Babylon, Early period

Babylon’s throne
Babylon’s throne

Babylon was the most famous Mesopotamian city in antiquity, located along the Euphrates River, 55 miles southwest of modern Baghdad. Major excavations began in 1899 by the Germans and, in recent times, have been continued by Iraq’s Department of Antiquities.

The city is first mentioned by the Agade king, Shar-kali-sharri (2217–2193 b.c.e.), who built two temples in Babylon. During the Ur III period (2112–2004 b.c.e.), various officials bore the title “governor of Babylon.”

In the following centuries Mesopotamia experienced a large influx of west Semitic nomads, who settled into new cities or populated existing ones. The Sumerians designated these migrants as Martu (the west), from which the Akkadians derived Amurru (Amorites).

In 1894 b.c.e. the Amorite Sumu-abum founded a dynasty at Babylon. His successor, Sumu-la-el, extended Babylon’s power by capturing the city-states of Sippar, Kish, and Dilbat. Others, however, were also expanding their kingdoms.

Shamshi-Adad I succeeded in conquering all of Upper Mesopotamia, including the important cities of Ashur and Mari. Rim-Sin of Larsa dominated the south, eventually annexing the longtime rival kingdom of Isin. The balance of power further depended on major city-states such as Eshnunna, Qatna, and Yamhad (Aleppo).

The Old Babylonian period began in 1792 b.c.e., with Hammurabi’s ascent to Babylon’s throne. He is perhaps best known for his Law Code, which contains many parallels with laws in the Jewish scriptures. In Hammurabi’s first 28 years only three campaigns are recorded.

Most of his time was spent building Babylon’s military defenses, economic infrastructure, and temples, as well as establishing diplomacy with foreign powers. After Shamshi-Adad died in 1782 b.c.e., Assyrian power slowly declined.

Babylon, Early period
Babylon, Early period

Hammurabi, nonetheless, continued a defensive coalition with Rim-Sin, motivated by the proximity between their respective territories. He also formed friendly relations with Zimri-Lim, the native ruler who reclaimed Mari’s throne from Yasmah-Adad (Shamshi-Adad’s son).

From 1764 b.c.e. Hammurabi began to adopt a more aggressive military stance. A coalition of troops from Elam, Assyria, and Eshnunna was defeated by Babylon. The very next year, aided by Mari and Eshnunna, Hammurabi turned against his ally, Rim-Sin.

With Larsa subjugated, the southern cities under its control capitulated to Babylon. For the first time since the great third-millennium empires, both Sumer and Akkad were united under one kingdom.

Conscious of the significance of this, Hammurabi took for himself Naram-Sin’s title “King of the Four Quarters (of the World).” Despite changes in ruling dynasties, Babylon would remain the region’s capital until the time of Alexander the Great. Indeed, all of south Mesopotamia would later be named “Babylonia.”

Hammurabi’s ambition now turned toward Upper Mesopotamia. He betrayed Zimri-Lim and conquered Mari in 1761 b.c.e. The prologue to Hammurabi’s Law Code mentions that northern cities such as Ashur, Nineveh, and Tuttul were united under his control.

Babylon’s hegemony, however, did not survive Hammurabi for long. Barely a decade after his death his son Samsu-iluna was threatened by the invasion of the Kassites, whose homeland was in the Zagros Mountains. To the south the rise of the First Sealand dynasty encroached on Babylon’s territories.

For one and a half centuries Hammurabi’s successors clung to a dynasty that was a mere shadow of its former glory. In 1595 b.c.e. Murshili I, king of the Hittites, sacked Babylon, terminated its dynasty, and marked the end of the Old Babylonian period.