of a negative connotation. And it is often used as a symbol for such things in literature, as well as today. So, in literature, if people were referring to a city as a modern day Babylon, they were talking about a place that had excess luxury, arrogant power. It was a negative place, or it wasn’t something they were trying to give a positive connotation to as something they were giving a negative connotation to.
So, these were the Babylonians, the dominant civilization after they conquered the Sumerians that lived in early Mesopotamia.